Hritsenko: Military Must Help End Stereotype of NATO as Aggressor

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's defense minister asked the military Oct. 27 to help end the stereotype of NATO as an aggressor, as the ex-Soviet republic's leadership continues to press its goal for NATO membership.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoly Hritsenko, front right, shares a lighter moment with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

Anatoliy Hritsenko told top military officers that unnamed political forces were spreading fears about the Western alliance. He asked the military's leadership to play a role in ending negative opinions, the Defense Ministry said.

President Viktor Yushchenko has made NATO membership a top goal. The alliance has said it will help Ukraine push through the necessary reforms, but has dodged questions about when it might offer membership to this nation of 47 million.

Many Ukrainians view NATO with hostility, fearing alliance membership would worsen relations with Moscow and ruin the defense industry, which has close links to Russia. Hritsenko also cited fears that NATO would put nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and that troops would be sent off to trouble spots worldwide.

Ukraine had 1,650 troops serving Iraq as part of the U.S.-led military operation there, but the move was highly unpopular and Yushchenko has order the contingent's pullout. The country, however, has participated in numerous other international peacekeeping missions, which Ukrainians generally support.

The defense minister told officers that the parliament would still oversee decisions like sending troops abroad, and said alliance membership would open up new markets to the defense industry.

Russia is wary about Ukraine's flirtations with its former Cold War foe, and opinion polls show that most Ukrainians also are concerned about possible membership.

During a visit by a senior NATO delegation last week, a small protest was held in eastern Ukraine and an opposition political party has called for a referendum on membership.

Source: AP