KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine sees joining the NATO alliance as vital to its security, President Viktor Yushchenko said on Sunday in a speech bound to antagonize Russia.
Marking 17 years of Ukrainian independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yushchenko said Ukraine must also increase its own defenses -- a clear swipe at Russia which unnerved former Soviet republics when it sent troops into Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
In a congratulatory message to mark the day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called on Ukraine not to spoil their historically close ties.
Yushchenko’s speech to a crowd of thousands in Kiev’s Independence Square, site of 2004 street protests that swept him to power, was followed by the first display in years of Ukraine’s military hardware.
Tanks, armored personnel carriers and missile launchers rolled down the capital’s central streets. Military jets flew in formation overhead and the capital shook to the boom of cannon.
“We must speed up our work to achieve membership of the European system of security and raise the defense capabilities of the country,” Yushchenko said.
“Only these steps will guarantee our security and the integrity of our borders,” he told the crowd, many dressed in traditional Cossack shirts.
Yushchenko, who has stepped up his calls for swift NATO membership since Russian forces entered South Ossetia, warned Russia that Ukraine would not tolerate any attempt to divide it.
“Ukraine condemns any attempts to undermine the current world order and its democratic values. We condemn acts of forceful intervention and aggression,” he said.
“We are well aware of the threats that are emerging more and more acutely in our region.”
Moscow is angry over Ukraine’s, as well as Georgia’s, NATO ambitions, seeing the encroachment of the alliance on its borders as a military threat.
Medvedev reminded Ukraine of the strong links between the two countries which reach back a thousand years.
“Our countries are linked by years of spiritual, cultural and historical ties. I believe the main task now is not to allow this precious asset, which we inherited from past generations, to be wasted,” he said in a statement.
“We need to preserve it and build it up.”
In April NATO states refused to give Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan -- the first step towards membership -- but said the two countries would one day join the alliance. NATO countries will revisit the issue in December.
Analysts say that Georgia’s attempt to retake South Ossetia by force, which prompted Russia’s incursion into Georgia, might have harmed Tbilisi’s chances of joining the alliance soon.
Ukraine backed Georgia in the conflict and was angered when Russia used ships moored in Ukraine Black Sea to land troops in Georgia. Kiev leases the port of Sevastopol to Moscow.
Yushchenko tightened the rules of movement for the fleet, stationed in the pro-Russian Crimean region, and for several days there were concerns that there would be a standoff between the two countries as the ships came back.
The first boat returned, without incident and to cheering crowds, on Friday. Thousands of pro-Russian supporters welcomed the Moskva flag ship on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow, Pavel Polityuk in Sevastopol and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev; editing by Myra MacDonald
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