(dpa) - Germany looked set to block NATO plans to establish closer ties with Georgia and Ukraine on Wednesday amid strong opposition from Russia.
Speaking as she arrived at a NATO summit in Bucharest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country was convinced that it would be "too early" to give the two states Membership Action Plan (MAP) status.
"We think that the time for a MAP has not yet come," she said.
But she added that "it is beyond question that both countries should have prospects for membership" in the future.
Both Georgia and Ukraine have been lobbying hard to be given a MAP - a document seen as paving the way for an eventual membership invitation - at the Bucharest summit.
They have received strong support from a number of key states, including the United States, Canada and Poland.
But the move is opposed by many of NATO's Western European members, Germany and France above all.
Those critics say that popular support for NATO membership in Ukraine is too low for it to be offered a MAP, while the presence of unsolved ethnic conflicts in Georgia's breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would present a major threat to NATO security if Georgia were brought into the alliance.
They also say that any move to bring Georgia and Ukraine closer would infuriate Russia just as a new president comes to power.
Russia has repeatedly warned that a further NATO expansion along its borders would destabilize Europe.
NATO leaders are set to hold their first meeting with Russia's outgoing president, Vladimir Putin, on Friday amid hopes that Russia will allow NATO forces to transport non-lethal equipment through Russian territory to NATO missions in Afghanistan.