( Canadianpress ) - NATO's chief executive said Monday that Russia cannot stop Ukraine and Georgia from joining the alliance.
However, he added that, given Russia's opposition, a decision to put the former Soviet republics on a track to membership may be delayed at this week's NATO summit.
"In my opinion, it is not a matter of whether, but when" the two countries will join the alliance, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview with news agencies.
Giving Ukraine and Georgia a defined path to membership is one of several issues causing friction between the NATO allies and Russia. Others include the independence of Kosovo and a planned missile defence system in Europe.
U.S. President George W. Bush wants NATO to expand by absorbing Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, and to put Ukraine and Georgia on track for future membership.
France and Germany are wary of action on Ukraine and Georgia for fear of aggravating an already touchy relationship with Moscow.
Russia has promised broader co-operation with NATO in Afghanistan if the alliance shelves its planned invitations to Ukraine and Georgia.
De Hoop Scheffer said Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is to meet with the alliance leaders in the margin of the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, cannot veto Georgia and Ukraine.
The Russians aren't involved in the decision-making process, he said.
However, he acknowledged Russian opposition "was a factor" casting a special light on the issue.
The Bucharest summit comes as the Bush administration enters its home stretch. European leaders know the next administration may have a different vision for NATO and feel some key decisions, including commitments to Ukraine and Georgia, should be delayed for now.
De Hoop Scheffer said even if the NATO leaders remain silent on Ukraine and Georgia, the two countries will stay in line for NATO membership.
Membership for Macedonia remained in the balance as the summit approached.
Greece opposes Macedonia's name and has vowed to block its membership in NATO.
Greece says its northern neighbour's use of the name Macedonia could imply claims on the adjoining Greek province of Macedonia - the birthplace of the ancient warrior-king Alexander the Great.
De Hoop Scheffer said he hoped NATO would be able to invite Macedonia to join NATO, along with Croatia and Albania.
On Afghanistan, De Hoop Scheffer said he looked forward to a decision by France to send an additional 1,000 troops to the country to bring the international force there to close to 47,000.
Last month, Canada agreed to extend its 2,500-troop mission in Kandahar province to 2011, provided NATO sends more troops and equipment to back them up in the former Taliban stronghold.
Canada has lost 80 soldiers and a diplomat in Afghanistan, putting pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to withdraw the troops in February 2009, when their mandate was to expire.