(RFE/RL) -- NATO foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, have reiterated a commitment that Georgia and Ukraine will eventually join the trans-Atlantic alliance, but held off on granting the two countries formal Membership Action Plans at this time.
The Western allies also agreed to gradually resume contacts with Russia, which were frozen after Moscow's war with Georgia in August, but stopped well short of a full-fledged revival of the suspended Russia-NATO Council, a forum that manages the relationship.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that informal meetings of the NATO-Russia Council would resume. He stressed, however, that the alliance still has serious differences with Moscow.
"This graduated re-engagement [with Russia] does certainly not mean that we do now suddenly agree with the Russians on the disproportionate use of force in August in the Caucasus [or] on the recognition -- illegal recognition -- of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.
The membership bids by Georgia and Ukraine and the alliance's relations with Moscow were the two main issues on the agenda as NATO foreign ministers gathered, just four months after Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over the separatist province of South Ossetia.
The United States, Britain, and new member states like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states have strongly supported the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. Germany and France have largely opposed their bids, arguing that it would unduly antagonize Moscow, which still sees those two former Soviet states as part of its sphere of influence.
De Hoop Scheffer told reporters that Georgia and Ukraine "have made progress" toward meeting the requirements for joining the alliance, but added that "both have significant work left to do."
He stressed, however, that a formal pledge to both that they will eventually become members -- made at NATO's summit in Bucharest in April -- is still in effect.
"All elements -- I repeat, all elements -- of the decisions regarding Ukraine and Georgia taken by the NATO heads of state and government in Bucharest still stand. All elements," he said. "And that includes, very much, that they will one day be members, if they so wish, of course. And important to add, when they meet NATO's standards."
The issue of granting Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans (MAPs) became a contentious issue for Russia, since the MAPs are widely seen as the last step before full membership. A MAP is essentially a detailed blueprint of the political and military reforms a country must complete before full membership in the alliance.
De Hoop Scheffer said NATO would step up its efforts to assist reforms in Georgia and Ukraine in an effort to get them ready for membership.
"NATO will provide further assistance to both countries in implementing needed reforms as they progress, the countries, toward NATO membership," he said. "What does it mean? It means that NATO will maximize -- strengthen, if you wish -- its advice and assistance for those reform efforts in the frameworks of the NATO-Ukraine Commission and NATO-Georgia Commission."
The United States had been pushing for NATO to take a harder line against Russia. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who is attending her last NATO meeting, said Moscow is still paying a diplomatic price for its actions in Georgia, despite the revival of informal Russia-NATO Council meetings.
"Russia's invasion of Georgia cut off what had been a highly articulated program of engagement," Rice said. "So, no, it is not business as usual."
NATO foreign ministers are due to wrap up their two-day meeting on December 3.