NATO has not turned its back on Ukraine and is still eager for the former Soviet republic to join its ranks, the alliance’s head, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said at high-level talks in Tallinn, Estonia, on Thursday.
The Ukrainian and Georgian presidents are waiting in the wings for NATO acceptance
In his opening speech at the gathering of NATO defense ministers, secretary general de Hoop Scheffer said it was Ukraine's right to choose its own security alignment, free from pressure being applied by a newly assertive Russia.
The ministers met to specificially discuss Ukraine's bid for NATO membership.
"Let me remind you that at the Bucharest Summit earlier this year, NATO heads of state and government welcomed Ukraine Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO and agreed that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance," he said.
He was highly critical of Russia's actions during and after its brief August war with Georgia.
"There can be no denying that the Russia-Georgia conflict last August has changed the European security environment," de Hoop Scheffer said.
"The unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, violating basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, will not lead to the viable Euro-Atlantic security structure we seek to achieve in constructive engagement with Russia."
He voiced hopes that Russia would change course on stationing missiles in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Estonia backs Ukraine for NATO
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has strongly backed Ukrainian membership
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves used the meeting to urge fellow NATO members to embrace Kiev's desire to join the alliance, an effort he said was a “litmus test” for European security.
Ukraine, along with Georgia, has gravitated towards NATO and is seeking a so-called membership action plan (MAP) -- the work plan originally designed to guide the Baltic states towards eventual alliance membership.
But the moves have deeply angered Russia, which considers Ukraine and Georgia within its sphere of influence.
"The fact that Ukraine is here today with NATO ministers of defence should convince everyone that NATO understands Ukraine's importance to European security," Ilves said.
"I can assure you that NATO remains committed to the protection of Europe's security. This is why we will never abandon democratic Ukraine -- an integral pillar of the European security architecture.
"We should consider how to move beyond the current deadlock over timelines and political symbols."
Mixed views on membership
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says time is not right for Georgian or Ukrainian MAPs
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also in attendance at the talks, signaling his country's support for Georgian and Ukrainian membership, a defense secretary staffer said Thursday.
But the official said Ukraine's membership bid was complicated by several domestic issues which showed no sign of abating.
These included a lack of public support in Ukraine for membership, a spate of internal political crises and the trouble the country was having increasing the capacity of its military to enable it to cooperate with NATO forces.
Support for further NATO expansion is mixed, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying in October it was too soon to offer either Georgia or Ukraine an MAP.
The US official said, however, that NATO membership for the former Soviet republics was important to show that Russia had not succeeded in splitting Europe after its invasion of Georgia.
"And we need to convey that NATO is very much on track, working with countries in the east on this process of developing a Europe whole and free."