By Matt Spetalnick
KIEV (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush vowed onTuesday to press for Ukraine and Georgia to be allowed to startthe process of joining NATO despite resistance from Russia andscepticism from the alliance's European members.
Bush, in Kiev on his way to his farewell NATO summit inRomania, said Moscow had no right to veto bids by the twoex-Soviet states. There was no link between their ambitions anda planned U.S. missile defence system in Europe, he added.
Washington has long lobbied for Ukraine and Georgia to begranted Membership Action Plans (MAP) at the Bucharest summit.
Russia denounces the bids on grounds that NATO is intrudingon its sphere of influence. And France said it would opposegranting MAP to the two ex-Soviet states.
But Bush underscored his resolve to back the applications.
"Your nation has made a bold decision, and the UnitedStates strongly supports your request," Bush told a newsconference alongside Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
"In Bucharest this week, I will continue to make America'sposition clear. We support MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. HelpingUkraine move towards NATO membership is in the interest ofevery member in the alliance and will help advance security andfreedom in this region and around the world."
NATO states had told Bush that "Russia will not have a vetoover what happens next in Bucharest and I take their word forit. And that's the right policy to have."
He dismissed as a "misperception" any trade-off -- shelvingsupport for MAP bids to win agreement to deploy interceptorrockets and a radar in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Bush said he hoped proposals to make the missile defencesystem more transparent would yield progress at his weekendmeeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the RussianBlack Sea resort of Sochi.
PROGRESS ON MISSILE DEFENCE
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Denmark,also hoped for progress while acknowledging that "the Russiansare probably never going to like missile defence.
"But I think that the assurances that we have provided andthe mechanisms that we have proposed give them assurance thatit's not aimed at them and my hope is that that will lead topositive outcomes both in Bucharest and in Sochi," he said.
The president spent the afternoon visiting monuments,including 11th century St Sofia cathedral and a memorial tovictims of the 1932-33 mass famine engineered by Sovietdictator Josef Stalin. He left for Bucharest late in theafternoon.
In his comments to reporters, Yushchenko said Ukraine hadmade a clear choice on NATO and he saw "no other way forward.
"You will forgive me, but I would not like to see the key,fundamental principle of the Alliance's activity, open doors,to be replaced by a veto for a country which is not even amember."
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who also met Bush, hopedfor a "yes" in Bucharest and repeated the longstanding policyof all major political forces that a final decision onmembership would be subject to a referendum.
Ukraine's bid to secure a MAP, the first stage in the longprocess of joining NATO, faces low public support at home.
A few hundred protesters defied a ban and shouted anti-NATOslogans in central Kiev. Some 5,000 had massed on Monday.
For many Ukrainians, joining NATO is not a priority -- only30 percent of respondents in the ex-Soviet state support it.
The Regions Party of Former Prime Minister ViktorYanukovich, long an opponent of the plan, said approval inBucharest would "spark protests by millions. Those in Europeand across the ocean must be told -- Ukraine is not ready forMAP."
France and Germany have resisted granting a MAP on thegrounds that both states have yet to achieve politicalstability and that the process would unnecessarily antagoniseRussia.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told French radioParis was opposed "because we think it is not the rightresponse to the balance of power in Europe and between Europeand Russia, and we want to have a dialogue on this subject withRussia".
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Kiev and AndrewGray in Copenhagen, Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by CharlesDick)