Ukraine Secretly Ramps Up Ties With NATO: Report

Ukraine can be an important asset for NATO with its strategic location near Russia and the Balkans.

Ukraine is ramping up cooperation with NATO, dealing a blow to Moscow’s hopes that its neighbor would align itself more closely to Russia under President Viktor Yanukovych, a report said Tuesday.

The Kommersant Ukraine daily newspaper, citing a secret document on Ukraine’s program with NATO for 2011, said Yanukovych sought closer ties with the bloc even more earnestly than his openly pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.

The dramatic turnabout in Kiev’s foreign policy comes despite Ukraine last year cementing in law its non-aligned status, and amid disappointment over terms and conditions of rapprochement with the Kremlin, the paper said.

The confidential document approved earlier this year includes a schedule of 64 bilateral events, the newspaper said, adding that the two sides were set to discuss such sensitive issues as Ukraine’s energy security, missile defense, and the future of Russia’s Black Sea fleet based in Crimea.

Two meetings scheduled for this month are set to address basic principles and strategy of Ukraine’s foreign policy.

Asked about the report June 21, Yanukovych said that Ukraine remains a neutral country. The Ukrainian president is visiting Strasbourg, France, the home of the European Parliament.

“Our position remains unchanged: We have been and remain a non-aligned country, just as is dictated by our law,” Yanukovych said in comments released by his office.

He added that Ukraine “has not and does not plan” to take any part in the new NATO missile defense shield for Europe, which Russia fears is aimed at its own defenses.

Yanukovych has worked hard to improve relations between Moscow and Kiev since defeating the leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in presidential elections last year.

Soon afterward, he signed a landmark deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to keep Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea at least until 2042, in exchange for a 30 percent discount on Russian gas exports to its neighbor.

But over the past few months, Kiev has grown disillusioned with the prospects of closer ties with Moscow, which it says has tried to strong-arm Ukraine into joining a Russian-led customs union and threatened it with sanctions, the newspaper said.

“Moscow wants us to be in its orbit and pay for that, too,” a high-ranking source in the Ukrainian government told Kommersant. “It’s not us who are pulling away from Russia. It is pushing us away.”

Earlier this month, Russia protested the arrival in the Black Sea of a U.S. Navy cruiser equipped with a ballistic missile defense system. The ship will take part in naval exercises with Ukraine, but Russia said it is a threat to its national security.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry shot back, saying the exercises did not present any “real or potential threat” for the countries of the Black Sea region.