- Afghanistan - NATO - Ukraine
US President George W. Bush was to affirm on Tuesday his support for the NATO membership goals of ex-Soviet Ukraine, during a European tour focused on the alliance and relations with Russia.
Bush arrived here late Monday and was to be greeted with full honours by President Viktor Yushchenko at the start of a tour that takes him to a summit of the NATO military alliance on April 2-4 in Romania and later to Russia for one-to-one talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Ahead of the visit Bush stressed his support for the NATO membership aspirations of this country of 47 million people that lies between NATO and the European Union to the west and Russia to the east.
"I do know that one of the signals we're going to have to send, and must send, is there is a clear path forward for Ukraine and Georgia" on NATO, Bush said.
En route to Kiev, US national security adviser Stephen Hadley told journalists Bush was "pushing hard" for Ukraine and fellow aspirant Georgia to be offered Membership Action Plans at this week's summit -- a formal step to membership.
Analysts doubted however there would be the necessary consensus in NATO for such a move, partly due to tensions with Moscow.
Demonstrations earlier on Ukraine's politically sensitive Crimea peninsula and in Kiev underlined significant opposition to NATO membership within Ukraine, as well as Russia's vehement opposition to NATO enlargement.
The Russian president, who hands over in May to a man equally sceptical of NATO, president-elect Dmitry Medvedev, was to attend the meeting in Bucharest as a guest, before holding weekend talks with Bush at his Black Sea coastal residence.
Mindful of his legacy and of his favoured candidate at upcoming US elections, John McCain, Bush is seeking a softening of Russian opposition to US plans to set up missile defence sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, said Moscow-based defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
Bush also hopes for Russian agreement to letting NATO move supplies through Russia en route to Afghanistan, said Felgenhauer. "It's a grand deal that involves a lot of things outside -- not only Ukraine and Georgia," he said.
Another theme of Bush's tour is to persuade NATO states to commit more troops for Afghanistan, where failure would be seen as a personal blow.
Hadley said he was hopeful NATO states would make greater commitments to Afghanistan this week and also said that accord with Russia on missile defence could be on the cards.
"I think we're moving in a direction ... where Russia and the United States could have missile defence as an area of strategic cooperation," Hadley told reporters.
Earlier Ukraine's desire for NATO membership was stressed by President Yushchenko's chief spokesman, Alexander Chaly.
"We hope the United States will clearly support our ambition to join the membership action plan," a formal step towards membership, said Chaly on Monday.
Meanwhile Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili warned in an interview with The Financial Times daily on Monday against "appeasing" Russia and drew historical comparisons with appeasement of Nazi Germany.
However several NATO states oppose giving Georgia and Ukraine the go-ahead, notably Germany, which has sought close ties with Russia and is mindful of internal conflicts in Georgia over two separatist regions.
But in Kiev, analyst Vladimir Fesenko said Ukraine would not be deterred by Western hesitancy.
"Ukraine is interested in the process more than the final result.... NATO membership is a pretext for integration with Europe," said Fesenko, head of the Centre for Applied Political Research.