Deputies from the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev react after a vote for a bill dropping Ukraine's non-aligned status on Dec. 23. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

In a sign of Ukraine’s hardening attitude toward Russia, Ukrainian lawmakers on Tuesday voted to remove a legal barrier to joining the NATO defense alliance.

The move provoked an angry response from Russia, even though NATO shows few signs of accepting Ukraine as a member anytime soon. But this year’s bloody conflict in Ukraine’s east has altered the country’s feelings about the Western alliance. A plurality of Ukrainians now favor joining NATO, a stark change from recent years when just a small fraction did.

Ukraine’s decision comes as Russia struggles with a weakened ruble and growing concerns about economic instability.

The vote in Ukraine’s parliament had no immediate practical effect on the country’s relationship with NATO. But it ended Ukraine’s nonaligned status, which was adopted as a way of reassuring Russia that its neighbor would not join NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited his fear of Ukraine’s joining NATO as a reason Russia annexed Crimea in March.

The proposal to eliminate nonaligned status passed easily, with 303 of the Ukrainian parliament’s 450 lawmakers in support. After the vote, legislators stood up and applauded.

“Finally, we corrected a mistake. 303 votes and Ukraine’s nonaligned status is out,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “There is no alternative to Euro-Atlantic integration. Glory to Ukraine!”

Russian leaders reacted immediately with harsh denunciations, warning Ukraine and NATO that no good could come of the decision.

“This is counterproductive and only escalates confrontations and creates an illusion that by adopting such laws it might be possible to settle a profound domestic crisis in Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported.

He called for dialogue inside Ukraine, where Russian-supported rebels in the east have waged a war that has claimed more than 4,700 lives.

A day earlier, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned on his Facebook page that “application for membership in NATO would turn Ukraine into a potential military adversary for Russia.”

A NATO spokesman said Tuesday that “we respect the decision” of the Ukrainian parliament. “Our door is open and Ukraine will become a member of NATO if it so requests and fulfills the standards and adheres to the necessary principles,” the spokesman said in a statement.

By those standards, analysts say, NATO membership is years away for Ukraine, if it is ever achieved. Many Western leaders have been cautious about extending security guarantees to Ukraine if that could mean a war with Russia. At a NATO summit in September, alliance leaders committed to strong new measures to support the Baltic nations, which share a border with Russia, but they offered little support for Ukraine.

Fighter jets and helicopters flew over the Sevastopol skies in formation as part of a military show to promote conscription in the Russian army and contract service among Crimea residents. (Reuters)

Ukraine’s decision on Tuesday came the same day that the leaders of four other former Soviet states gathered in Moscow to put the final touches on Putin’s pet foreign policy project, an alliance in which Ukraine was to have been the main player after Russia.

But late last fall, after Putin pressured Viktor Yanukovych, then the Ukrainian president, to join the Eurasian Economic Union instead of signing a deal with the European Union, protesters poured into the streets of Kiev. In February, the Ukrainian parliament ousted him.