KIEV (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush vowed on Tuesday to press for Ukraine and Georgia to be allowed to start the process of joining NATO despite resistance from Russia and skepticism from the alliance’s European members.
Bush, in Kiev on his way to his farewell NATO summit in Romania, said Moscow had no right to veto bids by the two ex-Soviet states. There was no link between their ambitions and a planned U.S. missile defense system in Europe, he added.
Washington has long lobbied for Ukraine and Georgia to be granted Membership Action Plans (MAP) at the Bucharest summit.
Russia denounces the bids on grounds that NATO is intruding on its sphere of influence. And France said it would oppose granting MAP to the two ex-Soviet states.
But Bush underscored his resolve to back the applications.
“Your nation has made a bold decision, and the United States strongly supports your request,” Bush told a news conference alongside Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
“In Bucharest this week, I will continue to make America’s position clear. We support MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. Helping Ukraine move towards NATO membership is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world.”
NATO states had told Bush that “Russia will not have a veto over what happens next in Bucharest and I take their word for it. And that’s the right policy to have.”
He dismissed as a “misperception” any trade-off — shelving support for MAP bids to win agreement to deploy interceptor rockets and a radar in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Bush said he hoped proposals to make the missile defense system more transparent would yield progress at his weekend meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Denmark, also hoped for progress while acknowledging that “the Russians are probably never going to like missile defense.
“But I think that the assurances that we have provided and the mechanisms that we have proposed give them assurance that it’s not aimed at them and my hope is that that will lead to positive outcomes both in Bucharest and in Sochi,” he said.
The president spent the afternoon visiting monuments, including 11th century St Sofia cathedral and a memorial to victims of the 1932-33 mass famine engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He left for Bucharest late in the afternoon.
In his comments to reporters, Yushchenko said Ukraine had made a clear choice on NATO and he saw “no other way forward.
“You will forgive me, but I would not like to see the key, fundamental principle of the Alliance’s activity, open doors, to be replaced by a veto for a country which is not even a member.”
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who also met Bush, hoped for a “yes” in Bucharest and repeated the longstanding policy of all major political forces that a final decision on membership would be subject to a referendum.
Ukraine’s bid to secure a MAP, the first stage in the long process of joining NATO, faces low public support at home.
A few hundred protesters defied a ban and shouted anti-NATO slogans in central Kiev. Some 5,000 had massed on Monday.
For many Ukrainians, joining NATO is not a priority — only 30 percent of respondents in the ex-Soviet state support it.
The Regions Party of Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, long an opponent of the plan, said approval in Bucharest would “spark protests by millions. Those in Europe and across the ocean must be told — Ukraine is not ready for MAP.”
France and Germany have resisted granting a MAP on the grounds that both states have yet to achieve political stability and that the process would unnecessarily antagonize Russia.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told French radio Paris was opposed “because we think it is not the right response to the balance of power in Europe and between Europe and Russia, and we want to have a dialogue on this subject with Russia”.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Kiev and Andrew Gray in Copenhagen, Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Charles Dick