NATO Acts to Open Door for Ukraine

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- NATO acted officially on Thursday to open discussions with Ukraine, a former partner of Russia, to become a member of the Atlantic military alliance, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with opposition leaders favoring the ouster of the Russian-backed regime in Belarus.

Rice, who previously had declared that Belarus was the last dictatorship in Europe, warned bluntly that it should not conduct a "sham election" next year because its conduct would be "watched by the international community," much as the election in Ukraine last year had been watched and deemed fraudulent, helping to lead to its revolution.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

The opposition leaders with whom Rice met said later that they would use "mass pressure for change" on the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. But Rice cautioned that she was not suggesting any particular way for them to oust him.

In Moscow earlier in the week, Rice heard complaints from officials and call-in listeners on a radio show that Russians fear the United States is trying to surround Russia with allies and in some cases military forces. She told reporters that Russians seemed mired in a "19th-century" view of the world.

Nevertheless, to counter Russian concerns, NATO also moved Thursday to sign a "status of forces" agreement with Russia that would enable it to expand joint military exercises on Russian soil, possibly for future peacekeeping operations in various trouble spots.

There have been a few such joint exercises focusing on dealing with emergencies or humanitarian crises, but American and NATO officials said the new accord would expand the possibilities, making it easier to transport foreign troops across Russian soil to interdict narcotics and arms smuggling from Afghanistan and other places.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, met with NATO foreign ministers here in the capital of Lithuania, itself a onetime state in the Soviet Union but now a NATO member, and he said he was pleased with the Russia-NATO accord.

"The issues were dealt with without extraneous ideology," Lavrov said, though he added a note of displeasure with Rice's meeting with Belarus opposition leaders, saying that Russia did not support "regime change" there.

Rice flew back to Washington on Thursday night, ending her first visit to Russia as secretary of state. Part of her task was to pave the way for President George W. Bush's visit to Moscow next month to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, but that event is also stirring controversy.

Many world leaders are scheduled to join Bush in Russia, but Lithuania, for example, is boycotting on the grounds that the celebration is effectively marking the beginning of Russia's grip on Eastern Europe and the cold war tensions that followed.

The NATO decision on Ukraine was set in motion after the victory of Viktor Yushchenko in the "Orange Revolution" last year. His rise to power came after an uprising that installed a new pro-Western regime in Georgia, and it was followed this year by an uprising in Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet state.

Yushchenko pressed the case for joining NATO in Washington earlier this month when he visited the White House and addressed Congress. Bush backed the request, but this week American officials said that entry would not be easy or rapid. Ukraine used to have one of the largest armies in Europe, but its armed forces have shrunk recently.

"NATO is not just a club," a senior State Department official said. "You've got to be able to contribute."

The official said that before Ukraine could join NATO, it would need to demonstrate that civilian control of the military, and its democracy in general, will last, and that an effective military is not "top heavy" with generals.

The NATO discussions encompassed other issues, including a decision by the alliance to be ready, if asked by the African Union, to transfer forces to Darfur, Sudan, where thousands have died in a civil war and many more have been driven from their homes.

But Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO secretary general, said any troop support would involve "planning and logistical support," and not "boots on the ground."

The United States has tried and failed to broker a Darfur peace agreement and to get adequate relief to the victims of what it has called genocide, but it remains committed to getting more outside forces there.

"We all have a responsibility to do what we can to alleviate suffering in Darfur and to create conditions in which humanitarian aid can get in," Rice said.

In addition, de Hoop Scheffer said there was a discussion - purely hypothetical, he said - about the possibility of eventually sending NATO forces as peacekeepers in other situations, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rice pressed for a broader NATO role, or at least a discussion of such a role. "We intend to use NATO more and more effectively as a trans-Atlantic security forum," she said.

But Foreign Minister Michel Barnier of France warned against turning NATO into "the world's policeman" and taking on too many tasks outside Europe.