Putin 'Not Kidding' On Missile Threat, Yushchenko Warns

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he took seriously Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent threat to target Europe with ballistic missiles, and said such talk has heightened his country's desire to quickly join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

President Viktor Yushchenko says Ukraine must get access to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for its national security.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Yushchenko also complained of Russian interference in his country's turbulent domestic politics.

Despite heated opposition from the Kremlin, the pro-Western politician said he still plans to take his country into NATO and the European Union.

“I think the President of Russia is not kidding,” he said, referring to Mr. Putin's warning last week that Russia could aim its missiles at “new targets in Europe” if the United States pushes ahead with its controversial plans to build an anti-missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Although Mr. Putin has since moved to defuse the standoff by suggesting the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan as a possible location for a joint missile-defence system that would include Russia, Mr. Yushchenko said the new belligerence of Ukraine's larger neighbour demonstrates the need for his country to be swiftly brought under NATO's security umbrella.

“The recent events, I think, show to everyone that we have quite a creaky security balance. This really triggers some concerns and could be really painful.”

“It's becoming more and more apparent that the best response to all the challenges regarding defence and security policy can only be given through a collective system of defence,” he said, sitting in a chandelier-lit meeting room in the country's Soviet-era Presidential Administration building.

He gave the interview one day after meeting Mr. Putin in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

“Our defence and security doctrine is formally determined in law. And a key aspect of this doctrine is to provide Ukraine's accession to the European Union and the North Atlantic bloc.”

As he spoke, young activists from his Our Ukraine party, waving the banners of the Orange Revolution that brought Mr. Yushchenko to office in 2004, handed out pro-NATO pamphlets on one of Kiev's main squares.

Russia, which was furious over NATO's 2004 expansion into the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, has already made it clear that it would view Ukraine's accession with hostility.

Despite repeated assertions that NATO does not view Russia as an enemy, the Kremlin remains suspicious of the military alliance's relentless eastward expansion.

The possibility that Ukraine, which for centuries was part of the Russian and then Soviet empires, might join NATO has been identified as a red line by senior figures in Mr. Putin's administration, which sees the country as an integral part of Russia's “sphere of influence.”

It would threaten the future of Russia's Black Sea fleet, which is stationed at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.

His eyeglasses placed atop a pile of notes on a table frequently used for official meetings with members of rival political factions, Mr. Yushchenko said he was willing to answer any questions Mr. Putin might have about Ukraine's desire to join NATO, but would not change his mind. “This is a policy that is not against somebody. … This is the policy that is most suitable for the security and defence of the nation.”

Ukraine has been pushing to join NATO since the Orange Revolution, an uprising that was motivated in part by a popular desire to break free of centuries of Russian influence over the country.

While the White House has indicated that it supports Ukraine's future membership, progress has been slow since Mr. Yushchenko's arch-rival, the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovich, won control of parliament and assumed the prime minister's post last year.

The continuing feud between the two men has left the country effectively without a government for much of the year.

Alleging that Mr. Yanukovich's allies were attempting to buy control of Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, Mr. Yushchenko dissolved the body in April and called fresh elections, a move Mr. Yanukovich said was unconstitutional.

After weeks of duelling street protests – and a brief tug-of-war over who controlled 40,000 Interior Ministry soldiers – the two called a truce and agreed to hold elections on Sept. 30.

Mr. Yushchenko said Monday that the political crisis was now over, but described the coming elections as crucial for the country's future direction.

The 2004 presidential elections, which triggered the Orange Revolution after official results initially showed Mr. Yanukovich had won, were often portrayed as a struggle over whether Ukraine would face east, toward Russia, or west, toward the EU.

Mr. Yushchenko said Ukrainians now face an equally stark choice between having a true democracy, or preserving the corrupt system that has undermined Ukraine's progress since it became an independent state 16 years ago.

With polls showing Mr. Yanukovich's party currently in the lead, and many Ukrainians disillusioned with the Orange Revolution and its perceived failure to deliver on the promises made three years ago, Mr. Yushchenko gave a robust defence of his record in office thus far.

He described the country's economy as booming, with a doubling of foreign direct investment over the past two years and record low unemployment.

He nonetheless acknowledged that the pro-Western alliance led by himself and his off-again, on-again ally Yulia Tymoshenko had squandered a lot of its political capital through infighting that eventually led Mr. Yushchenko to fire Ms. Tymoshenko from the prime minister's post.

Though allies once more, their spectacular falling out turned off many supporters and cleared the way for Mr. Yanukovich to stage a startling political comeback.

But in the continuing political turmoil, Mr. Yushchenko again saw a Russian hand. “There are some political forces in Russia that want to keep the old political order in Ukraine.

But I emphasize that we are an independent state, a sovereign country. It is us who determine our domestic and foreign policies.”

Source: Globe and Mail