Defense ministers from NATO states and Ukraine met in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to discuss Kyiv's prospects for eventual membership in the alliance.
While the meeting left little doubt that NATO still wants Ukraine within the Atlantic alliance, it also made it clear that Russia's opposition to Ukraine's membership remains a strong reason for NATO to maintain its current go-slow approach.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer indirectly referred to the concerns over Moscow as he reaffirmed the right of Ukraine to choose its military partners.
"A country's right to freely choose its security alignments is another important principle in this regard and test for a Europe we all seek to build," he said as the meeting opened.Assess Ukraine's Ability
The NATO chief also called the meeting a chance to further assess Ukraine's ability to contribute to NATO and one day play an important role in the alliance.
"The overall theme of our consultations is, I quote, 'NATO-Ukraine relations in an evolving security environment.' And I think our meeting provides and excellent opportunity to exchange views at a high level about the current security environment in the Euro-Atlantic area, as well as to address Ukraine's capabilities to meet modern security challenges and contribute to NATO's operational efforts," he said.
Ukraine's Defense Minister Yuri Yekhanurov said Kyiv is free to decide its own security alliances.
"Will we agree to play dangerous imperialistic games of the 19th and 20th centuries and return to spheres of influence," he said, "or will we follow that basic principle that European democracies have a right to choose their own way to security?"
And Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said he considered NATO's relations with Ukraine crucial to the security of the Black Sea and Balkan regions.
"Ukraine and its fate remain a litmus test for the future of Europe," he told the meeting. Speed Kyiv's Bid
Yet amid the acknowledgements of Ukraine's importance -- and the importance of self-determination -- there were no indications that the meeting would speed Kyiv's membership bid.
The reason is that the security alliance -- like the EU -- remains divided over how to deal with Moscow.
One camp, including Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, do not want the Ukraine issue to contribute more strain to relations with Moscow in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war. They urge engagement with Russia rather than isolation.
Speaking on November 10, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said neither Georgia nor Ukraine would be ready to join NATO "in the foreseeable future."
The other camp, including the United States and the newer NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, favors a firm stance toward Moscow and a faster track for Ukraine.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly pressed allies to put both Ukraine and Georgia on the formal path to joining NATO by issuing them Membership Action Plans (MAPs).
But that initiative stalled earlier this year at NATO's April summit in Bucharest.
There, the alliance decided not to give the two former Soviet republics a MAP, but pledged to review the decision at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting scheduled to be held in Brussels in December.Progress Report
In Tallinn, de Hoop Scheffer said that NATO's foreign ministers will issue Ukraine a progress report in December but gave no sign there would be any further steps than that.
There are other reasons, too, why many NATO states prefer a slower approach with Kyiv, and they have to do with Ukraine's political instability.
Kyiv's two most charismatic leaders, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, are currently deadlocked in a power struggle whose outcome remains highly uncertain.
The power struggle is not over NATO membership, but the two leaders differ regarding how fast they want to see Ukraine join the alliance. Yushchenko is an ardent NATO supporter. Tymoshenko is seen as not opposing membership, but she also is seen as courting Russian support.
Underlining the extent of the crisis in Kyiv, Yushchenko on November 12 dropped plans for an early parliamentary election he had earlier favored to resolve the political deadlock.
Still, if the meeting in Tallinn does little to bring Kyiv closer to receiving a MAP, it does help to informally clarify what Ukraine needs to boost its chances for membership.Stabilize NATO Bid
NATO officials say the talks with Ukraine aim to boost democracy and rule of law in the country of 48 million people.
The talks may also serve another purpose, and that is to help publicize Ukraine's NATO bid within Ukraine itself.
An opinion poll at the beginning of this year showed that, overall, less than 20 percent of Ukrainians support joining NATO. Support varies in different parts of the country, with support higher in the pro-EU west than in the pro-Moscow east, but nowhere does it reach a majority.
NATO proponents say part of the reason may be that the Ukraine has never conducted a large-scale information campaign to explain what NATO membership entails. The same opinion poll found that almost 55 percent of Ukrainians feel they do not have enough information about the alliance.