BUCHAREST, Romania: Romania's president on Thursday urged NATO to embrace closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia a move that Moscow bitterly opposes.
The alliance is planning summit next week in Bucharest, where Georgia and Ukraine are hoping to be offered a "membership action plan" which sets out the path to full membership.
Romanian President Traian Basescu dismissed the idea that offering the pre-membership plan to the two former Soviet republics should irk Moscow.
"They are sovereign states which have opted for" their own solutions, Basescu told foreign journalists.
Basescu also called for NATO to develop cooperation with Russia, which he said plays a crucial role in regional security and in the global fight against terrorism.
"For us Russia is a partner that guarantees regional stability," he said, though Romania's ties with Moscow have chilled in recent years since Romania threw off communism in 1989. Romania has since become a staunch U.S. ally, and hosts a U.S. military base on the Black Sea.
NATO is split over the issue, with the United States, Canada and eastern European members backing Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia is staunchly opposed to NATO expanding to Ukraine and Georgia, which it sees as part of its sphere of influence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to aim nuclear weapons at Ukraine if it joins NATO and accepts the deployment of anti-missile defenses on its territory.
In a campaign to keep Georgia out of NATO, Russian's parliament urged the Kremlin last week to consider recognizing the independence of two separatist Georgian regions.
Germany is leading western European opposition to inviting Ukrainian and Georgian membership, warning that pursuing such a goal would damage efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Putin has been invited to attend the April 2-4 summit, but it was unclear if he would show in Bucharest. He planned on April 6 to meet U.S. President George W. Bush in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
The summit in Romania, strategically located on the Black Sea, will be the biggest in the alliance's history, as it prepares to expand from its current 26 members.
Votes were expected on whether NATO should invite Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to join the Western military alliance. An invitation requires a unanimous decision, and Greece said it would veto Macedonia's bid unless it can resolve a dispute over Macedonia's name.
U.S. President George W. Bush said in an interview with Romanian national television that he supported NATO's expansion to the three Balkan countries, saying the alliance was "a positive force ... that encourages reforms and modernization."
NATO membership also brings a "sense of security," and security "brings confidence and confidence brings hopeful societies," Bush said in the interview broadcast Thursday.
Meetings at the summit will focus on preparing a strategic plan for the alliance's 42,000-troop mission in Afghanistan.
Basescu said the summit would also be attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and representatives of both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, who would help draw up social and economic plans for Afghanistan.