Russia praises US shift NATO membership plan

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised a U.S. decision to change its strategy for bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, expressing satisfaction Friday that the American administration abandoned a program seen as a key step toward membership.

Medvedev said that "reason has prevailed" in the outgoing U.S. administration.

Amid opposition from European allies concerned about angering Russia, the United States dropped efforts to assist the pro-Western leaders of Ukraine and Georgia with preparatory programs seen as a roadmap toward membership.

Moscow is pressing to keep the two ex-Soviet republics out of NATO, and the issue added to tensions leading up to its August war with Georgia. The alliance declined the grant Georgia and Ukraine "membership action plans" in April, but assured them they would eventually join and promised to revisit the issue at a NATO meeting next week.

However, in the face of continued opposition from France and Germany, U.S. officials have said they would abandon the push to get the action plans next week and try to assist the two countries in joining via different means.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO said Wednesday he hopes to prepare Ukraine and Georgia for eventual membership by assisting with military, economic and political reforms - without the diplomatic complication of the membership action plan.

But Medvedev, who was visiting Cuba, described the U.S. decision as a retreat.

"I am pleased that reason has prevailed, unfortunately only at the end of the current U.S. administration," Medvedev said in remarks broadcast on Russian television. "Whether the Americans heeded the Europeans or somebody else, now this idea is not being put forward with such frenzy and senselessness as it was not long ago."

Moscow has opposed the eastward expansion of NATO - the Soviet Union's Cold War foe - and is particularly alarmed at the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine, two neighbors with deep-rooted ties to Russia.

Medvedev's remarks were the latest indication that the Kremlin is hoping the administration of President-elect Barack Obama will back down from policies that have aggravated Moscow.

On another divisive issue, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it is unlikely the U.S. and Russia will resolve their differences over U.S. plans for missile defense installations in central Europe during talks next month, Russian news agencies reported.

"The essence of the problem is such that we can hardly expect to dot all the 'i's in December," state-run RIA-Novosti quoted Lavrov as saying.

The Kremlin has rejected U.S. assurances that the planned missile shield is designed to defend against potential attacks from Iran, saying its real aim is to weaken Russia's nuclear deterrent.

Obama has not committed to going ahead with the plans.

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