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Ukraine and Georgia face uphill battle on NATO bid

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Ukraine and Georgia face an uphill battle on Wednesday to persuade NATO nations to put the two ex-Soviet states on the path to membership, as Germany and France lead resistance to their U.S.-backed bids.

President George W. Bush vowed on the eve of a NATO summit in Bucharest to press their case but a core of European states insist the duo are not ready for a step which they fear would exacerbate tensions with Russia.

“I don’t think they are going to make it,” said one official in the Canadian delegation, which has joined Washington and NATO’s ex-communist members in supporting their request for a Membership Action Plan, a gateway to eventual membership.

In the most explicit expression of France’s skepticism yet, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on Tuesday that Paris would oppose giving Kiev and Tbilisi a MAP to avoid upsetting the balance of power with Russia. Germany shares those objections.

Setting the stage for a genuine cliff-hanger of a summit, a final decision is only expected to emerge during a dinner on Wednesday where Bush -- attending his farewell NATO summit -- will meet Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy.

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One senior NATO diplomat believed the prospect of agreement on membership plans at the summit was already lost and expected the United States to change tack and seek firm commitments that the two should not have to wait too much longer.

“The real issue now is how hard the United States will try to push for France and Germany to make a commitment to MAP (for Ukraine and Georgia) in 2009,” said the diplomat.

However, others warned against writing off their chances, given the United States’ knack in the past of cajoling European allies into line at the last minute, as when Serbia unexpectedly won a partnership pact at the 2006 NATO summit.

“NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe’s democracies that seek it and are ready to share in the responsibilities of NATO membership,” Bush was due to say in a pre-summit speech on Wednesday, according to an advance text.

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On other issues, Fillon told parliament that France may send a few hundred extra troops to Afghanistan to help NATO’s biggest military mission, apparently fewer than the 1,000 combat troops President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to announce.

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Greece said it was unlikely to resolve a row over the name of NATO-aspirant Macedonia in time for the ex-Yugoslav republic to be invited to join the alliance alongside other hopefuls Croatia and Albania this week, despite strong U.S. pressure.

Some fear Macedonia’s exclusion will plunge it into a new political crisis, with repercussions for a region already on tenterhooks over Kosovo’s February 17 secession from Serbia.

France and Germany, backed by several smaller west European allies, say Ukraine and Georgia do not meet NATO’s criteria.

Public support in Ukraine for joining NATO is barely 30 percent; and Georgia does not control all of its own territory because of frozen conflicts with Moscow-backed separatists.

Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, is a guest of the summit on Friday, denounces the bids on grounds that NATO is intruding on its sphere of influence. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insists Moscow has no right of veto.

Putin has invited Bush to his holiday home in Sochi on the Black Sea afterwards to discuss a “legacy agreement” on future arms control.

Diplomats have sketched a possible trade-off, in which Moscow would accept U.S. plans to deploy its anti-missile defense shield in central Europe and Washington would accept a delay in the Georgian and Ukrainian NATO bids. U.S. officials insist no such deal is on the table.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Matt Spetalnick, Justyna Pawlak and Randall Palmer in Bucharest and Francois Murphy in Paris