(dpa) - In a development seen as handing a diplomatic rebuff to US President George W Bush and sidestepping immediate trouble with Russia, NATO leaders Wednesday declined to offer Ukraine and Georgia a map to join the alliance.
"I do not expect membership action plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine at Bucharest," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said at the end of the first evening of the three-day summit in Bucharest.
However, all member states also agreed that "it is not a question of whether they get a MAP but of when they do," he said.
Despite vocal threats from Moscow ahead of the meeting, NATO sources said that the leaders had agreed that Russia should not be allowed to influence the alliance's future decisions.
Leading up to the summit, the two former-Soviet states had lobbied hard for such offers.
They received vigorous support from NATO's Eastern European members and from Bush, who said Wednesday morning: "My country's position is clear: NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the membership action plan."
Some member states - notably Germany and France - said that the two Eastern countries were not ready for the move, and that to welcome them would antagonize Russia at a time when the impending inauguration of a new president offers a golden chance for detente.
It is "too early" for Georgia and Ukraine to receive a MAP, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she arrived in Bucharest.
Sceptics' concerns over Ukraine focus on the very low level of popular support for NATO accession in the country. Pro-NATO forces say that the level stands at around 30 per cent, while anti-NATO commentators put it as low as 15 per cent.
Georgia, meanwhile, is the site of two so-called frozen conflicts - separatist areas that have declared independence and fought indecisive wars against Tbilisi, but which are not currently the scene of hostilities.
While NATO leaders insist that Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected, some countries fear that to bring Georgia into the fold before the dormant conflicts are resolved could provoke renewed fighting in which NATO allies would have to join.
Moscow fiercely criticized the talk of NATO's enlargement on Russia's borders, saying that this would provoke instability in Europe.
Ahead of the summit, the Russian Parliament passed legislation calling for the federation to recognize the independence of the two separatist areas if Georgia joined NATO.
Wednesday's move looks likely to forestall an immediate row with Moscow, but NATO's reiteration that it sees Ukraine and Georgia as future members means that the issue is likely to resurface late