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Yushchenko And Bush Meet On NATO, Bilateral Ties

Presidents Yushchenko (left) and Bush at their White House meeting
WASHINGTON (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has met with U.S. counterpart George W. Bush to discuss Ukraine's possible path to NATO against a backdrop of a resurgent Russia that has been eager to assert its interests regarding fledgling democracies in its former sphere of influence.

Ukraine's political leadership has pressed its desire to join the 26-member Euro-Atlantic alliance despite persistent public opposition to NATO membership.

Russia's invasion of nearby Georgia in August over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia demonstrated Moscow's willingness to employ its military to project influence in the region.

In Washington, since Russian troops and tanks moved into Georgia in early August, a common fear expressed in Congressional committee meetings and at policy think tanks is that Ukraine could be the next country to see its territorial sovereignty challenged by Russia.

So Yushchenko's meeting with Bush on September 29 came with both capitals seeking to strengthen bilateral ties and, in the process, present Moscow with a united front as partners.

After a meeting that lasted about an hour, Bush praised Yushchenko's commitment to democracy and pledged continuing U.S. support.

"I admire your steadfast support for democratic values and principles," Bush said. "A lot of Americans have watched with amazement how your country became a democracy. We strongly support your democracy, we look forward to working with you to strengthen that democracy."

Yushchenko said he and Bush held a "constructive" discussion on a range of issues, including NATO membership, energy security, and security issues, with what he said was "special attention paid toward Ukraine's integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures."

He also discussed Ukraine's domestic political turmoil with Bush. Two weeks ago, the ruling coalition made up of groups headed by Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenka collapsed. If they cannot agree to a new deal in the next several weeks, Yushchenko can call an early election.

Yushchenko said he assured Bush that Ukraine is strong enough democratically to survive "any crisis" in the country's parliament.

For his part, Bush said the two men talked about "ways that [they] can work together to bring stability and peace" to parts of the world he did not specify.

With thousands of its soldiers still on Georgian territory, Russia insists that Georgian membership of NATO would be unacceptable. Moscow has grown increasingly agitated by the mounting number of its former allies who are turning toward Europe and the United States.

Before meeting with Bush, Yushchenko told an audience at Washington's National Press Club that Ukraine's goal of joining NATO does not pose a threat to Russia, and suggested that Moscow is angry at being thwarted in its drive to reestablish its old sphere of influence.

"Ukraine's membership in a collective security system does not pose any risks to anyone," Yushchenko said. "Certainly, in this context, this [criticism of Ukraine's NATO aspirations] is only about geopolitics and privileged zones of influence, of which Ukraine, as a sovereign state, surely does not want to be a part."

Ukraine's territorial integrity, he added, is "unambiguous" and "upheld by international treaties and statutes." Membership of NATO is the best way to protect that, he said.

"The guarantee of our territorial integrity is no longer a matter of our law alone, but it is already a matter upheld by international treaties and statutes," Yushchenko said. "We consider NATO membership as the highest international guarantee of our territorial integrity, security, and the inviolability of Ukraine's borders."

Since Russia moved against Georgia, concerns have also risen over Ukraine's Crimea region, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet naval base at Sevastopol. The region is home to a large ethnic-Russian population, and in recent weeks, Moscow has increased its efforts to issue passports to residents it considers Russian.

Yushchenko acknowledged that there are complicated issues surrounding's Russia's lease on the naval port, which runs through 2017. But he dismissed the suggestion that the Crimea might become another South Ossetia.

"Of course, there are aspects that complicate public and political life [in the Crimea]," Yushchenko said. "But I would not talk about any circumstances today that indicate a problem whether this territory belongs to Ukraine or not. For us, there is no such problem. It is an inalienable, integral part of Ukrainian territory."

Before his meeting with Yushchenko, Bush had met with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus. Lithuania, along with its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia, is already a member of NATO.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Bush reaffirmed the commitment in the alliance's treaty that says an armed attack on one member constitutes an attack on the entire group, which the members are pledged to defend against.

"When the United States makes a commitment," Bush said, "we mean it."