Nato foreign ministers meeting in Brussels have confirmed their support for plans by the United States to install anti-missile defences in Europe despite strong opposition from Russia.
The ministers said the planned defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic would make a "substantial contribution" to protecting allies from the threat of long-range ballistic missiles.
Russia has virulently opposed the deployment, threatening to respond by basing short-range missiles in its Kaliningrad region, which borders Poland.
Washington insists the defences are aimed at a potential danger from "rogue states" such as Iran.
All 26 Nato allies signed up to the statement backing the deployment of interceptor missiles in Poland and an advanced radar station in the Czech Republic.
The military alliance also reaffirmed that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join Nato, but stopped short of offering them a formal roadmap towards membership.
Instead, the foreign ministers agreed to deepen co-operation with Georgia and Ukraine and strengthen two bodies in which reforms directed towards membership could be conducted.
To join Nato, the two countries must complete political, democratic and military reforms, as well as have good relations with their neighbours.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato's secretary general, said: "Nato will provide further assistance to both countries in implementing needed reforms as they progress, at least, towards Nato membership.
"We are going to beef up the Nato-Ukraine commission, beef up the Nato-Georgia Commission. Nato will maximise, strengthen, its advice and assistance for those reform efforts."
He also insisted that Georgia and Ukraine "will one day become members, if they so wish."
Georgia and Ukraine had been striving to win membership action plan (Map) status, which has in the last decade been the final stepping stone toward joining the military alliance.
|Germany and France say that the two former Soviet states are not ready to join Nato [EPA]
But a bloc of around half a dozen European countries, led by Germany and France, believe that the two former Soviet states are not ready for such a step.
In addition to the political, democratic and military reforms for entering Nato, the citizens of Georgia and Ukraine also need to be in favour of their candidacies.
Scheffer said that the decision to boost the two commissions would in no way "prejudice" the Map process and whether that would have to be adhered to for the two hopefuls to join.
"Map has not evaporated this afternoon," he said.
The question for Georgia, and to a lesser extent Ukraine, remains how to sell anything other than Map to citizens who have come to identify the term as synonymous with their future in Nato.
On Tuesday, Nato agreed to gradually resume contacts with Russia that were suspended after Moscow's military intervention in Georgia.
De Hoop Scheffer said: "Allies agreed on what I would qualify as a conditional and graduated re-engagement with Russia."
He said operational meetings of the Nato-Russia council, a forum that manages the relationship, would resume informally.
The secretary general said this did not mean Nato had changed its view that Russia had used "disproportionate" force in invading Georgia in August, or that it was acceptable for Russia to threaten to station missiles near Nato borders.
European capitals had urged Nato to consider resuming full contacts with Russia but the US had been reluctant to make any early move.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, had said before the meeting she did not oppose "in principle" reviving contacts with Russia via the Nato-Russia council.
But referring to Russian troops still in Georgian breakaway regions, she said Nato should be very cautious about any move on military co-operation.