MOSCOW -- Russia has said it is concerned by joint NATO-Ukraine naval exercises in the Black Sea, saying the leaders of the ex-Soviet state were trying to force their people into NATO membership against their wishes.
Russia, sensitive to NATO expansion toward it borders, has warned of serious consequences if Ukraine and fellow ex-Soviet state Georgia join the military alliance.
The 11th Sea Breeze naval exercises got under way this week. Sixteen countries are taking part in the 12-day exercise during which service personnel take part in a mock peacekeeping operation and mass evacuation of noncombatants.
Russia said the exercises included intelligence work, searches for enemy submarines, and test firing of munitions.
"The character of the exercises, the attempts to present them in an anti-Russian tone, and also the participation of nonregional powers cannot but create questions and a certain concern," Russia's Foreign Ministry said. "Why was the Black Sea chosen to work out the dubious aims of these exercises?"
Ukraine has been engaged in cooperation with NATO since the mid-1990s. Pro-Western leaders, brought to power by 2004 Orange Revolution protests against election fraud have made NATO and European Union membership the cornerstone of foreign policy.
A NATO summit in April turned down Ukraine's bid to secure a "membership action plan" -- a fast track to eventual membership -- but assured Kyiv it would one day join the alliance.
Public opinion remains opposed to joining NATO. Surveys show no more than 30 percent of respondents back membership and Russia objects to any notion of Ukrainian NATO membership on grounds that it would undermine its security interests.
About 150 demonstrators staged a protest this week against the exercises, much smaller than in recent years.
"Mass protests against the exercises reflects the mood of public opinion in Ukraine in relation to the current Ukrainian administration's path towards forcing entry into the alliance," Russia's Foreign Ministry said.