NATO defense ministers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are scheduled to meet this week to consider accelerating Ukraine's effort to join the alliance, and to show support for the Baltic States and other East European members in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia.  VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin will travel with the secretary to the Estonia meeting and has this preview.

The official purpose of the meeting is to evaluate Ukraine's progress on military reforms and related issues, and to take one more step toward formally beginning the process of making the country a member of NATO.

But Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says that might have been handled at the working level, rather than by the ministers themselves, if Russia had not invaded its southern neighbor, Georgia in August.

"This meeting, from our standpoint, is taking place at the ministerial level because of what happened in August," said  Geoff Morrell. "I'm not so sure this is a meeting the secretary would have attended, had the Russians chosen not to invade Georgia.  But in the aftermath of that, the secretary wanted to send a very strong signal of his support for Ukraine and the Baltic States and our other NATO allies from Eastern Europe that the United States stands firmly behind them."

U.S. officials do not expect any formal action at this meeting on Ukraine's bid to join NATO.  They say that will likely have to wait at least until early December, when the alliance's foreign ministers meet in Brussels.  But even then, Ukraine will be only 10 days from an election, so the process may have to wait until next year, meaning that the U.S. position will be determined by Barack Obama's administration, which takes office January 20.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration also wants NATO to put Georgia on a formal path to membership.  Although top alliance leaders have agreed that Ukraine and Georgia will join, some West European members are reluctant to move too quickly, which they believe would antagonize Russia.  Moscow is already angry about NATO's moves so far and about the plan for a U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Secretary Gates says there should be consequences for Russia's invasion of Georgia, particularly in defense relations, and he has called for a stronger European alliance to deter further Russian aggression.  But the secretary has also called for "cautious" and "prudent" steps to avoid "military confrontation".

Pentagon Press Secretary, Geoff Morrell, says the United States does not have a list of punishments it wants to inflict on Russia.  He says countries around the world are looking at Russia differently in the wake of the invasion of Georgia, and that Russia's defense exchanges with NATO countries have already been reduced.