Kiev Says It's Ready for NATO

KIEV -- Ukraine said it was ready to take the next step toward NATO membership, the president's office said Wednesday, after more than a year of stalled relations.

President Viktor Yushchenko has made joining NATO a long-term priority, but relations with the alliance cooled after Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych became prime minister in 2006 and said the country opposed entry.

Current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who replaced Yanukovych late last year, joined the president and parliament Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk in writing a letter to NATO asking it to accept Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan, a step toward accession. The letter was published by the president's office.

"It is the president's opinion that we have entered a moment of truth in our relations with NATO," top presidential foreign policy aide Oleksander Chaly told journalists Wednesday. "We clearly declare ... that we are ready to fulfill all the obligations that the country accepts to join the action plan."

Ukraine hopes to receive an answer from NATO at a summit in Bucharest in April, the letter said.

NATO was set up early in the Cold War to counter the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact, and many people in former Soviet states are suspicious of the alliance.

Ukrainians are split. In the west of the country, those who despised Moscow's control during the Soviet era embraced the idea of NATO, while millions of Russian speakers living in the east and south share Moscow's distrust.

The letter acknowledges the divide, saying extra cash had been allocated this year for an information campaign. Visiting U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also urged a public debate on NATO entry.

During a political crisis in 2006 that resulted in Yanukovych forming his government, the president and prime minister agreed that NATO membership must be put to a referendum. Tymoshenko, who was present during the crisis talks and has long been noncommittal about NATO, never signed the agreement.