Ukraine takes historic step toward NATO

KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine took a historic step toward NATO on Tuesday, December 23, in a parliamentary vote certain to stoke Russia's anger ahead of talks on ending the ex-Soviet state's separatist war.

Lawmakers in the government-controlled chamber overwhelmingly adopted a bill dropping Ukraine's non-aligned status – a classification given to states such as Switzerland which refuse to join military alliances and thus play no part in wars.

President Petro Poroshenko had vowed to put Ukraine under Western military protection after winning an election called in the wake of the February ouster in Kiev of a Moscow-backed president.

"Ukraine's fight for its independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty has turned into a decisive factor in our relations with the world," Poroshenko told foreign ambassadors in Kiev on Monday night, December 22.

Ukraine assumed neutrality under strong Russian pressure in 2010. It had sought NATO membership in the early post-Soviet era but – its once-mighty army in ruins and riven by corruption – was never viewed as a serious candidate.

Last winter's revolution in Kiev upset Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to enlist Ukraine in a new, Kremlin-led bloc that could rival both NATO and the European Union.

And Moscow had set Kiev's exclusion from all military blocs as a condition for any deal on ending the pro-Russian uprising that has killed 4,700 in the eastern Ukrainian rustbelt in the past eight months.

Putin's view of NATO as modern Russia's biggest threat has only been reinforced by this year's dramatic spike in East-West tensions over Ukraine.

"In essence, an application for NATO membership will turn Ukraine into a potential military opponent for Russia," Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned in a Facebook post Monday.

He said that Ukraine's rejection of neutrality and a new Russian sanctions law that US President Barack Obama signed on Friday, December 19, "will both have very negative consequences."

"And our country will have to respond to them," Medvedev added.

Perhaps the most immediate threat will be to delicate peace talks this week in the Belarussian capital Minsk that Poroshenko announced on Monday.

Poroshenko said the deal for Kiev and rebel negotiators to meet in the presence of Russian and European envoys on Wednesday and Friday was struck during a joint call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande – the West's top mediators on Ukraine.

Rebels noncommittal

The last two rounds of Minsk consultations in September produced a truce and the outlines of a broader peace agreement that gave the two separatist regions partial self-rule for three years within a united Ukraine.

But the deals were followed by more fighting that killed at least 1,300 people. The insurgents' decision to stage their own leadership polls in violation of the Minsk rules effectively ended political talks between the two sides.

A new meeting in Minsk had been hung up by Kiev's refusal to discuss ending the suspension of social security and other benefit payments to the rebel-run districts, which Poroshenko announced last month.

Ukraine's leaders suspect the money is being stolen by militias in the Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk regions and used to finance their war.

Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin stressed that Kiev's continuing refusal to budge on the issue could still prevent talks from going ahead.

"We have no information about the date of any meeting in Minsk," Pushilin told Agence France-Presse by telephone.

"We are ready to meet, or we could conduct a videoconference," said the rebel envoy.

"But only along the lines of the agenda that we discussed before," he said in reference to the suspended payments. –