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Bush Visits a Ukraine Deeply Split Over Bid to Join Western Alliance

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

KIEV, Ukraine, March 31 -- The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who camped out on Independence Square here three years ago toppled a pro-Russian government in favor of a Western-oriented coalition that pledged to move this former Soviet republic closer to the rest of Europe.

But by the time President Bush arrived here Monday to hail the emerging democracy and urge the NATO alliance to put Ukraine on the path to membership, the mood on the square had changed. "Yankee Go Home," read one sign. "NATO Hands Off Ukraine," read another. A hand-painted banner unfurled around the square used a four-letter obscenity to describe what both Bush and NATO should do.

Communists are no longer a dominant force in this society, but the thousands flying hammer-and-sickle flags on the square did reflect a broad division in a country situated on the edge of east and west.

Although Bush strongly supports President Viktor Yushchenko's aspirations to join NATO, the Ukrainian public is deeply split over the idea, in the face of Russian opposition. Western European governments, also concerned about Moscow's reaction, are divided.

Bush landed here Monday night and was welcomed with the traditional gift of bread and salt in advance of meetings Tuesday aimed at promoting Ukraine's candidacy. He heads Tuesday evening to Bucharest, Romania, for a three-day NATO summit where the issue will be debated. The alliance is poised to offer membership to Croatia, Albania and Macedonia; Bush wants to offer a map toward membership further down the road for Ukraine and its fellow former Soviet republic Georgia.

"We feel a gap in our security because all of our neighbors, to east and west, are in some sort of security arrangement," Oleksandr Chalyi, a foreign policy adviser to Yushchenko, said in an interview, referring to NATO and Russian-led alliances. "Only we participate in neither. We don't want to return back to the Russian security system." If NATO rebuffs Ukraine, he added, it would mean "the last page of the Cold War is not turned."

Moscow warned again Monday that even negotiations for membership for Ukraine and Georgia would cross a "red line" for Russia. President Vladimir Putin has threatened to target the two countries with nuclear missiles if they join the alliance.

"We are not a source of threats," Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told foreign journalists in a conference call. But "membership to NATO will in no way contribute to stability in the country. To the contrary, it will lead to additional tension."

What Ukraine and Georgia want out of the Bucharest summit are "membership action plans," known as MAPs, that would lead eventually to full status in the alliance. The MAP process can take years -- it took nine years for Albania, for example -- and forces applicants to meet NATO standards for democratic institutions and military capabilities.

Although Canada and nine NATO members in Eastern Europe also support road maps for the two aspirants, Germany and others say they are not ready, especially given Ukraine's internal divisions and Georgia's struggles with two breakaway republics. Because NATO operates by consensus, opposition would nix any move in Bucharest.

Bush still hopes to finesse the issue. "We think it's very, very, very important that Georgia and Ukraine, that we welcome their aspirations to be part of NATO," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters on Air Force One. "And the president has made clear we think the best way to do that is to offer the MAP at Bucharest, and that's what the president is pushing hard for."

Putin plans to go to Bucharest and has sway with European nations that rely on Russian gas and oil. His advisers have suggested Russia would help NATO in Afghanistan by allowing planes to cross Russian airspace if Georgia and Ukraine are not put on the membership path. "We are ready to cooperate," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the newspaper Izvestia. "But we shall speak out firmly against any tendencies that are damaging to our interests."

Ukraine, a country long fractured between its Russian-influenced eastern regions and its European-oriented western areas, remains torn over NATO. A February poll found that 50 percent of Ukrainians oppose membership compared with 24 percent in favor, nearly the reverse of public sentiment before the Orange Revolution of 2004. But proponents take heart from the fact that opposition has fallen by 10 percentage points since last year.

"We're leading the protest to demonstrate to the world and to Ukraine that not everybody is happy about the idea of joining NATO," said Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, a former parliament speaker. "The NATO issue creates a big problem for us with Russia. That's the main worry."

Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow contributed to this report.

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