The White House says President Bush will use his trip to Ukraine, Romania, and Croatia next week to try to show support for freedom and democracy in the region and to help the NATO alliance confront 21st century challenges. But the expansion of NATO and especially Ukraiinian membership are seen as a threat by Russia. VOA's Peter Fedynsky in Moscow has more on Russian perceptions of this controversial issue, which will be high on President Bush's agenda in Kyiv.
In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin, with visiting Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko at his side in the Kremlin, warned of what could happen if NATO missiles were to be deployed in Ukraine.
It is frightening, says the Russian leader, to not only say, but even to think that such NATO missile deployment - which cannot be excluded in theory - would prompt Russia to aim its missiles at Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promptly condemned the remarks as unhelpful and reprehensible rhetoric.
"We've also been clear that we are absolutely devoted to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and other states that were part of the Soviet Union," she said. "The Soviet Union had all these parts but that is another point in time. It is gone forever."
Independent Russian military analyst Alexander Konovalov says Russia does understand and he characterizes Mr. Putin's threat as emotional excess. Nonetheless, Konovalov notes that Russia has important practical interests in Ukraine dating to Soviet times. These include Russia's SS-18 missile, which has an engine built in Ukraine's Uzhmash [Pivdenmash] rocket factory.
Konovalov says the Uzhmash factory monitors SS-18 missiles, which remain active in Russia's nuclear arsenal. He adds that Ukrainians help extend longevity of the weapon, because they have the documentation, the spare parts, the ability to assess problems, and experience.
Konovalov says a long list of similar concerns include Ukrainian-built engines for many Russian helicopters and navy ships. He adds Russia's Black Sea Fleet to the list. By mutual agreement, the fleet is to be stationed in Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula through 2017.
According to Konovalov's understanding of NATO regulations, it is forbidden to accept members into the alliance that have foreign troops stationed on their territory. Konovalov says this means that either Russia will have to solve the fleet redeployment problem before 2017, or Ukraine should not yet join NATO.
The analyst notes that redeployment would cost billions and take several years. He says Ukrainians also have many economic and even family ties with Russians, which he says could suffer if Moscow tightened border controls in the event of Ukrainian NATO membership.
Ukraine's leaders recently took steps to begin the process of full NATO membership, which will be considered during the NATO summit beginning April 2.
President Putin says that in the final analysis, a Ukrainian decision to join the Western alliance is an internal affair of a sovereign country. And Alexander Konovalov cites public opinion polls that show Ukrainians themselves are sharply divided over the issue.