Eight months ago at its summit in Bucharest, a deeply divided NATO alliance postponed a tough decision on giving Georgia and Ukraine a formal road map to membership. Today the Western allies are no closer to consensus on the issue, and are likely to put off a decision again.
As NATO foreign ministers gather for a two-day meeting in Brussels, the main issue on the formal agenda is whether to grant Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to Kyiv and Tbilisi.
But analysts say the underlying puzzles facing the trans-Atlantic alliance are much broader in scope: how NATO will deal with Russia in the aftermath of its war with Georgia this summer and how the alliance will define itself after U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January:
"It is about Russia, it is about the future of the North Atlantic alliance, it is about reaching some conclusions about post-Bush polities," says Eugeniusz Smolar, director of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations. "This is not going to be debated publicly, but everybody will be waiting for the NATO summit in April of next year, which will be the 60th anniversary of NATO."
The United States, Great Britain, and new member states like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states have strongly supported Georgia and Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO. Germany and France have largely opposed such a step, arguing that it would unduly antagonize Moscow, which sees those two former Soviet countries as part of its sphere of influence.
Russia and Georgia's five-day war in August over the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia has only served to sharpen these differences and diminish Tbilisi's chances of securing a MAP this week.
"The Georgia war, in the opinion of most NATO members, is not only an example of Russian aggression -- which it was. It was also an example of the irresponsible behavior of the present Georgian leadership," Smolar says. "In this context, many NATO members -- and not just Germany and France -- say that they are not politically ready to defend a country that is behaving in such a manner."
Ukraine, which is mired in a political crisis and constant bickering between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and where a majority of the population opposes membership, is also not expected to be granted a MAP.
In a recent interview, Taras Chornovil, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that a combination of pressure from Moscow and political turmoil in Kyiv have effectively undermined the country's NATO bid.
"Ukraine's Membership Action Plan and its NATO membership have been delayed indefinitely," Chornovil said.
Aware that it is unlikely to win an argument over admitting Ukraine and Georgia in the current environment, the United States is proposing ways to bring the two countries closer to NATO without a formal MAP, which essentially is a detailed blueprint of political and military reforms a country must complete before full membership in the alliance.
A plan supported by the British government, that is expected to be presented to the foreign ministers on December 2, would bypass the MAP and offer Georgia and Ukraine tailor-made reform programs to eventually achieve membership, albeit without a formal timetable or deadline.
"This is a debate going on in different capitals of NATO states. They want to find a way to [make] progress [with] the rapprochement in a practical sense with countries like Georgia without calling it a MAP," Smolar says.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, couldn't resist gloating over what Moscow clearly views as a diplomatic victory over the United States.
"I am pleased that reason has prevailed, unfortunately only at the end of the current U.S. administration. But this at least ascertains the current state of affairs," Medvedev said during a visit to Cuba on November 28. "Whether the Americans heeded the Europeans or somebody else, the main thing is that this idea is no longer pursued with such frenzy and senselessness, as it was being pursued until recently."
U.S. officials, however, insist that Washington's policy on eventual NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine remains unchanged.