By MARA D. BELLABY
The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 6, 2006; 1:02 PM
KIEV, Ukraine -- When 200 U.S. Marines came to this former Soviet republic last week, they expected a simple mission: install showers and toilets at a Ukrainian military base, then leave.
But the 200 reservists were greeted by protesters led by a radical pro-Russian party and communists shouting "Occupiers go home!" _ a welcome widely seen as the opening volley in a battle over Ukraine's bid to join NATO.
President Viktor Yushchenko's political opponents _ and Moscow _ are energized by his party's humiliating, third-place finish in March parliamentary elections and the ensuing talks that are struggling to put together a new governing coalition.
The foes sense the government has been weakened and see this as their chance to torpedo hopes of pro-Western Ukrainians to get a NATO membership invitation in 2008.
"The war for Ukraine has started," said Hrihoriy Perepelytsya, director of the Foreign Policy Institute of the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy. "... Clearly, the goal is to discredit Ukraine as a potential NATO candidate."
Yushchenko has made NATO membership a top priority since his 2004 presidential campaign and has been pushing in the coalition talks for potential partners to commit to that goal.
His supporters argue that without joining NATO, Ukraine will slide back under the Kremlin's influence to avoid being left in a no man's land between Russia and the West. Membership also is held up as the first step toward the ultimate prize: membership in the European Union.
A key test is expected Wednesday, when the government tries to win parliamentary permission for foreign troops to be on Ukrainian territory as part of training exercises.
Approval would allow the Marines, who have been relaxing at a Defense Ministry resort, to go ahead with the three-week refurbishment at the Stary Krym base, which is slated to be used in a mid-July training exercise involving U.S. and other NATO troops.
A defeat _ or a failure to even get parliament to consider the measure _ could force the government to postpone or even cancel the maneuvers and five others, and possibly send the Marines home. One exercise, involving British troops, is planned for this weekend.
"We cannot speak about common European values without also talking about the concept of a common defense," Yushchenko said Tuesday.
NATO has said its door is open to this nation of 47 million people and its leaders are perplexed by the hostility. The alliance has been warmly embraced by other former Soviet bloc countries in eastern Europe, many of which fear a resurgent Moscow.
Opinion polls say only about 20 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership. Many in the country, which hasn't seen separatist conflict like some former Soviet states, don't see a need to join an alliance that could drag their sons off to war. There are also worries that giving NATO a foothold would irreversibly sour relations with Russia.
"We should be spending our money on improving our own military rather than in taking on any new international obligations," anti-NATO politician Nestor Shufrych told NTN television.
The Kremlin bristles at the prospect of its former Cold War foe further expanding along its border.
The anti-NATO protests have been given prominent coverage on Russian television, which is watched in many Ukrainian homes. Russian lawmakers have flown in to express solidarity, and some more extreme Russians have floated the idea of returning Crimea to Moscow's control.
Ukrainian opposition is particularly strong on the Crimean Peninsula, which is home to many ethnic Russians and also hosts Russia's Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. The regional parliament declared Crimea a "NATO free zone" Tuesday, a move Yushchenko derided as meaningless
NATO supporters insist Yushchenko has room to maneuver, particularly if he reaches out to the opposition Party of Regions, which unlike other pro-Russian blocs says it isn't hostile to NATO.
The party, dominant in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south, opposes NATO membership, yet it points out that its leader, Viktor Yanukovych, initiated efforts to deepen relations with the alliance while prime minister.
"If the political course had not been changed and the policy toward deep cooperation with NATO had been continued, we'd have no objections at all," said party member Mykola Azarov, a former acting prime minister.