But Gates, who arrives in Estonia for NATO meetings on Wednesday, will face resistance from allies who want to move more slowly and are concerned about Moscow`s response, especially after its war with another NATO aspirant, Georgia.
Alliance leaders are already looking ahead to the next U.S. administration under President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office Jan. 20. That leaves little hope for Bush administration aims to give Ukraine and Georgia a path, known as a membership action plan (MAP), to join NATO this year, analysts said.
"The Bush administration left it late before they started pushing for MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia," said Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It`s going to be very difficult for Ukraine to be offered one."
Moscow and NATO have had strained ties since Russia`s crushing defeat of Georgia`s army in August. But tensions were simmering before then over NATO`s expansion into former Soviet-allied territory.
Russia has denounced NATO`s promise to eventually bring Ukraine and Georgia into the 26-nation military alliance.
While the United States has largely dismissed Russian opposition, other NATO members such as Germany and France are concerned about the alliance`s relationship with Russia.
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said NATO`s signal to Russia should be one of outreach and cooperation and told a meeting of the Atlantic Treaty Association that neither Georgia nor Ukraine would be ready to join NATO "in the foreseeable future."
NATO members who oppose quick action on Ukraine also say political turmoil in the country makes it unclear whether there is a national consensus to join the alliance.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, an ardent NATO supporter, has called for new elections after a dispute with his former ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now viewed as courting Russian support.
U.S. officials say they do not believe Tymoshenko opposes NATO. "She has been supportive but there may be a question as to how quickly she may want to push this along. That`s the kind of nuance I would put on that," said a senior defense official.
But officials acknowledge that a new Ukrainian parliament is unlikely to be seated by the time NATO foreign ministers meet to consider NATO membership next month, a prospect that analysts say bodes ill for U.S. aims.
Low support for NATO among the Ukrainian public has made alliance members resistant.
"Public support is hovering around 30 percent, perhaps slightly higher as a result of the Georgia war, but still low," said Tanya Costello of the Eurasia Group consulting firm. "Ukraine remains very far away from joining the alliance and I expect that will remain the case."
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