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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO to Give Kiev a Hand With Reforms

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- NATO pledged Monday to help Ukraine push through military reforms seen as essential to prepare the country for membership in the Western alliance -- a prospect viewed with concern by Russia.

The alliance, anxious not to alarm Moscow, dodged questions at a meeting of defense ministers about whether Ukraine might be included in 2008, when NATO is expected to take in new members from the Balkans.

"NATO reaffirmed its open-door policy and intends to offer maximum help in the implementation of the necessary reforms" to Ukraine's oversized armed forces, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. "A timetable, I can't give you."

Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko said he had won over NATO allies to the cause of Ukraine's membership, which he said could not be stopped, despite Russia's concerns and widespread opposition among Ukraine's public opinion.

"Ukraine's foreign policy course towards NATO, I believe, is irreversible," Gritsenko said at a news conference. "After today's discussion, we changed the position of those that were more skeptical."

Gritsenko said the pace of military modernization would make it ready to join in 2008. "I am certain that, on the Ukrainian side in the military sphere, we'll be prepared by then," he said.

Ukraine's NATO ambitions are strongly supported among the 10 former communist nations that have already joined the alliance. Some other allies are more wary about expanding so far eastward into former Soviet territory and insist the government in Kiev must first push through reforms to underpin a fragile democracy, tackle widespread corruption and streamline the outdated Soviet-era military apparatus.

Apart from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who left early -- defense ministers from the old Western members of NATO kept away from the talks, sending lower-level officials.

However, allies did commit to helping Ukraine with issues such as retraining officers discharged after military cuts and disposing of surplus weapons. Britain engaged to lead a program training Defense Ministry officials to ensure effective civilian control over Ukraine's forces.

"This is a crucial element in any part of security sector reform," British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram said. "If you don't have civilian control ... the security sector reform will not succeed."

Monday's meeting was the latest in a series of contacts that underline NATO's drive to improve relations with Ukraine since last year's Orange Revolution, which brought in pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. He has made membership in NATO a key goal despite opposition from Russia and many Ukrainian citizens.

Gritsenko, a key ally of Yushchenko, sought to allay the fears of both, saying NATO membership would not lead to nuclear weapons being stationed on its territory and would not destroy jobs in Ukraine's important arms industry.

He said the Russians could see that Poland, Lithuania and other former Soviet bloc states that joined NATO over Moscow's strong objections did not pose the kind of security threat that Moscow once feared.