Bush Pressing NATO to Set Membership Path for Ukraine, Georgia

President Bush met with Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko to expres the "full support" of the United States for the Ukraine's push toward joining NATO. Video by AP
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

BUCHAREST, Romania, April 1 -- President Bush challenged NATO on Tuesday to expand its frontiers deep into the heart of what was once the Soviet Union, daring European allies to defy Kremlin saber-rattling and provoking a debate within an organization still trying to define its post-Cold War mission.

Arriving here for his final NATO summit as president, Bush framed the emerging battle over eventual membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia as a defining test for Europe and a vital step in building a new security framework. Although Russia has threatened to target both nations with nuclear missiles if they join, Bush said Moscow "will not have a veto" over NATO's decisions.

The president's tough stance during a stop in Ukraine and in excerpts of a speech he plans to give here Wednesday morning signaled that he has decided to risk an open confrontation with Germany and France, which oppose putting the two young democracies on a path to membership. Rather than finesse the issue and craft a face-saving compromise, aides said, Bush will accept nothing less than membership road maps for the two former Soviet republics even if it ruptures the summit.

"These two nations inspired the world with their Rose and Orange revolutions," he said in the speech excerpts, referring to democratic uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine. "And now they are working to consolidate their democratic gains and cement their independence. Welcoming them into the membership action plan would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path of democracy and reform they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe."

During an earlier stop in Kiev, where he met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Bush promised "to work as hard as I can" for the two countries and rejected Russian suggestions for a deal. "There's no trade-offs, period," he said, adding, "As every nation has told me, Russia will not have a veto over what happens in Bucharest, and I take their word for it."

The situation left the president in the rare position of heading into a summit where the outcome has not been negotiated in advance, and the U.S. delegation was bracing for a tense showdown. With time dwindling before the summit officially opens Wednesday, Bush aides said U.S. diplomats were still trying to persuade skeptical Europeans to go along, but were uncertain they would succeed.

"France will not give its green light to the entry of Ukraine and Georgia," French Prime Minister Fran┬┐ois Fillon told French radio. "We are opposed to Georgia and Ukraine's entry because we think that it is not the correct response to the balance of power in Europe, and between Europe and Russia."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said: "The last time we checked, Russia didn't get a vote. And this is a NATO discussion, a NATO exercise, and it will be a NATO decision."

But the issue is highly sensitive for the Kremlin. Over the past decade, NATO first admitted several former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and then six years ago gave membership to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991.

Yushchenko, the Western-oriented banker who was elected president after leading the Orange Revolution that toppled a pro-Russian government in late 2004, stressed that Ukraine needs NATO to ensure its final break from Moscow.

"For the last 80 years, Ukraine has declared its independence six times, and five times it failed," he said at Bush's side. But he added that NATO membership for Ukraine should not be viewed as a threat to Moscow. "This is not a policy against somebody. We are taking care of our national interest."

NATO is poised to offer membership to the Balkan states of Croatia, Albania and Macedonia. Ukraine and Georgia are seeking what are known as membership action plans, or MAPs, that require them over a period of years to upgrade their militaries and fortify democratic institutions before seeking admission. The question has split NATO down the middle, with nine East European members siding with Bush.

For Bush, it may be a last chance to cement an example of progress in his ambition of spreading democracy. "The political driver is Bush's freedom agenda," said Carlos Pascual, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now a vice president at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There have not been many success stories. Ukraine may be as good as it gets. Georgia comes along for the ride."

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