On the eve of a key NATO's summit on its expansion, U.S. President George W. Bush started his visit to Ukraine on Monday, in an attempt to push NATO to grant the ex-soviet country potential membership.
Analysts said, however, Washington's effort to squeeze Ukraine into NATO may prove futile, taking into account the differences within Ukraine over its NATO membership, conflict between Russian and the United States, and between the so-called "old" and "new" Europe.
DISPUTES IN UKRAINE
Foreign Minister Vladimir Ogryzko said Monday that Bush's visit will highlight the strategic partnership between the two countries and give a big boost to Ukraine's bid for NATO membership.
The NATO summit, scheduled for April 2-4 in Bucharest, Romania, is expected to grant Ukraine and Georgia the status of Membership Action Plan (MAP), generally believed the first step towards joining the world's biggest military bloc.
Some NATO members, including the United States, Canada and some east European countries have voiced support for granting MAP to the Russia's neighbors. But Ukraine's entry into NATO has been complicated by internal differences on the issue.
Earlier this year, in a request to NATO, Ukrainian leaders asked for a MAP invitation at the Bucharest summit. The request, however, led to weeks-long protests in the parliament by opposition lawmakers.
On Monday, about 5,000 people staged a massive demonstration in the capital of Kiev in protest of Bush's visit and the request for NATO membership. They threatened to protest permanently should the Bucharest summit agrees to accept Ukraine's request.
According to recent opinion polls, more than 50 percent of Ukrainians, mostly living in the Russian-speaking east and south, strongly opposed the country's drive to join NATO.
Ukraine's bid to join the U.S.-led military bloc has been backed strongly by the Bush administration, who has recently speeded up diplomatic efforts to put the ex-Soviet republic, together with Georgia, on the NATO track.
In an interview with the German daily newspaper Die Welt published on Monday, Bush reiterated his support for the NATO eastward expansion to the door of Russia. "I think it's in our interest to give Georgia and Ukraine a clear prospect here," he said.
Russia has viewed the expansion as a direct threat to its security and its status as a regional power, but has been unable to stop the attempt.
President Vladimir Putin has warned that Russia would aim its warheads at Ukraine if its neighbor joins NATO and endorses the deployment of anti-missile defense system on its territory.
Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev warned in a recent interview with the Financial Times that granting NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia would threaten European security.
"No state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders," said Medvedev.
Another major obstacle comes from differences between so-called "old" and "new" Europe on Ukraine's bid for NATO membership.
Some western European countries, such as Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands and Spain, are reluctant to grant MAP invitations to Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest summit for fear that further expansion would anger Russia.
"We are of the view that the time is not ripe to offer them the membership action plan ... because a number of points still need to be clarified," said German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm on Monday.
During her visit to Russia on March 8, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed caution over NATO's eastward expansion, hinting that the low popularity would be a major problem to Ukraine's NATO drive.
But in a letter to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the nine new NATO members, namely Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, plus Canada, urged the military bloc to overcome splits and open the door to Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest summit.
The two ex-Soviet republics would not be granted MAP unless all the 26 NATO members reach a consensus on the issue at the upcoming summit. But Bush's visit seems unlikely to iron out differences between the so-called "old" and "new" Europe, analysts said.