WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- NATO will probably not offer membership to Ukraine and Georgia for years to come, a senior U.S. official has said ahead of an alliance meeting next week that is expected to discuss the issue.
The Bush administration has supported putting the two former Soviet republics on a formal path, called a Membership Action Plan, toward joining NATO. But there is considerable European opposition, which has grown since Georgia's war with Russia in August.
Rather than get into a "huge debate" next week, NATO should make it clear that Ukraine and Georgia are still welcome and the alliance stands ready to help them become members, Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried said.
"I think it's fair to predict there would be no NATO membership offer for some years to come, just taking a look at these countries realistically, and they wouldn't disagree," Fried, in charge of European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters at the State Department. "We ought to concentrate on the areas where the alliance is already agreed, which is that these countries will join NATO, but they have a lot of work to do and we will help them."
NATO leaders promised Ukraine and Georgia at a summit in Bucharest in April that they would one day join the Western defense alliance but declined to offer them the formal path toward membership because of French and German objections.
The alliance's foreign ministers are to review the two countries' progress in Brussels on December 2-3.
Russia, which crushed the forces of neighboring Georgia in the August war over Georgia's rebel region of South Ossetia, opposes NATO membership for either Georgia or Ukraine, which were previously part of the Soviet Union.
Fried said there was realism in Washington and other capitals about the work Georgia and Ukraine must do to become stable democracies that could join the 26-nation alliance.
But he said it was important to "make clear that we were serious in Bucharest, that NATO membership ought to be a function of these countries' own readiness...and not a Russian veto."
NATO, which scaled back cooperation with Russia after the war in Georgia, also will discuss what kind of relations the alliance should have with Russia at the meeting next week.
While no one in NATO is advocating a complete break, no one favors business as usual, Fried said, adding that Russia could improve prospects by helping to stabilize the situation in Georgia.
"There is an understanding in the alliance that we are going to have to work and we want to work with Russia. No business as usual does not mean no business at all," he said.
Fried thought NATO would try to formulate a common response to a proposal by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for a new European security architecture, although he added: "No one knows quite what that means."
He also expects an alliance discussion on another contentious issue -- a planned U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe, which Moscow opposes.