U.S. President George W. Bush says he strongly supports a bid by Ukraine and Georgia to start the process of NATO membership. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports the comments came during a stop in Kyiv on his way to the NATO summit in Romania.

After a formal arrival ceremony, complete with military honor guard and red carpet, President Bush and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko got down to business in the Ukrainian capital.

They met for several hours, first alone and then with top aides. Topping the agenda was Ukraine's bid for a NATO membership plan, or MAP

"My position is absolutely solid. Ukraine and Georgia should be given MAP," he said.

At a joint news conference, Mr. Bush praised Ukraine's young democracy, and said if the alliance gives the Ukrainians a set of guideposts for membership it will bolster efforts to implement reforms.

"Your nation has made a bold decision and the United States strongly supports your request," said Mr. Bush.

President Yushchenko will personally make the case for membership in NATO to alliance members later this week in Romania. But observers say the chances that Ukraine and Georgia, which has also put in a bid, will win approval in Bucharest are slim.

Russia is vehemently opposed to the further eastward expansion of NATO to two large former Soviet Republics.

President Bush says Russia does not have a veto on the issue. And he strongly rejects the suggestion that he struck a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to soften the U.S. stand on NATO expansion in exchange for concessions on plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe.

"That is a misperception. I strongly believe that Ukraine and Georgia should be given MAP," said Mr. Bush. "And there is no trade-offs, period!"

The president also says his administration is working hard to convince other NATO countries that it is in their interests to bring the two former Soviet Republics into the fold. Several alliance members, France and Germany, have indicated they do not believe Ukraine and Georgia are ready to be put on a membership path.

Objections are also being raised in some quarters here in Ukraine, especially in the ethnic Russian community. In a series of stops in Kyiv after his formal talks, Mr. Bush tried to reach out to the Ukrainian people.

He visited the historic St. Sophia's Cathedral, and went to a memorial to victims of a mass famine in 1933. He also stopped at a public school where teenagers involved in an AIDS awareness project, put on a play.

The president's stay in Ukraine lasted less than 24 hours, enough time to signal his support for the NATO bid and Ukrainian democracy before heading off to Bucharest and the alliance summit.