NATO defense ministers sought Friday to find ways to keep the door open to Ukraine's membership, despite opposition from Russia over the alliance's perceived encroachment into what Moscow considers its historical sphere of influence, AP reported.

Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NATO would stick by its commitment to help Ukraine undertake "comprehensive reforms" in its defense and security structures and indicated the alliance was still considering ways to let Ukraine join.

Before a closed-door meeting with Ukrainian Defense Minister Yury Yekhanurov and ministers from the alliance`s 26 members, de Hoop Scheffer said NATO officials were considering "ways in which the alliance can continue to support its preparations for NATO membership" for Ukraine.

At a summit in Romania last year, NATO leaders decided to offer Ukraine and Georgia a so-called "membership action plan" to prepare them to become members.

But faced with opposition from Russia — and in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war in August — NATO has since backed away from establishing a plan for the two former Soviet nations.

However, NATO has offered to step up military and political cooperation to help them achieve their goal of eventual membership.

Before the meeting, Germany`s defense minister expressed his skepticism that Ukraine and Georgia were ready.

"At the moment I don`t see the conditions for, for example, launching the membership action plan" for Ukraine and Georgia, Franz Josef Jung said.

The ministers also took up the issue of reforming the alliance, which has faced criticism that it could be losing its relevance in a world vastly different from the post-World War II and Cold War reality that served as the background to its birth 60 years ago.

To keep it relevant, de Hoop Scheffer has been calling for a new "strategic concept" that would help NATO face 21st century dangers like terrorism, climate change and cyber attacks.

A day before the talks on Georgia and Ukraine, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed other issues at the core of recent tensions between Washington and Moscow — and the Obama administration`s attempts to improve ties as it seeks greater Russian support for its mission in Afghanistan.

Gates played down Kyrgyzstan`s decision to evict the U.S. from the strategic Manas air base it depends on to supply troops in Afghanistan, a decision Washington believes Moscow has orchestrated. Gates said the U.S. would be willing to pay higher rent — within limits — but said the base was ultimately replaceable.

However, he also said he was skeptical of Russia`s claims to have played no role in Kyrgyzstan`s decision.

Gates also said the Obama administration needed more time to decide whether to go ahead with the previous administration`s plans to build missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland — a program that soured relations with Russia.

AP via International Herald Tribune


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