U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday condemned implicit threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine, if the Kyiv government upgrades its relationship with NATO. Mr. Putin suggested Tuesday Ukraine could be targeted by Russian nuclear weapons. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice, a Soviet-affairs expert at the end of the Cold War era, says the current U.S.-Russian relationship has a number of positive aspects including cooperation on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

But in Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, she strongly condemned Moscow's pressure tactics against former allies seeking closer ties with NATO, underscored by Mr. Putin's comments on Ukraine Tuesday in Moscow.

Rice called the Putin comments "unhelpful and really reprehensible" and said Moscow should realize it has no veto power over countries once in the Soviet bloc who want to affiliate with NATO:

"We are absolutely devoted to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and of other states that were once a part of the Soviet Union," she said. "The Soviet Union had all of these parts, but that was another point in time. It is gone forever, and I hope that Russia understands that."

At its April summit in Bucharest, NATO leaders will consider whether to grant aspiring members Croatia, Albania and Macedonia full membership, and whether to give former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia a preliminary affiliated status.

The Secretary was asked by ranking committee Republican Richard Lugar whether Mr. Putin should be invited to the Bucharest summit, given what he said was Russian bullying of various neighbors. Rice said the NATO-Russian Council, in which Mr. Putin would participate, would allow Moscow to see first-hand the unity of the alliance.

"It's very often an opportunity for the Russians to sit and recognize that the Baltic states are part of NATO and therefore enjoy the protection of Article Five [of the NATO Charter] and of the European and North Atlantic allies. So in that sense, these sessions tend not be ones in which the alliance is intimidated by Russia, but rather where a very strong message of alliance unity can be communicated," said Rice.

On another issue, Rice told senators she intends to appoint a full-time special U.S. envoy for energy issues, to focus in large part on critical resources in Central Asia.

Senator Lugar, a strong proponent of the envoy concept, said the posting is needed to counter Russian foreign policy, which he said is largely based on maximizing the political leverage Moscow has acquired through control of Eurasian energy supplies and transport.