NATO's Supporters, Opponents Prepare For Battle In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- When U.S. Marine reservists disembarked in this ex-Soviet republic, they expected a quick and simple mission: installing new showers and toilets at a military training facility, then leaving.

The 200 Americans could hardly have anticipated the anti-NATO blockades and protesters shouting "Occupiers go home!" that greeted them upon arrival.

The angry welcome in the Crimean port of Feodosiya - led by a radical pro-Russian party and the Communists - is widely seen as the opening volley in the battle over Ukraine's bid to join NATO, an issue now forced to the top of the nation's political agenda.

Analysts say President Viktor Yushchenko's opponents – and Moscow - have sensed the government's weakness after its party's humiliating, third-place showing in March parliamentary elections and drawn-out talks to put together a new government. They are seizing the chance to torpedo Kyiv’s hopes to receive a NATO invitation in 2008.

"The war for Ukraine has started," said Hrihoriy Perepelytsya, director of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy. "What is happening in Feodosiya is just a piece of a more powerful anti-NATO campaign ... Clearly, the goal is to discredit Ukraine as a potential NATO candidate."

Yushchenko has made NATO membership a top priority ever since the start of his 2004 presidential election campaign, and has been pushing in the coalition talks for potential partners to commit to that goal.

His supporters argue that if Ukraine doesn't join NATO, Kyiv will inevitably slide back under Moscow's influence or risk being left in an unprotected no man's land between Russia and the West. NATO accession has also been billed as a first step toward the ultimate prize: EU membership, with its considerable economic advantages.

A key test is expected to come Wednesday, when the government tries to win parliamentary permission for foreign troops to be on Ukrainian territory. A victory would allow the Marines, who are biding their time at a Defense Ministry resort, to go ahead with their three-week project to refurbish the Stary Krym facility, which is slated to be used in a mid-July training exercise involving U.S. and other NATO members.

A defeat - or a failure to even get parliament to consider the measure - could force Ukraine to cancel its Sea Breeze exercise and five others, and send the Americans it invited home again. One exercise, involving British troops, was expected to start this weekend.

NATO has said its door is open to this nation of 47 million and appears bewildered by the hostility; the military alliance had been warmly embraced by other former Communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Recent opinion polls have found that only about 20 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership. Many Ukrainians perceive the alliance as a threat and are puzzled over why their country - which, unlike some of its ex-Soviet neighbors, hasn't been torn by separatist conflicts – would willingly join a military alliance that could drag its sons off to war.

Fears persist that giving NATO a foothold here would irreversibly sour relations with Russia and turn Ukraine into an American stooge. Critics also say it would be to expensive to maintain NATO military standards.

"We should be spending our money on improving our own military rather than in taking on any new international obligations," anti-NATO politician Nestor Shufrych told NTN television.

Ukraine, located on the Black Sea and bordering Russia, would certainly be a strategic prize for NATO. NATO members such as the Baltic nations and Poland, who fear a resurgent Moscow, have been the strongest supporters of locking this nation into the Western camp.

NATO has launched 27 information stands across Ukraine, and invited lawmakers, religious leaders and cultural figures - even the 2004 Eurovision contest winner, Ruslana - to NATO headquarters in Brussels for get-acquainted sessions.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has bristled at the prospect of its former Cold War foe arriving at its doorstep. The anti-NATO protests in Crimea have been given prominent coverage on Russian television, which is watched in many Ukrainian homes.

Russian lawmakers have flown in to express their solidarity, with some of Russia's more extremist politicians even floating the idea of pressing for Crimea to be returned to Moscow's control. City and district councils in Crimea, which has a large ethnic Russian population, have declared their regions NATO-free zones.

Crimea is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from where the Americans are waiting.

But NATO supporters note that Yushchenko does have some room to maneuver, particularly if he reaches out to the opposition Party of Regions, which unlike other pro-Russian parties insists it isn't hostile to NATO.

The party, dominant in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south, opposes NATO membership but points out that its leader, Viktor Yanukovych, had initiated efforts to deepen relations with NATO while prime minister.

"If the political course had not been changed and the policy toward deep cooperation with NATO had been continued, we'd have no objections at all," said party member Mykola Azarov, a former acting prime minister.

Source: AP