Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other NATO foreign ministers held the alliance's first major meeting on former Soviet soil on Thursday, planning to offer Ukraine fast-track membership talks, "The Washington Post" reported.

But NATO officials said the ministers would stop short of setting a target entry date at their talks in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius for fear of annoying Russia.

The meeting in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic which joined NATO last year, underlines how the world has changed since the Cold War ended.

NATO has made it no secret that the victory of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's rerun presidential elections last December after a rigged first poll had boosted the membership chances of Kiev, which also wants to join the European Union.

"The government in Ukraine has made its aspirations clear and is in a better position to fulfil its aspirations for reform," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing, contrasting Yushchenko with his pro-Moscow predecessor.

Appathurai said 26-nation NATO would offer Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk a "form of enhanced dialogue, together with a package of practical and political elements."

The ministers would also offer Ukraine help to revamp its army and pursue Western democratic reforms.

There have been calls for Ukraine to be given NATO membership within five years. But alliance diplomats fear a rush toward entry could raise tensions with Russia and alienate many Ukrainians in the former Soviet republic's pro-Moscow east.

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