Ukraine's bid to secure a Membership Action Plan (Map), the preliminary phase for joining Nato, is running into opposition from Russia, limited support for the alliance inside Ukraine and doubts among Nato nations in Western Europe.

Russian influence

Russia opposes membership on the grounds that it would intrude on its traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe.

France and Germany, citing Russian opposition and poor public support for Nato in Ukraine, are sceptical about granting a Map to Ukraine, as well as Georgia.

Ulrich Wilhelm, a German government spokesman, said both countries should be encouraged with an open door to Nato.

Bush is visiting Kiev before travelling to
Romania for a Nato summit [AFP]
"But we are of the view that the time is not ripe to offer them the membership action plan ... because a number of points still need to be clarified," he said. 

However, Oleksander Chaliy, Ukraine's senior foreign policy adviser, said he had no doubts Ukraine would win over the alliance.

"We believe Ukraine and our strategic partners will have sufficient arguments to persuade and win over countries which still harbour specific doubts about granting Ukraine a membership plan. I believe we will get a positive reply on April 3," he said 

William Taylor, the US ambassador to Ukraine, said Bush saw granting a membership plan as "good for Ukraine and good for Nato" and that support from the pro-Western administration of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, was "very useful".

"But President Bush is also keen to talk himself with those leaders and other people in this city so that he can go to Bucharest with even stronger arguments," he said.

Referendum

For Ukrainian leaders, seeking Nato membership is part of the drive to join other Western institutions including the European Union.

Yushchenko, along with Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's prime minister and the speaker of parliament, sent Nato a Map request in January, provoking protests by opponents.

As a result, Viktor Yanukovich, head of the Regions party and a former prime minister, blocked parliament's work for weeks.

All Ukrainian leaders say that the membership plan is an initial step and any decision on joining the organisation must be submitted to a referendum.

A poll this month showed backing for membership at 30 per cent but also showed most Ukrainians do not see the issue as a priority.

A further 5,000 marchers, many from other regions, protested against Nato at the weekend in Crimea, an area traditionally opposed to the alliance and populated mainly by ethnic Russians.