- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Ukrainian officials yesterday confirmed they had received a formal request to join the international peacekeeping force in Iraq, a sign of sharply improving relations between Kiev and Washington.The invitation came a day after Ukrainian defense officials, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and eight NATO defense ministers held a lengthy meeting in Washington to discuss military reforms in Ukraine and its proposed membership in the alliance.”I think the worst of the problems are over between NATO and Ukraine,” Mr. Robertson said at a press briefing Monday night with Yevhen Marchuk, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council.With its formidable size, strategic location and ambivalent relationship with Russia, Ukraine has long been a prime focus of interest for NATO planners. But Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was a virtual pariah at the NATO summit in Prague in November, facing charges by the Bush administration that he secretly approved the sale of sophisticated Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq in defiance of international sanctions.U.S. officials suspended some aid programs to Ukraine and began a review of all bilateral ties in the wake of the Kolchuga incident. Ukraine denied having sold the radar to Saddam Hussein’s regime, but visits by technical specialists from the United States proved inconclusive.A clear thaw in the relationship has occurred in recent months, despite lingering questions over the Kolchuga sale and the Kuchma government’s opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.Despite its misgivings, Ukraine agreed to send a battalion to Iraq to support coalition forces in its search for chemical weapons, a decision praised by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual.Of the 11 European countries asked to contribute forces to the postwar stabilization, only Ukraine and Albania are not NATO members.Both Mr. Pascual and Mr. Robertson indicate that the Kolchuga incident remains a barrier in NATO-Ukraine ties, but say both sides are trying to find ways to improve the relationship.Mr. Marchuk said Ukraine would wait to decide on its role in the stabilization force in Iraq until NATO itself clarified whether it would participate as an alliance in the reconstruction and security effort.Mr. Robertson, who also met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday, said NATO’s role in the postwar Iraq mission still was being discussed, although NATO officials said privately the alliance was leaning strongly toward a formal role in the stabilization force.Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivskiyy told the Interfax news service in Kiev yesterday that “intensive consultations are under way with the United States” on Ukraine’s contribution to the force.Neither Mr. Robertson nor Mr. Marchuk would put a date on NATO membership for Ukraine, which still faces a monumental task in modernizing its security forces and carrying out other military and political reforms to meet alliance standards.Mr. Marchuk noted that the issue of NATO membership then would have to be put to a popular vote. “We still have a long way to go,” he said.Mr. Marchuk said Kiev had not sought any guarantees or understandings with Russia as it pressed its NATO bid. He argued that closer ties between Ukraine and the West would make it easier for NATO and Russia to work together as well.Ukraine gained its independence from Moscow with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but strong economic, energy and military links remained. Russian military officials said this week that the two countries were discussing a joint effort to design a new tank for sale to militaries around the world.Mr. Marchuk said Ukraine’s only concern was that Russia did not strike a membership deal with NATO before Ukraine did.

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