VILNIUS - Although no timetable was set, NATO leaders meeting in the Lithuanian capital made it clear that the alliance's doors would be open for Ukraine.
Discussion over Ukraine's progress in military reforms led the Oct. 23 's 24 NATO summit, which was attended by 26 member defense ministry officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and their counterparts from Ukraine.
The meeting was the latest in a series of consultations underlining NATO's commitment to improve relations with Ukraine, the alliance's newest darling in its continual eastward expansion.
NATO leaders pledged to help Ukraine push through military reforms, which is seen as essential preparation for possible membership in NATO, while Lithuanian officials said they would help overcome the negative image of the Western military bloc among the Ukrainian population.
"Progress has been made and we encourage it, and are available to be of assistance in various ways," Rumsfeld told journalists.
NATO did not, however, commit itself to a timetable for Ukraine's possible accession.
"There is no public or no secret timetable on NATO membership," Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. "It depends on performance."
"Ukraine is in driver's seat now," he said.
Ukraine is hoping to receive an invitation to join the alliance in 2008 during NATO's annual summit.
"As far as the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces are concerned, I have no doubt that they will be ready. Anatoly Gritsenko and the Defense Ministry led by him, carry out reforms consistently. I know less about other structures. [But] I have no doubts about the ministry and the Armed Forces," said Lithuanian Defence Minister Gediminas Kirkilas.
Ukrainian Minister Gritsenko made a show of having won the support of NATO. He added that membership could not be stopped, despite the fact that Russia views Ukraine's prospect in NATO with concern.
"The course of Ukraine's foreign policy toward NATO, I believe, is irreversible," Gritsenko said. "After today's discussion, we changed the position of those that were more sceptical."
Gritsenko said the pace of Ukraine's military modernization would make it ready to join the Alliance in 2008. "I am certain that, on the Ukrainian side in the military sphere, we'll be prepared by then," he commented, adding that Moscow would not try to block his country's effort.
The minister explained that Russia's fears over Poland, Lithuania and other former Soviet bloc states joining NATO turned out to be unfounded.
"I don't see it as a very serious issue because Russia and many wise people in Russia see Poland or the Baltic states in NATO as no threat," Gritsenko told journalists.
However, he acknowledged that there remained the obstacle of convincing his own nation about membership in the alliance, which continues to be criticized by Moscow and pro-Moscow elements in Ukraine.
"Some of the Ukrainians object to membership in NATO as they are mislead to think this would mean that nuclear weapons will be deployed in their country, [that] Ukrainians will have to participate in every military operation and Ukrainian war factories will be closed," Gricenko said.
Despite Ukraine's attempts to improve NATO's image in the state, officials said public support for the alliance could be as low as 20 percent.
"Some countries were very sceptical toward Ukraine, this time they said 'yes'," Kirkilas said following the NATO consultations. "This is a step forward. The most important thing is that the Ukrainians follow their commitments and continue their reforms. Now we can say that everything is in their hands."
The Lithuanian minister also thanked his Ukrainian colleague for lending help in decoding the black box on board the Russian Su-27 military jet that had crashed in Lithuanian territory. "Your specialists contributed a lot to the success of the investigation," Kirkilas said.
Gritsenko said the post-crash cooperation showed how well the countries could cooperate.
"The event of September showed that relations between Lithuania and Ukraine had already reached a stage when, if need be, we can communicate by skipping the complicated bureaucratic procedures. In this particular case, all it took was a mere phone call," Gritsenko said.
In an effort to improve its chances of NATO membership, Ukraine has increased its defence budget this year by 30 percent.
Ukrainian troops have served in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and military cargo planes have ferried troops and humanitarian supplies.
After the Orange Revolution in December 2004 and the new government's pro-Western stance, a NATO-Ukraine intensified dialogue was launched during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers and Ukraine in Vilnius on April 21, 2005.