BUCHAREST, April 3 - NATO on Thursday postponed for nine months decision on putting Ukraine and Georgia on track to join the alliance, following vehement opposition from Russia. But NATO plans to return to the issue again in December.
NATO leaders also agreed to fully endorse U.S. missile defense plans for Europe, the system that has been also heavily opposed by Russia.
French and German concerns over Russia's reaction forced the alliance to postpone the decision on Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries have been seeking to join “membership action plans,” the lasp program that precedes the accession.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance welcomes the countries' aspirations to join. "We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO," he said, according to The Associated Press.
NATO foreign ministers will review Ukraine and Georgia's applications again in December, de Hoop Scheffer said.
The Bush administration said it was possible for MAP status to be offered to both states in December, just weeks before Bush quits the White House, according to the Financial Times.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were concerned about provoking Moscow, which has warned of a new East-West crisis if NATO takes in the two republics. Both, Ukraine and Georgia, are on Russia's southwestern border, across key east-west oil and gas routes.
Even so, there was plenty in the final communiqué to comfort the former Soviet republics, both of which were told that their applications were welcomed and that they “will become members of NATO.”
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko welcomed the agreement, saying: “This is an exceptional victory. This is a historcal decision. This has even exceeded Ukraine’s expectations.”
The NATO summit also gave a broad endorsement to U.S. plans to base elements of its missile defenses in Europe, despite Russia's objections.
De Hoop Scheffer said the protection the system will give to Europe from long-range ballistic missile threats, particularly from the Middle East. Russia fiercely opposes the plan.
The allies will also move ahead with a complementary system of short-range missile defenses to cover parts of Turkey, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria that would fall outside the U.S. shield. (ap/ft/ez)