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Ukraine: Bush Backs Kyiv's NATO Bid Ahead Of Summit

Bush and Yushchenko at talks in Kyiv (AFP) As NATO prepares to debate putting Ukraine and Georgia on track for membership, U.S. President George W. Bush has reiterated his support for Ukraine's efforts to join the alliance.

Bush was greeted with full honors in Kyiv on April 1 before launching talks with Ukraine's pro-Western leaders, who pressed their bid for NATO membership.

Bush arrived in the Ukrainian capital late on March 31. The visit, his first to Ukraine, marks the start of a tour that will take him to the NATO summit on April 2-4 in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, then on to Croatia, and finally Russia for talks with outgoing President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking at a news conference following talks with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Bush said his country was ready to extend a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine -- a step on the path to eventual NATO membership.

"We support MAP for Ukraine and Georgia," Bush said. "Helping Ukraine move toward NATO membership is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world."

The U.S. president praised Ukraine's democratic and military reforms, adding that Ukraine was "the only non-NATO nation supporting every NATO mission." Ukraine has sent troops to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq.

Like their Georgian counterparts, Ukrainian leaders are hoping that NATO members will grant their country a MAP at the Bucharest summit later this week. Yushchenko today voiced confidence that the summit would advance Ukraine's efforts to integrate NATO.

Kyiv's NATO bid, however, faces a number of hurdles -- chiefly, strong opposition within Ukraine itself. Opinion polls show that only 30 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership.

At the press conference with Bush, Yushchenko sought to play down this division, describing the anti-NATO rallies being staged in central Kyiv as "absolutely natural."

"I think it is only natural that there are forces in Ukrainian society that don't share this thought, and it is absolutely natural that several hundred people are rallying under red flags [against NATO] today," Yushchenko said.

Another key obstacle on Ukraine's road to NATO is Russia, which fiercely opposes the alliance's eastward expansion. Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev recently warned that NATO would be crossing a "red line" by inviting Ukraine and Georgia to join its ranks.

Germany and France have spoken out against offering the two countries MAPs. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced that France will not support the two countries' bids to become NATO members, saying this would disrupt the "balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia."

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