February 3, 2006

In shadow of Russia, Ukraine steps up NATO drive

By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent

BERLIN (Reuters) - Ukraine is pushing for an invitation to
join NATO within two years, despite tense relations with Moscow
and the presence of a major Russian naval base on its
territory, a senior official said on Friday.

"We would like to receive the invitation to NATO
membership, let's say in 2008. That would require from us very
hard work," Deputy Foreign Minister Anton Buteiko told Reuters.

He was speaking in Berlin after meeting German officials
where he handed over a personal letter from President Viktor
Yushchenko to Chancellor Angela Merkel, part of a concerted
Ukrainian drive for progress on NATO entry.

Buteiko said Ukraine was urging NATO to present it with a
"membership action plan" at a meeting in the Bulgarian capital
Sofia in April which would set out targets on strengthening
democracy and modernizing its armed forces.

"We consider the process of preparation for membership as
the most effective stimulus for transformation of Ukraine,"
Buteiko said in an interview.

NATO has already expanded to include former Warsaw Pact
East European nations and the three ex-Soviet Baltic states,
ignoring Russian objections. Admitting Ukraine, which has even
closer historic ties to Moscow, would be a further blow to

Buteiko acknowledged there were "conservative elements" in
Russia which opposed NATO membership for Ukraine, but said
Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin had pledged to respect his
country's sovereignty.

Tense relations between the two Slav neighbors were further
strained this month in a row over gas pricing. It saw Russia
briefly cut off supplies and triggered a political crisis, with
Ukraine's parliament voting to sack the government.


Buteiko said another bone of contention -- the leasing of
Ukraine's port of Sevastopol by the Russian Black Sea fleet --
should not get in the way of NATO membership. Under a 1997
deal, Russia rents the Crimean base from Ukraine until 2017.

"We expect that Ukraine can join NATO much earlier than
those commitments (to Russia) expire. From our point of view,
it's not a problem," said Buteiko, noting that Russia itself
has good relations with NATO.

Ukraine's Yushchenko hinted during the gas row that Kiev
could retaliate by reconsidering the terms of the Sevastopol
lease. Moscow responded by saying this could rekindle a
territorial dispute and warning of "fatal" consequences.

Buteiko said Ukraine would meet its obligations. But he
drew an unusual comparison between the $98 million annual cost
of the lease and the $56 million transfer fee that Real Madrid
paid for Portuguese soccer star Luis Figo in 2000, citing this
as evidence that Ukraine was giving Russia highly favorable

"Half of Crimea is rented for a price less than two
football players," said Buteiko, the second official in two
days to visit Berlin to lobby for NATO membership on behalf of
a former Soviet republic.

On Thursday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said
joining the alliance was key to solving his country's
territorial disputes with Russia, and told NATO it should not
let itself be "scared away."