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Ukraine Forms Group To Improve Ties With Russia

President Viktor Yushchenko
KYIV (Reuters) -- Ukraine's president has formed a "strategic group" to improve relations with Russia, a top official has said, after four years of strains under the ex-Soviet state's pro-Western leaders.

President Viktor Yushchenko, swept to power by 2004 Orange Revolution rallies, has irritated the Kremlin by ignoring its objections and pressing ahead with a bid to join NATO.

The group's creation coincided with a meeting in Brussels of NATO foreign ministers considering a deepening of the alliance's relations with Ukraine but almost certain not to put Kyiv on a fast track to membership.

It also emerged a little more than a year before a presidential election in which Yushchenko may run along with his ally-turned-rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

"This strategic group will work out a mechanism for a dialogue of constant action," Raisa Bogatyryova, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, told reporters. "We have many controversial issues, many issues which politicians are uncomfortable with."

Issues bedeviling ties include Ukraine's support for Georgia against Russia in their brief conflict in August, rows over gas supplies, different interpretations of Soviet-era history, and Kyiv's call for Russia's Black Sea fleet to quit Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2017.

Yushchenko has called on NATO to offer Ukraine a Membership Action Plan, a first step before joining the alliance, despite fierce opposition from Moscow.

The president has repeatedly accused Tymoshenko and her government of undermining policy on Russia -- particularly by being less vocal in its support of Georgia.

Some officials close to the president have accused Tymoshenko of trying to curry favor with the Kremlin in order to secure backing of some sort in the presidential race.