Bush to Talk Up NATO on Kiev Visit

ReutersCommunist supporters protesting President Bush's visit on Monday in Kiev.
KIEV -- U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Ukraine will bolster its chances of starting the process toward NATO membership, U.S. Ambassador William Taylor said Monday.

Bush was expected to arrive in Kiev late Monday for a two-day visit aimed at showing U.S. support for granting Ukraine a roadmap to joining the alliance.

After Kiev, Bush travels to Bucharest, Romania, for a NATO summit that is turning into a critical test for the alliance, which is split on the issue of Ukraine and Georgia.

Ukrainians are also split on the prospect of joining NATO. Hours before Bush was to arrive, several thousand protesters rallied outside the U.S. Embassy, shouting, "Yankee, go home" and burning his effigy.

The United States, Canada and East European members back the two ex-Soviet republics. Germany is leading West European opposition and warns that granting the membership plan would torpedo hopes of improving relations with Russia, which fiercely opposes NATO's further eastward expansion and has been lobbying NATO members.

Taylor told reporters that during his visit, Bush would seek to convince skeptics in the alliance that Ukraine deserves an initial welcome.

"Strong statements coming from the leadership, the government of Ukraine are very useful in that regard," Taylor said.

"President Bush is also eager to talk himself with these leaders and with other people in this city so that he can go to Bucharest with even stronger arguments," he said.

Moscow has threatened to target nuclear weapons at Ukraine if it joins NATO. Moscow also has warned that it could recognize two Georgian breakaway provinces -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- if Georgia is given membership.

"The sharpest problems are Georgia and Ukraine. They are being impudently drawn into NATO. Even though, as is known, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are against this, and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia they won't even hear of it," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published Monday in Izvestia.

"We honestly say that this cannot but have consequences, first of all in geopolitics but also economically," he said.

Meanwhile, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia -- a strong U.S. ally visited by Bush in 2005 -- again made his case for joining NATO. In an interview published Monday in Kommersant, he said bowing to Moscow's threats would further destabilize the Caucasus.

"All these statements aren't just words after all, it's playing with fire," Saakashvili was quoted as saying. "In the Caucasus there isn't much distance between statements and automatic weapons and mortar fire. You have to remember this."

Even as he pushes for NATO membership, Saakashvili has struggled to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under government control. Their autonomy is supported by Russia, which has drawn parallels between their status and that of Kosovo.

In the interview, Saakashvili also said that, during his most recent meeting with President Vladimir Putin, "it was clearly promised to me that Russia would never recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in a conference call with journalists, declined to say whether such a promise had been made, but said, "President Putin has stated numerous times that he stands for the territorial integrity of Georgia."

Asked whether alliance membership for Georgia and Ukraine would undermine the NATO-Russia Council, to which Putin is to speak the day after the summit, Peskov said, "Let's not speak of any red lines."

Russia also has offered more cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan in exchange for shutting Georgia and Ukraine out of the alliance.

Taylor condemned that offer, saying the two matters are unrelated.

"It is impossible to compare or bargain about the sovereignty and independence of a country -- no linkage between that and some logistical benefits having to do with Afghanistan," Taylor said.