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NATO Ministers Seek To Keep Door Open To Ukraine, Georgia

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (right) with Georgian Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze in Krakow.
(RFE/RL) -- Talks by NATO defense ministers at an informal gathering in Poland have focused on ways to keep alive the membership hopes of two former Soviet republics -- Ukraine and Georgia.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Yury Yekhanurov, speaking to reporters in Krakow, pleaded for NATO to keep its door open to new members.

"We feel that it is extremely important for all of us that we maintain the principle of NATO's open door, which gives each separate country not only a chance to guarantee its security within the network of the collective security system but -- what is even more important -- divide mutual responsibility for its formation and guarantee," Yekhanurov said.

Today’s talks included meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission. The commissions include defense ministers from NATO’s 26 members, as well as their counterparts from Kyiv and Tbilisi.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speaking before talks at the NATO-Ukraine Commission, addressed Kyiv’s bid to join NATO.

"We have today a timely opportunity to review Ukraine's defense and security sector reform efforts and consider ways in which the alliance can continue to support its preparations for NATO membership," de Hoop Scheffer said.

"NATO remains ready to assist Ukraine in undertaking comprehensive reforms in its defense and security structures. We are determined to continue to develop this strategic partnership," he added.

Aftermath Of August War

During talks at the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgian officials and NATO defense ministers discussed the aftermath of the war last August between Georgia and Russia. Those talks also focused on NATO's recovery assistance to Georgia, as well as on the issue of Russian military bases on Georgian territory.

It is crystal clear that we do not agree with Russia there. We fundamentally disagree. Does that mean that this measured reengagement with Russia should stop for that reason?
In the face of Russian opposition to membership for Kyiv and Tbilisi, NATO so far has held back on offering the two countries formal invitations to join the alliance. Moscow sees NATO’s eastward expansion as an encroachment in what it considers its historic sphere of influence.

However, NATO has offered to increase military and political cooperation to help both Kyiv and Tbilisi achieve their goal of eventual membership.

De Hoop Scheffer noted that Russia and NATO continue to be at odds over issues linked to the war between Georgia and Russia. But de Hoop Scheffer says those differences will not stop NATO from continuing to meet with Russian officials under the auspices of the NATO-Russia Council.

"We've seen the recognition [by Moscow] of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We see the intention of establishing [Russian] bases there. We still have the problems of the access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- part of Georgia, by the way. Let me reiterate those principles. And it is crystal clear that we do not agree with Russia there. We fundamentally disagree," de Hoop Scheffer said.

"We have a continuing security relationship with Georgia," U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in Krakow.
"Does that mean that this measured reengagement with Russia should stop for that reason? There my answer is, 'No it should not.' Because we should use the NATO-Russia Council not only as a fair weather institution, but also to discuss these things where we fundamentally disagree," he added.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told journalists that more work needs to be done to overcome divisions within Ukraine over its NATO membership bid.

"There needs to be greater unanimity of view in the Ukrainian government itself about the next steps, not to mention the resources for modernization of Ukraine's military," Gates said.

'Ongoing Relationship'

Gates also said both the United States and NATO would continue to expand cooperation with Georgia, despite opposition from Moscow.

"We have a continuing security relationship with Georgia. We are involved in training. We are involved in military reform in Georgia," Gates said. "So this is an ongoing relationship. And it is a relationship that we are pursuing both bilaterally and within the framework of our NATO allies."

However, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung expressed skepticism that Ukraine and Georgia are ready to join NATO. He said he does not see conditions in either country that would justify the launching of NATO Membership Action Plans, formal paths toward inclusion in the alliance.

NATO defense ministers also discussed the issue of reforming the alliance.

NATO has faced criticism that it could be losing its relevance in a world that is vastly different from the post-World War II and Cold War reality when it was created 60 years ago. De Hoop Scheffer has been calling for a new "strategic concept" that would help NATO face 21st-century threats of terrorism, climate change, and cyberattacks.

The NATO gathering is considered an unofficial meeting. That allows the ministers to gather behind closed doors and craft the agenda for an upcoming summit of NATO heads of state.

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