Ukraine president defies Russia in bid to join NATO

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko vowed on Wednesday his country would be undeterred in its bid for NATO membership despite Russian opposition.

Yushchenko reaffirmed his pro-Western government’s NATO aspirations in a speech to the United Nations just weeks after Russia’s military incursion in Georgia sparked international condemnation and stirred concerns in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

“Ukraine rejects pressure of any kind regarding ways to ensure its own security and to determine membership in collective security structures,” he told the annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders. “Such attempts of infringement are short-sighted and counterproductive.”

Yushchenko was referring to U.S.-backed efforts by Ukraine, along with Georgia, to join NATO, a drive that has incensed Moscow. He did not specifically name Russia.

NATO leaders at their April summit stopped short of putting Ukraine and Georgia immediately on the path to membership in the alliance but pledged the two ex-Soviet states would one day become members.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war last month after Tbilisi sent in troops to try to seize back the rebel region of South Ossetia, drawing massive retaliation by Moscow and sending U.S.-Russia relations to a post-Cold War low.

The Kremlin’s decision to deploy forces in defense of pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia also rattled nerves in Ukraine, which accuses Russia of stoking tensions in Crimea, a region populated mainly by ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers.

Yushchenko reiterated Ukraine’s support for Georgian “territorial integrity” and opposition to independence for South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognized.

“Ukraine … condemns the endeavor of the illegitimate and separatist affirmation of the statehood of any territories,” he said. “These processes create the potential threat both for the Ukrainian nationality and other countries of our region.”

While the United States has supported both Georgia and Ukraine’s membership bids, allies including Germany, France and smaller NATO states have opposed it for fear of further provoking Russia.

Divisions over policy toward Russia contributed to the collapse last week of Ukraine’s governing coalition, raising the prospect of a third parliamentary election in as many years.

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