In an exhibition hall once dedicated to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Vice President Joe Biden spoke last month of the United States’ enduring commitment to Ukraine and democracy.

"Freedom is merely the beginning, not the end," he said during his last speech in Kiev, Ukraine. "And here in Ukraine, yours is a revolution still in progress whose promise remains to be fulfilled."

A day later in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Biden reiterated U.S. support for the two former Soviet republics and of their deepening ties to NATO and other democratic institutions.

"We stand ready to walk that path with you," Biden said in Georgia.

But when it comes to full membership in the alliance, the end of the road is probably a long way off.

Even if all goes well with neighboring Russia and with various political and military reforms, Georgia and Ukraine won’t join NATO for at least several more years, according to experts on Eastern Europe. And that’s being optimistic.

While it’s in NATO’s strategic interest to admit them into the joint alliance, "it’s not going to happen anytime soon," said Kimberly Marten, a Russian defense and foreign policy expert at Columbia University’s Barnard College.

Both nations have much to do before they can meet conditions for NATO membership. Marten cited three areas of concern to the alliance: the resolution of outstanding conflicts, economic viability and the development of democratic principles. Both nations, she said, have some distance to go on these issues.

"It’s not that they have to be wealthy," Marten said, "but they have to be stable."

A year ago this week, Georgia fought and lost a five-day war with Russia, and Russian troops still occupy two breakaway regions — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — within Georgia. Biden characterized the Russian presence as "a sad certainty" with "no military option to reintegration." He indicated that "only a peaceful and prosperous Georgia" could entice them back into the fold.

Furthermore, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, once a darling of D.C., is now viewed far more critically due to his handling of the war and concerns he is infringing on some bedrock reforms, such as freedom of speech.

To the north, the acrimony among Ukrainian leaders is so acute it has led to a political paralysis that won’t be remedied until after January’s presidential election. Another area of major concern is Ukraine’s energy sector, which is dependent on Russian oil and gas — and in debt because of it. An additional issue is the continued presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.

While the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Ukrainian waters isn’t in the same league as the tensions in Georgia, the agreement does conjoin the two nations through 2017.

"NATO doesn’t want to be drawn into a military conflict" just because it’s adding a new member with outstanding issues, Marten explained.

However, between the two countries, Ukraine is "more ready for NATO" than Georgia, said Lincoln Mitchell, an assistant professor of international politics at Columbia University. Mitchell, who visited the region in June, is also a former country director for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia.

Ukraine militarily brings far more to the table for NATO, according to Mitchell. If it were a member today, its standing army would be second only to the United States and Turkey in terms of size. Additionally, Ukraine, which has deployed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, is moving toward an all-volunteer force starting next year. Its last conscription is this fall.

In a paper published earlier this year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that NATO has already helped Ukraine develop a better civil emergency system and disaster response capability. However, credit for such progress has often gone unnoticed, the authors said. They suggested the government launch a campaign "to improve NATO’s image" and help "dissipate the Cold War stereotypes that still persist in Ukrainian society."

And yet the Ukrainian people "may not want membership," Mitchell noted, estimating public support to be 50 percent to 60 percent. "This isn’t Latvia. Ukraine has a strong military." Furthermore, the cultural and historical bonds between Ukraine and Russia are significant. Many Ukrainians even consider their neighbor to the east as part of an extended family, and so membership in NATO isn’t viewed as something that is indispensable.

While support for NATO membership is supposedly higher in Georgia than in Ukraine, much work remains, starting with the development of a modern army, according to Marten.

"Georgia has an awful lot to do to professionalize the people in their military," Marten said.

Real progress toward that and other goals won’t be achieved until there is a change of leadership, Mitchell believes. Local officials face the electorate next year, while a presidential vote is slated for 2012.

Mitchell called the government’s behavior last year, particularly Saakashvili’s actions relating to Russia, as "too erratic for NATO" and said recent street protests in Tbilisi are "the tip of the iceberg of discontent."

In terms of a timeline for NATO membership, Mitchell said it "would be a tremendous accomplishment" if Georgia were to join the alliance in the next five to 10 years. If he were advising the Georgian government, Mitchell would tell them to forget about South Ossetia and Abkhazia for a while.

At the moment, Mitchell said, "things in Georgia are such a mess that these two places are largely irrelevant."

To guide the two nations toward membership, something the alliance guaranteed last year at a summit in Bucharest, Romania, separate commissions exist to help the process along. The NATO-Ukraine Commission dates back more than a decade, while the committee for Georgia came into being shortly after last year’s war with Russia.

Meetings "focus on what these two nations need to do in relation to their aspirations for NATO membership," said a senior alliance official who requested anonymity. The commissions address "a lot of reforms that need to be implemented before we get there."

The "there" is a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, a key signpost on the way to full membership. Standards must be met in a host of areas, from the sustainability of a deployed force and logistic capabilities to the amount of money a country spends on defense. Albania and Croatia, for example, went through the process before their accession this spring. In Albania’s case it took 10 years, while Croatia needed seven years.

Currently, there are 28 nations in the alliance.

Last year, the Bush administration backed the desire of Ukraine and Georgia desire to advance to the MAP process, but it couldn’t garner enough support among its peers. Mitchell said support broke down roughly between established members, such as Germany, who didn’t want it, and some of the newer members from eastern and southern Europe, who did.

"Our interest in both countries has not changed," the senior NATO official said.

Perhaps the biggest variable in all of this is Russia. The alliance’s eastward expansion "definitely threatens Russia," Marten said. The Russians "feel that they don’t have reason to trust NATO."

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