Ukraine Bid To Join Nato Threatens Wider Rift With Russia

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Cold war tensions threatened to flare anew yesterday after Ukraine, once the heart of the Soviet industrial-military complex, declared its intention to join Nato and won the blessing of the United States.

Ukraine’s admission would bring Russia’s Black Sea naval base and much of the former Soviet armaments industry into the embrace of the American-led military alliance, and expand Nato to Russia’s southwestern border.

President Bush (front L) and President Yushchenko (front R)

The newly elected President Yushchenko told a special Ukraine-Nato summit in Brussels of his long-term aim to join the 26-member alliance, although he insisted it was not a move against its giant neighbour Russia. “We want to see Ukraine integrated into both the European Union and the North Atlantic alliance,” he said.

President Bush supported Ukrainian membership in principle provided it made sufficient reforms. He declared: “Nato has an open door for those European democracies who fulfil the obligations. There is strong support for President Yushchenko in his challenging endeavour to bring Ukraine closer to Euro- Atlantic integration.

“We welcomed Mr Yushchenko and reminded him it is a performance-based organisation, and that the door is open. Nato will help him.”

Russia is coming to terms with its failure to prevent Mr Yushchenko winning December’s election, but is deeply troubled by the threat to its national security by Ukraine’s courting of Nato. Russia’s Southern Fleet is based in Sevastopol, southern Ukraine. The country is also a key designer, manufacturer and exporter of weapons, especially missiles, many of which are in Russia’s arsenal.

The country was controlled by Russia for 300 years before it won independence after the collapse of communism in 1991.

Russia had previously resisted Nato’s eastwards advance, and virulently opposed membership for the far less strategicially important former Soviet Baltic states.

Mr Yushchenko sought to pre-empt Moscow’s protests by declaring: “Let me say clearly that Russia is our strategic partner. Ukraine’s policy on Nato is in no way directed against any other country, including Russia.” However, Ukraine’s move is certain to add to the tensions when Mr Bush meets President Putin tomorrow in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava.

Mr Bush questioned Russia’s commitment to democracy in a major speech in Brussels on Monday, and Washington is concerned about Moscow’s plans to sell nuclear fuel to Iran and missiles to Syria. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Secretary-General of Nato, said he would support Ukraine’s membership and announced a fund to decommission 1.5 million small arms and 133,000 tonnes of munitions in Ukraine as part of reforms of its military.

Ukraine is likely to win the strong backing of other former Soviet bloc countries that have escaped Moscow’s orbit.

Antanas Valionis, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, insisted that concern over Russia’s reaction should not inhibit any plan by Nato to welcome former Soviet states. “We have to co-operate with Russia, but at the same time there are sovereign states which are choosing their road, their way to democracy . . . and our obligation is to support them,” he said.

If Ukraine does join Nato, it will enable the alliance to control its weapons exports and to prevent them falling into the hands of hostile states or terrorist groups. Those risks were highlighted yesterday when Ukraine’s Unian news agency reported that two anti-aircraft missiles had gone missing from a military depot in Crimea.

Last month a key Ukrainian lawmaker revealed the secret indictments or arrests of at least six arms dealers accused of selling nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China.