Senior officials from Georgia and Ukraine on Wednesday exhorted NATO members to bring the two nations into the alliance in order to protect them from Russia and cement ties with the West.

Georgia, a small post-Soviet nation in the South Caucasus intensified efforts to join the Western military alliance after it lost control of two breakaway provinces in a 2008 war with Russia. Ukraine's pro-Western leaders are also pushing for membership after Russia annexed its Crimean peninsula and supported pro-Russian insurgents in a two-year separatist conflict in the east of the country. Russia vehemently opposes both bids as a threat to its security.

Speaking several weeks ahead of a key NATO summit in Warsaw where the alliance will evaluate the two countries' membership prospects, Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli said that the United States has a strong interest in helping Georgia join NATO as a way of deterring Russia.

"You need Georgia even more than we need membership in NATO today," Khidasheli said at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. "Why? Because Georgia is an opportunity for you to prove to (the) Russians that they do not have veto power, that they do not guide your policies, they do not make decisions instead of you."

Hanna Hopko, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Ukrainian Parliament said that NATO membership would bring security guarantees to her war-scarred country that has already lost more than 9,300 people in the conflict.

"I ask you to think carefully about the real strategy (of) how to protect Ukrainian society from Russian aggression," Hopko said.

The statements came two days after NATO launched its biggest ever joint exercises in Poland amid strong concerns about Russia among eastern European nations.

Created after World War II to counter the Soviet Union, NATO has absorbed 12 former Communist nations since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, strongly irritating Moscow, which says that NATO troops on its eastern borders threaten Russian security. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week that the NATO drills and military reinforcements in eastern Europe give Russia the right "to provide its own safety with methods that are adequate for today's risks."

John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, criticized NATO's enlargement, saying that it provoked Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine.

"The idea that Ukraine is going to become a Western bulwark on their doorstep is simply unthinkable and they will wreck Ukraine before they let that happen," Mearsheimer said. "And of course this is what's happening now."

But Stephen Biegun, a former staff director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disagreed.

"NATO is not a threat to Russia," Beiegun said. "The expansion of NATO has created stable, peaceful, friendly states in central and eastern Europe that have contributed to the security of Russia as much as it has to anybody else on the European continent."