#5 - JRL 7031
Ukraine, Georgia not yet prospective NATO members: Armitage
MOSCOW, Jan 23 (AFP) - The US said Thursday that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia were still a long way from joining NATO, despite their desire to enter the Brussels-based security alliance. US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage added that Washington had no plans to establish permanent military bases in former Soviet republics of Central Asia which are now being used by Western troops for the Afghan campaign.
Wrapping up a two-day visit to Moscow, Armitage told Moscow Echo radio that NATO still has made no decision as to how many members it will eventually have or when the next expansion might take place.
"We and our allies have not made any decision as to the ultimate number (of NATO members)," said Armitage.
"It is open for further membership, but I think there is quite a distance to go before we discuss Georgia and Ukraine," he said.
Both republics have strained ties with Russia and are clamoring for NATO membership as a means of countering Moscow's influence.
But they also have creaking economies which can ill afford massive military spending of the type needed to upgrade their equipment to NATO standards.
Ukraine further has badly damaged its relations with Washington amid allegations that it was supplying sensitive radar and other military equipment to Iraq in breach of existing UN resolutions.
On Central Asia, where Russian military hawks are concerned Washington is planning to establish a permanent presence, Armitage reserved the US's right to closer cooperation and dialogue with the oil- and natural gas-rich states.
But he stressed the US presence at the bases would end with the conclusion of the Afghan campaign.
"We have no desire for permanent basing in the area, but we are going to have relations with each of the countries of Central Asia, and that is only right and appropriate," he said.