BUCHAREST NATO leaders promised Ukraine and Georgia on Thursday they would one day join the Western defense alliance after rebuffing U.S. demands to put the former Soviet republics on an immediate path to membership.
Germany, France and smaller NATO states withstood pressure from U.S. President George W. Bush to offer the two countries a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a first step towards entry, saying neither was ready and Russia could be antagonized.
But NATO leaders softened the blow by making a vaguer pledge to invite the two to join the alliance at some point in the future and saying former Cold War foe Moscow should have no influence on membership decisions.
"We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference, reading from a communique agreed at a summit of the pact's 26 leaders in Bucharest.
"That is quite something," he added.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called the NATO move historic. "This is our victory," he told reporters. Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze also hailed "historic breakthrough" for his country.
But thousands of protesters massed in Ukrainian cities to denounce the prospect of NATO membership, highlighting deep divisions over whether Kiev should look east or west.
On other enlargement decisions, Macedonia's request for an invitation to join was blocked by Greece in a name row but Albania and Croatia won invitations to become members. Bosnia and Montenegro were awarded closer ties.
A new era beckoned for the alliance after French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged a decision soon on full reintegration into the NATO military structures that Paris left in 1966.
Sarkozy gave cautious support to U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe and also confirmed France would add 700 extra soldiers to Afghanistan as part of a wider force reshuffle to avert a threatened Canadian withdrawal.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the reinforcement meant Canada's conditions were fulfilled to keep its 2,500 troops in the violent south despite public pressure for a pullout.
NATO leaders also reaffirmed a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, attempting to set aside divisions over some members' reluctance to send troops to fight Taliban militants.
They pledged to end the shortfalls that have plagued the NATO-led force in Afghanistan and help Kabul achieve an effective 80,000-strong army by 2010.
BUSH STRESSES OPEN DOOR POLICY
Bush did not specifically refer to his failure at his farewell summit to push Ukraine's and Georgia's MAP bids through but said NATO must continue to be open to enlargement.
"NATO's door must remain open to other nations in Europe that share our love for liberty," he said in a speech.
NATO foreign ministers will review progress on the applications of Ukraine and Georgia at a meeting in December.
Public support for NATO is barely 30 percent in Ukraine and Georgia does not control all of its territory because of frozen conflicts with the Russian-backed separatists.
In a letter to the leaders of Georgia's rebel regions, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted Georgia's "accelerated Euro-Atlantic integration" and assured breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of his support.
Putin arrived in Bucharest on Thursday evening for talks with NATO leaders on Friday. He steps down in May and hands power to protege Dmitry Medvedev.
Macedonia was told an invitation could be issued by ambassadors as soon as a "mutually acceptable solution" to the name issue was found, NATO states agreed in a communique.
"This is a huge disappointment. We have been told we have done everything we should have done in terms of reforms and military contributions. We are being punished because we are Macedonians," government spokesman Nikola Dimitrov said, adding the move "goes against stability in the Balkans."
Greece objects to use of the name Macedonia because this is the name of Greece's most northerly province.
The final summit communique welcomed "the substantive contribution to the protection of the allies" from a planned U.S. missile shield based partly in eastern Europe.
That was the message Washington had sought from the summit after it became clear that allies would not go as far as taking procurement decisions on a possible NATO add-on system to cover those parts of southeast Europe not under its umbrella.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, David Clarke, Justyna Pawlak, Elizabeth Pineau, David Brunnstrom, Sabine Siebold, David Clarke and Andrew Gray; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Timothy Heritage)