Bush supports countries for NATO despite Russian objections
By Matthew Lee
KIEV, Ukraine — President Bush is putting all his weight behind Ukraine and Georgia’s desire to join NATO, even though Russia is saying "nyet" and the alliance is split.
Bush vowed full support for the bids Tuesday despite vehement Russian opposition and French and German objections to allowing the former Soviet states to begin the NATO admission process.
His strong stance sets up a showdown in the trans-Atlantic military alliance, whose leaders will decide this week whether to give Ukraine and Georgia so-called "membership action plans."
It may further complicate U.S.-Russia ties already strained by Moscow’s intense resistance to Washington’s plans to set up missile defenses in Europe.
But Bush said Russia would not have a veto on what other countries do. He rejected any trade-off between missile defense and NATO membership, and pledged to work "as hard as I can" to open NATO’s doors to Ukraine and Georgia, saying both are ready and worthy to be welcomed.
"Your nation has made a bold decision and the United States strongly supports your request," he told Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev, two days before the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.
"In Bucharest this week, I will continue to make America’s position clear: We support MAP for Ukraine and Georgia," he said after talks with Yushchenko. "My stop here should be a clear signal to everybody that I mean what I say: It’s in our interest for Ukraine to join."
A membership action plan, or MAP, outlines what a country needs to do to win an invitation for full NATO membership. Russia is opposed to Ukraine and Georgia even starting the process, fearing a further loss of influence in two more of its Soviet-era Warsaw Pact neighbors.
Nine former Soviet bloc countries are already NATO members and a senior Russian diplomat warned Tuesday that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would cause a "deep crisis" in relations with Moscow.
Meanwhile, France and Germany say Ukraine and Georgia are not ready to begin the process. They fear upsetting Russia, which is a major supplier of energy to Europe.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday that his country would not support the membership action plans because it would upset the balance of power between Europe and Russia.
"France will not give its green light to the entry of Ukraine and Georgia," he told France-Inter radio. "We are opposed to Georgia and Ukraine’s entry because we think that it is not the correct response to the balance of power in Europe, and between Europe and Russia."
NATO operates by consensus, meaning that all decisions must be unanimous among its 26 members. Fillon’s comments appeared to quash Ukrainian and Georgian hopes.
But Bush said he had been assured by all his NATO counterparts that "Russia will not have a veto over what happens in Bucharest. I take their word for it."
"I wouldn’t prejudge the outcome just yet, the vote will be taken in Bucharest," the president said.
He praised Ukraine’s democratic and military reforms, and noted that Ukraine "is the only non-NATO nation supporting every NATO mission." Ukraine has sent troops to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq.
Pro-western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he was optimistic his country would get the nod from NATO and discounted opposition from some in Ukraine to moving to join the alliance.
"I am sure that we will receive a positive signal in Bucharest and that’s the spirit that we are going there with," he said, sitting beside Bush at a news conference in a narrow room with a high ceiling decorated with ornate molding.
Ukraine has showcased its best side for Bush’s visit. A formal welcoming ceremony for Bush featured the playing of national anthems and a parade of high-stepping military men in long, belted dress coats with fur collars.
Ukraine had long flirted with joining the alliance, but it started taking real steps toward meeting the alliance’s military and political standards only after Yushchenko became president in the wake of 2004 street protests, called the Orange Revolution.
Since then, Ukraine has gained a vibrant opposition, a robust media and has held a series of clean elections. It has also set out to modernize its Soviet-style military so that it meets NATO standards.
Remaining problems, however, range from rampant corruption to constant political turmoil, which has caused a stream of government shake-ups and early elections over the past years.
Bush, who will meet Sunday with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, said it was a "misperception" that the United States might soften its push to get Ukraine and Georgia into NATO if Russia backs off opposition to the shield.
"There’s no trade-offs. Period," Bush said.
White House officials have expressed some optimism that the two leaders could reach a deal on the bitter missile defense dispute.
Bush repeated his stance that the missile-defense plan is meant to counter a threat from a rogue Middle East nation and poses no threat to Russia. Still, Putin has heard that many times before and remains wary.
For months, Putin has stepped up anti-American rhetoric, demanding that the U.S. abandon the plan to base missiles in Poland and a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic. Both are former Soviet satellites.
Putin complains it would upset the balance of power and was aimed at weakening Russia, charges the United States has denied repeatedly.