The United States and Ukraine Friday signed what was termed a Charter of Strategic Partnership calling for cooperation in defense, energy, trade and other areas. The United State will set up a diplomatic mission in Ukraine's Crimean region.
State Department officials said the terms of the partnership accord are not unlike those of agreements the United States has with many other countries. But the signing comes at a politically-sensitive time, in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis, and officials said it is a signal to Moscow of U.S.-Ukraine solidarity.
Following Russian intervention in Georgia and its recognition of two breakaway Georgian regions, there has been concern about increased Russian pressure on Ukraine and that it might try to foster a separatist movement in the Crimea, which has a large ethnic-Russian population.
Friday's signing of the U.S.-Ukraine charter coincided with confirmation that the Bush administration intends to set up a small but symbolically-important diplomatic post in the Crimean regional capital, Simferopol.
At the signing ceremony with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States has long believed that Ukraine's independence and democracy are essential to a peaceful Europe, and that Washington holds to its support for that country's membership in NATO:
"The United States supports Ukraine's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. And I want to assure you that the declaration at Bucharest which foresees that Ukraine will be member of NATO when it can meet those standards is very much at the center of our policy. We look forward to helping you execute the decisions of Brussels to intensify the work of the Ukraine-NATO commission toward the fulfillment of the Bucharest declaration", she said.
At last April's NATO summit in Bucharest, leaders supported eventual alliance membership for Ukraine and Georgia but could not reach a consensus to offer them a formal membership action plan.
Meeting earlier this month in Brussels, alliance foreign ministers said they would work for membership for the two states through existing structures like the NATO-Ukraine commission.
At the signing ceremony, Ukrainian Foreign Minisrter Ohryzko said the charter agreement gives added stimulus to a rapidly expanding bilateral relationship. He was heard through an interpreter:
"This is a very important document because it summarizes our efforts during the past year, but it also has a very important dimension for our future. I would like to call your attention to the areas in this document that address defense, security, the economy, human rights, increased importance to cultural and people-to-people contacts and also the presence of the United States in Ukraine, in particular the Crimea," he said.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration plans to set up a so-called American Presence Post in the Crimean capital, which would include one or two U.S. diplomats and engage in a wide range of political and cultural activities. Currently the U.S. embassy in Kyiv is the only American diplomatic mission in the country.
A majority of Crimea's two million residents are ethnic Russians, and Russia has a lease on the Soviet era naval base at Sevastapol which expires in 2017, and which Ukraine says will not be renewed. Russia denies any intention to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea or elsewhere.