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Nato is planning to put Ukraine on the path to membership, foreign ministers from the US-led alliance will be told this week.
The US would like Ukraine to join the membership action plan by September and certainly before a Nato summit in Riga in November. That would give the country the prospect of becoming a member before President George W. Bush leaves office in early 2009.
But resistance is likely to come from Russia, which is concerned at the prospect of membership for Ukraine, with which it has historic and strategic links. Moscow is still smarting from the accession of the former Soviet Baltic states to Nato.
The US and other like-minded countries such as the UK are keen to consolidate the gains of Ukraine's troubled pro-democracy "orange revolution" and reward Kiev for having held free and fair legislative elections in March, even though the prospective new pro-western government of President Viktor Yushchenko is far from united on the merits of Nato membership.
"Assuming that the new government came in committed to working towards Nato, you could say by Riga that they had done enough to get into the membership action plan," said a senior Nato diplomat.
Although within Ukraine the European Union is more popular than Nato, the EU is deeply wary of making any promise of future membership to Kiev. Some western officials believe that the prospect of Nato membership may bolster Ukraine's claims to join the EU.
The diplomat added that Ukraine was at a similar stage as several Balkan countries some years ago, when they were also put on the Nato membership action plan. Croatia, Albania and Macedonia now hope to join "as soon as possible" after the Riga summit. At the behest of Mr Bush, Nato is planning a second summit, in 2008, on enlargement.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary-general, said yesterday he did not think the Riga summit would invite any country to join but that aspiring members had legitimate expectations of a positive signal on enlargement.
By Daniel Dombey in London and Tom Warner in Kiev, FT.com