(dpa) - NATO is set to take in two new members, Croatia and Albania, but alliance leaders on Wednesday sidestepped a confrontation with Russia by leaving Ukraine and Georgia waiting on the doorstep.
In a widely expected move, the leaders of NATO's 26 current member countries, meeting in Bucharest, failed to reach an agreement on Macedonia, with neighbouring Greece blocking its bid to join the alliance over an unresolved dispute over Macedonia's name.
"There is consensus for two of the three countries to be offered invitations to begin accession talks starting tomorrow," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
"I do not expect membership action plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine at Bucharest," he said, in a blow both to the two former Soviet republics and to outgoing US President George W Bush, who had lobbied hard on their behalf.
At NATO's last summit in 2006 in Riga, alliance leaders sent Albania, Croatia and Macedonia a "clear signal" that they would be invited into the organization at Bucharest if they met NATO standards.
That dream came true Wednesday night for Albania and Croatia.
But Macedonia's dream turned into a nightmare as Greece made good on a threat to block the former Yugoslav republic's application for membership until the long-running name issue could be resolved.
The row, which dates back to 1991, concerns the use of the word Macedonia. Skopje views it as the legitimate name of the country, but Athens sees the use of the name as implying a territorial claim on its own northern province, also called Macedonia.
Talks on the issue are to continue under the auspices of the United Nations, where Macedonia was accepted in 1993 under the interim name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
NATO has made expansion into the Western Balkans one of its top priorities. The alliance conducted its first major military campaign in the region nearly 10 years ago, still has a sizeable peacekeeping operation in Kosovo and consequently views NATO membership as a means of stabilizing that part of South-East Europe.
The question of expansion into the former Soviet Union also raised the diplomatic temperature Wednesday, with NATO members torn between strengthening their relationship with Ukraine and Georgia and damaging an already fractious dialogue with Russia.
Ahead of the summit, NATO's Eastern European members and US President George W Bush had pushed for the alliance to offer the two countries a road toward membership.
"My country's position is clear: NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the membership action plan," he said, a day after visiting Kiev.
NATO members France and Germany opposed the bids from the former Soviet republics amid concerns that their inclusion in the alliance would antagonize the Kremlin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier accused NATO of being a "spoilt child" and calling its eastward expansion "artificial" and "absolutely unnecessary."
Wednesday's move is expected to avoid a major row with Russia when outgoing President Vladimir Putin joins NATO leaders Friday for a top-level meeting between the alliance and Russia.
Thursday's discussions in Bucharest are due to turn to issues in Afghanistan, the location of NATO's biggest operation, with some 47,000 soldiers currently deployed.
That number looked certain to go up on Wednesday as French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed his intentions to send a battalion - around 1,000 men - to Eastern Afghanistan, releasing the US troops currently there for combat operations in the war-torn south.
Poland and the Czech Republic have also pledged to send additional troops, while Belgium has promised to commit four extra fighter aircraft.
The main thrust of Thursday's meeting is expected to be a discussion on the interaction between military and civilian forces in Afghanistan.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are among the 60 world leaders set to attend the meeting, together with top representatives of the European Union and the World Bank