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Gates to Participate in NATO-Ukraine Meeting

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will show U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO aspirations and for allies in Eastern Europe by participating in the NATO-Ukraine Consultations in Tallinn, Estonia tomorrow.

“This trip is about showing our support for Ukraine and other former Soviet states and satellites who wish to integrate further with the West,” said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary.

Senior defense officials speaking on background said the secretary probably would not have attended the meeting had the Russians not invaded Georgia. “But in the aftermath of that, the secretary wanted to send a very strong signal of his support for Ukraine and the Baltic States and our other NATO allies in Eastern Europe that the United States stands firmly behind them,” officials said.

The consultations will undoubtedly cover Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Russia’s opposition to Ukrainian membership in NATO, officials said. There will also be an opportunity for the allies to discuss Ukraine’s continuing defense transformation.

Gates met with Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov on Oct. 8, 2008 during the South East Europe Defense Ministerial in Macedonia.

In addition to participating in the NATO-Ukraine Consultations, Gates will also meet with Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and hold a meeting with the defense ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Between a visit by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen to Latvia and Lithuania last month and the secretary’s visit to Estonia now, high-level U.S. defense officials have visited all the Baltic Republics since the Russian invasion of Georgia in August.

The NATO heads of state agreed at the Bucharest summit that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members. But they did not approve membership action plans – the path for NATO acceptance – at that time. The leaders agreed that the alliance foreign ministers – to meet in December in Brussels – would discuss the action plans. Both Ukraine and Georgia have intensified the dialogue between their nations and the alliance on the reform steps needed to get them on the path to membership. The foreign ministers can approve the membership action plan.

“There was a unanimous commitment made at Bucharest that both Georgia and Ukraine should become members of the alliance,” senior officials said. “What fell short was providing them with a MAP then and there because of opposition from Germany and France.”

The main change since the Bucharest summit in April, of course, was the Russian invasion of Georgia. For some alliance allies, the invasion complicated the picture. For others, it clarified it.

“There are those who would argue, would Russia have made such a move had MAP been extended to Georgia?” a senior defense official said. “Perhaps it would have prevented such an incursion. Certainly full membership would have given (the Russians) great pause.”

But this meeting is to make sure Ukraine is working toward the position that they are ready should the political climate be such that they are extended a membership action plan. The nation has a lot of political and military goals to accomplish before the plan is put in place. Alliance members will work with Ukraine as it continues to institute military reform, a senior defense official said.

“This is not an alliance that pushes or prods or pulls,” said a senior defense official. “They have expressed an interest in joining NATO and we are working with them to fulfill that wish of theirs.”

Part of it is helping the Ukrainians ensure the defense budget has enough money for defense restructuring and modernization of the armed forces. The Ukraine military must transition to be more mobile and expeditionary and interoperable with NATO. It also must transition to a professional contract army, defense officials said.

Complicating the whole situation is the fact that Ukraine has scheduled elections now proposed for Dec. 14. According to the most recent poll, about 35 percent of Ukrainians are for NATO membership with about 40 percent undecided.

Though Russia has voiced opposition to Ukrainian membership in NATO, U.S. officials have said such membership does not constitute a menace.

“Efforts by (Russia’s) neighbors to further integrate with the West should … not be viewed as a threat,” a senior defense official said. “This is not a zero-sum game. You can have closer ties and better relations with the West and still get along with Russia. They are not mutually exclusive.”

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