By Matt Spetalnick and Paul Taylor
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush vowedon Tuesday to press for Ukraine and Georgia to be allowed tostart the process of joining NATO despite resistance fromRussia and scepticism from the alliance's European members.
Bush, in Kiev on his way to his farewell NATO summit inRomania beginning on Wednesday, said Moscow had no right toveto bids by the two former Soviet republics to join the26-nation Western defence pact.
But French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Paris wouldoppose giving Kiev and Tbilisi a "Membership Action Plan" -- aroadmap to joining NATO -- to avoid upsetting the balance ofpower with Russia. Germany shares those objections.
Bush told a news conference with Ukrainian President ViktorYushchenko: "In Bucharest this week, I will continue to makeAmerica's position clear. We support MAP for Ukraine andGeorgia.
"Helping Ukraine move towards NATO membership is in theinterest of every member in the alliance and will help advancesecurity and freedom in this region and around the world."
Bush will repeat that message in a pre-summit speech onWednesday and add that "NATO membership must remain open to allof Europe's democracies that seek it, and are ready to share inthe responsibilities of NATO membership."
On other summit issues, Greece said it was unlikely toresolve a dispute over the name of NATO aspirant Macedonia intime for the former Yugoslav republic to be invited to join thealliance this week despite strong pressure from Washington.
And Fillon told parliament in Paris that France may send afew hundred extra troops to Afghanistan to help NATO's biggestmilitary mission, apparently fewer than the 1,000 combat troopsPresident Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to announce inBucharest.
France and Germany, backed by several smaller west Europeanallies, say Ukraine and Georgia do not meet NATO's criteria.
Public support in Ukraine for joining NATO is barely 30percent, while Georgia does not control all of its territorybecause of frozen conflicts with Moscow-backed separatists.
"POINT OF NO RETURN"
Russia denounces the bids on grounds that NATO is intrudingon its sphere of influence.
Moscow's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told Interfax newsagency: "The Membership Action Plan marks the point of noreturn, in our opinion. If MAP is granted to Georgia andUkraine ... our relations would take a dramatic turn."
President Vladimir Putin is due to attend the NATO summiton Friday and has invited Bush to his holiday home in Sochi onthe Black Sea afterwards to discuss a "legacy agreement" onfuture arms control.
Diplomats have sketched a possible trade-off, in whichMoscow would grudgingly accept U.S. plans to deploy ananti-missile defence shield in central Europe and Washingtonwould accept a delay in the Georgian and Ukrainian NATO bids.
But Bush underscored his resolve to back the applications.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.
The president said he hoped proposals to make the missiledefence system more transparent would yield progress at hisweekend meeting with Putin.
Bush will also say in his pre-summit speech on Wednesdaythat NATO's top priority must be fighting al Qaeda and Osamabin Laden.
Speaking after talks with Romanian President TraianBasescu, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said thesummit showed "Afghanistan matters to the internationalcommunity".
At a session on Thursday, NATO allies and other troopcontributors will meet U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon andAfghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss better coordination ofmilitary, civilian, development and humanitarian efforts.
The head of the U.S. House of Representatives ArmedServices Committee, Ellen Tauscher, said European allies mustdo much more to help NATO defeat Taliban insurgents inAfghanistan, where the alliance's credibility was at stake.
"While the U.S. is committing an additional 3,200 Marines,NATO allies must commit at least 7,000 more combat troops tosecure the East and South of Afghanistan," she told a Bucharestconference on the eve of the summit.
Basescu, the summit's host, urged NATO leaders to inviteCroatia, Albania and Macedonia to join, and to give three otherWestern Balkans states -- Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro -- "aclear perspective concerning their return to their rightfulplace in the European and Euro-Atlantic community".
Speaking to reporters alongside Bush, Yushchenko saidUkraine had made a clear choice on NATO.
"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."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Kiev, JustynaPawlak and Mark John in Bucharest and Francois Murphy in Paris;Editing by Timothy Heritage)