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Bush stirs controversy over NATO membership

  • Story Highlights
  • Bush backs ambitions of Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO members
  • He told Ukranian president "the U.S. strongly supports your request"
  • Russia opposes Ukraine's accession warning it would cause a "deep crisis"
  • France and Germany are also believed to be skeptical about the move
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By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
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(CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has not wasted any time stirring the pot on his latest visit to Europe for the NATO Summit starting in Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday.

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President Bush enjoys a drink with the Ukranian president in Kiev Tuesday.

With less than ten months to go in office, Bush is looking to add some luster to a foreign policy legacy seen by many as little short of disastrous. His latest initiative is to give a hefty push to the ambitions of two former Soviet Union states, Ukraine and Georgia, to become members of NATO.

Stopping off in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev for talks with President Viktor Yuschenko, Bush declared that he was strongly behind the two countries' bids to join NATO, for which the first step would be admission to a "MAP" or Membership Action Plan.

He told Yuschenko at a joint media facility that "the U.S. strongly supports your request" and added that he would argue forcefully in Bucharest for that to come about.

The only snag for Bush in his latest ambition is that his eagerness to welcome the former Soviet Republics into NATO is not shared by several of the other 25 members of NATO. It is also bitterly resented by Russia, whose President Putin he will be meeting for the last time face to face in the Russian ski town of Sochi on Sunday. (In May Putin gives way to Dimitry Medvedev, whose Prime Minister he will become).

Almost as Bush was reiterating his support for Ukraine and its leader, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin warned that Ukraine's accession into NATO would cause a "deep crisis" in Kiev's relations with Moscow. He added that any incorporation of Ukraine into the alliance would also badly hurt Russia's relations with the West.

Putin has already warned that if Ukraine were to join NATO and later to join Poland and the Czech Republic in housing installations for America's planned Missile Defense program in Europe then he would be forced to target short range rockets on Russia's neighbor.

But it is not just Russia which has doubts about the two countries in its "near abroad" joining the NATO alliance. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated her reservations and on Tuesday French Prime Minister Francois Fillon made plain that France opposes allowing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

In an interview with the French radio station, France Inter, Fillon declared:

"We are opposed to the entry of Georgia and Ukraine because we think that it is not a good answer to the balance of power within Europe and between Europe and Russia."

There is a deep division in NATO's ranks on the question of enlargement further east. Bush said in Kiev that he believed that membership for Ukraine and Georgia was in the interests of the Alliance as well as the countries themselves.

But a number of NATO countries disagree. They do not believe it is in their interests at this stage to further anger Russia, which has already been infuriated by the plans for the U.S. Missile Defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Others say that is too timorous an approach and one which can be explained by EU countries, which make up the bulk of NATO's membership, being dependent on Russia for more than 40 percent of their energy supplies. They say that to allow Russian threats to deter NATO from offering MAP status to Ukraine and Georgia would be handing Russia a veto on Alliance membership.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili says that denying the two countries the chance to move towards NATO membership would be "appeasement" of Moscow.

Supporters of Ukraine's membership like the U.S. president point out that Kiev has backed every one of NATO's military initiatives in recent years, for example in Kosovo and Afghanistan, without being a member of the Alliance. Opponents note that opinion polls show a majority of the citizens in Ukraine opposed to NATO membership.

Yuschenko said at the meeting with Bush that support had risen from 17 percent to nearly 40 percent, before his government had even begun to make the case for Ukraine joining the Alliance.

With other NATO members already simmering over the Missile Defence plan and over criticisms by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates of other nations' efforts in Afghanistan, Bush has certainly ensured a lively debate in Bucharest. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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