NATO Backs Ukraine on Membership Goal

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- NATO offered Ukraine's new leaders fast-track talks and help toward their goal of joining the Western military alliance on Thursday but stopped short of fixing a target date for entry.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said Kiev could complete the necessary military and political reforms within just three years but NATO, which is keen not to raise tensions with Russia, distanced itself from any timeframe.


Foreign Minister Tarasyuk (l) and NATO Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer

"NATO has invited Ukraine to begin ... an intensified dialogue on Ukraine's aspirations to membership ... without prejudice to any eventual alliance decision," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after a meeting in Lithuania.

Asked at a news conference with Tarasyuk to comment on whether Ukraine would be ready by 2008 to enter, he said:

"I don't know ... NATO is a performance-based organization," referring to the 26-member alliance's set of entry criteria ranging from military to political standards.

Tarasyuk said the invitation "transformed our relationship to a new stage" and set Kiev on an unstoppable reform course.

"I dare to say that Ukraine may be ready to fulfil the ambitious program of reforms in, let us say, three years' time. So by the year 2008."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed the road to NATO membership required major reforms and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was equally cautious, saying membership was only possible "when Ukraine and NATO are both ready."

There were fears before the meeting that offering Ukraine too overt backing in its bid to join NATO and the European Union could go down badly in French public opinion and help the "No" vote in France's May 29 poll on the EU constitution.

NO RUSH

NATO has made it no secret that the victory of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's rerun presidential elections last December after a rigged first poll had boosted the membership chances of Kiev.

But alliance diplomats fear a rush toward entry could raise tensions with Russia and alienate many Ukrainians in the former Soviet republic's pro-Moscow east.

However Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also at the meeting, voiced no public criticism of NATO's backing for Kiev.

"It would be the choice of Ukraine to choose its partners and it is the sovereign matter of Ukraine," he told a news briefing, speaking in English.

NATO offered Kiev a package of measures aimed at helping it to revamp its army and pursue Western democratic reforms. The package ranged from support in boosting Ukrainian intelligence to public diplomacy to countering public mistrust of NATO.

Tarasyuk said Yushchenko had reinstated NATO and European Union membership into the military doctrine of Ukraine, which were removed by President Leonid Kuchma last summer.

He added that Ukraine would support NATO's existing mission to monitor suspect shipping in the eastern Mediterranean, but gave no details on what contribution it would make.

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