MADRID (Reuter)–Ukraine signed a partnership charter with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization–Wednesday–that brought the former Soviet republic a small but important step closer to the security blanket of the transatlantic military alliance.
The special accord gives Ukraine the right to call "consultations" with NATO if it faces an outside threat and links for the first time the nation of 52 million with its Cold War adversary.
"We understand perfectly well the realities that we have on the European continent and these are the reasons for our cooperation with NATO," Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said at a signing ceremony with NATO leaders at their Madrid summit. He praised the pact–formally known as the "Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between NATO and Ukraine," for wiping away divisions in Europe.
Ukraine–once the world’s third largest nuclear power–is not seeking to join NATO–which on Tuesday extended an invitation of Membership to three former Warsaw Pact nations. But senior officials in Kiev have suggested Ukraine might try to join after 2000.
The pact signed by Kuchma and 16 NATO heads of state and government marked the culmination of long negotiations on how to strengthen ties without arousing Russia’s ire.
The Ukrainian leader went out of his way to praise the Founding Act cooperation pact signed between NATO and Russia in May as a counterweight to the alliance’s eastward expansion.
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said the charter marked only the beginning–"not the end," of NATO ties with Ukraine. Solana called it a "visible symbol" of a new Europe.
The charter sets up a series of mechanisms for contacts between NATO and Ukraine. There will be an exchange of military missions–with NATO establishing an office in Kiev–and meetings at ambassadorial level will be held once a month.
A NATO-Ukraine Commission will meet twice a year and provide the vehicle for "consultations" at times of regional crisis. "This charter reflects and reinforces the way this continent has changed," US President Bill Clinton told the gathering.
Ukraine receives more US aid than any other country after Israel and Egypt and Washington has a strategic interest in strengthening its independence.
Ukraine–the second most populous of the 15 former Soviet republics–became a nuclear power after the Soviet Union split up in 1991. But it has since removed all nuclear warheads from its SS-19 and SS-24 long-range missiles.
Ukraine–which was ruled from Moscow for more than three centuries–was the first member of the Commonwealth of Independent States grouping former Soviet republics to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. But it never joined the Moscow-led Collective Security Pact.
"I think Ukraine’s main emphasis on its non-bloc status is the best it has today," Kuchma said. "The fact that Ukraine has been recognized as an equal member of the community of eastern and central European countries is a very important fact."
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl–who has acted as a key advocate for central and eastern European states eager to join western institutions–called the accord an important step.
"Ukraine is a country with a great future," Kohl told Germany’s SAT-1 television network. "Of course it has an enormously difficult transition period. It is important for us to finally recognize how important Ukraine is."