NATO's doors will remain open for Ukraine if the former Soviet republic undertakes a set of defense, political and economic reforms, the alliance's secretary general said Wednesday. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stopped short, however, of giving a timeline for Ukraine's entry into the alliance.
"I cannot talk ... about weeks, months or years," de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk and Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko.
After coming to power in January, President Viktor Yushchenko made membership in both NATO and the European Union key goals for Ukraine.
Recently, Yushchenko has said that talks on possible NATO membership could begin next year, and many analysts have predicted that the country could receive an invitation during NATO's 2008 summit. Top Ukrainian defense officials have suggested it would take Ukraine three years to meet NATO's requirements.
The Western alliance has said that Ukraine must first reduce and modernize its bloated military, prove its democratic credentials and fight corruption. De Hoop Scheffer has also said that the next year's "free and fair parliamentary vote will be considered a milestone."
"Reforms are essential, and they have to be done," he said.
NATO has stepped up cooperation with Ukraine since last year's Orange Revolution, and de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance was ready to assist Ukraine "wherever and whenever necessary" to implement the reforms.
Gritsenko said Ukraine would continue its role in NATO peacekeeping efforts and would extend the mandate for its battalion in Serbia's southern province of Kosovo.
He also said Ukraine was ready to offer its transport planes for ferrying NATO troops to peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Sudan.
De Hoop Scheffer was to meet later with Yushchenko and participate in a meeting of Ukraine's top security body, the National Security and Defense Council.
Anatoly Kinakh, the council's head, said the meeting would feature discussion on adjusting Ukrainian laws to meet NATO and EU standards.
Opinion polls indicate that many Ukrainians, particularly in Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, remain suspicious of NATO, their old Cold War foe.