WASHINGTON – Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said Monday that his country must obtain NATO membership to secure its borders and remain independent of Russia.
Ukraine must join the military alliance and the European Union to protect its sovereignty,said Yushchenko,speaking through a translator during an appearance at the National Press Club.
His comments were strongly influenced by Russia's recent invasion of Georgia,in a dispute over a breakaway province backed by Russia.
“My main target is to bring Ukraine to membership in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Yushchenko said. He spoke of vague threats to Ukrainian sovereignty but did not name Russia,which strongly opposes the country's bid for NATO membership. The Russian embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.
Political turmoil,rather than external pressure,may be the country's biggest obstacle to NATO membership,said Steven Pifer,a former ambassador to Ukraine who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Right now if you look at the progress they've made in political,economic and military reform,it's pretty hard to argue they're not ready for a membership action plan,” Pifer said. Internal politicking derailed the country's membership bid in 2006. Infighting between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko could further delay the membership process.
If invited to join the alliance,Yushchenko said Ukraine would not host nuclear missiles or military bases. Less clear is how Ukraine's admission would affect Russia's Black Sea fleet,which operates out of Sevastopol,a Ukrainian port.
The State Department estimates it will give about $83 million to Ukraine this year,slightly less than the $96 million the United States sent during 2007. Ukraine's military will use some of that money to train and equip its forces to work with NATO.
Yushchenko and his push for membership in the western military alliance remain unpopular in Ukraine – especially in Crimean Peninsula,where many identify more with Moscow than Kiev.
Tymoshenko recently split with Yushchenko over her alliance with opposition groups that successfully limited presidential power. Some speculate she will run for president when Yushchenko's term expires in 2010.