NATO's top diplomat pledged Monday to help Ukraine push through reforms of its oversized armed forces which are needed to help it prepare for membership of the western military alliance, a prospect viewed with concern in Russia. Anxious not to alarm Moscow, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer avoided giving any target date for Ukraine's membership as he opened a meeting between Ukraine's defense minister and his alliance counterparts.
"NATO's door remains open," de Hoop Scheffer said. He stressed that "the pace and success" of Ukraine's integration with the alliance depended on political and military reforms, and said: "NATO will help in every way it can to support this process."
The one-day meeting is the latest in a series of contacts that underline NATO's drive to improve relations with Ukraine since last year's "Orange Revolution," which brought in pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko.
He has made membership in NATO a key goal and wants to start talks next year, a step Ukraine's supporters see as putting the former-Soviet republic on track for inclusion when the alliance decides on its next expansion in 2008.
Before the meeting, Ukraine's Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko said he was confident his government can overcome two major obstacles to NATO membership: the low opinion that many Ukrainians have of NATO and opposition in Moscow.
"I don't see it as a really serious issue," Gritsenko told reporters Sunday in a reference to Russian objections.
He said the Russians have seen that the Baltic states, which joined NATO in 2004 over Moscow's strong objections, do not pose the kind of security threat that the Russians had once feared. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were part of the Soviet Union until it crumbled in 1991.
Gritsenko has tried to allay Russian concerns by saying NATO would not deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine and that Russia's Black Sea Fleet would remain based in the southern Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, where it has permission to stay until at least 2017.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who met separately with Gritsenko on Sunday, praised the Ukrainian government for making strong strides toward reform. "Progress has been made and we encourage it," Rumsfeld said.
Ukraine's NATO ambitions are strongly supported among the 10 former communist nations that have already joined the alliance. "NATO and Ukraine have a common mission, strengthening peace and security inside and outside the Euro-Atlantic area," Lithuania's Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas told the meeting.
However some other allies are more wary about expanding so far eastward into former Soviet territory and insist the government in Kiev must first push through reforms to underpin a fragile democracy, tackle widespread corruption and streamline the outdated Soviet era military apparatus.