Kremlin fury after Ukraine takes big step towards Nato

SHAFAQNA – Ukraine moved a step closer to joining Nato yesterday by dropping its official status as a non-aligned nation — a decision that threatens imminent peace talks with pro-Russian rebels, and which provoked condemnation from Moscow.

MPs in Kiev’s new, pro-Western parliament voted overwhelmingly to drop the neutrality adopted by the country in 2010, allowing it, in theory, to revive aspirations to join the military alliance. “European and Euro-Atlantic integrations — that is Ukraine’s course,” President Poroshenko tweeted after the vote, which was passed 303-8.

However, Nato cannot accept new member states with unresolved conflicts — a detail not lost on Russia, which Ukraine blames for fomenting war in the eastern part of the country.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, described the vote as “absolutely counterproductive”. He said: “It creates an illusion that, through this bill, through an aspiration to drop non-aligned status and join Nato, which Ukrainian politicians openly talk about, one can settle a deep crisis of the Ukrainian state.”

The vote may put paid to peace talks due to be held between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia rebels from the east, who launched an uprising after the Kremlin-friendly President Yanukovych was unseated by protesters in February.

Speaking on behalf of the rebels, Mr Lavrov said: “It is necessary to put an end to confrontation and start an open, all-inclusive dialogue, including with those who rejected the anti-constitutional military coup and refused to bow to Kiev.”

The peace talks, due to be held in the presence of Russian and European envoys in the Belarusian capital of Minsk this week, were scheduled after consultations with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and President Hollande of France.

Moscow has made Kiev’s exclusion from all military blocs a condition for any deal ending the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in which nearly 5,000 people have been killed since the spring.

The vote on Ukraine’s new status was initiated by President Poroshenko, a billionaire and former chocolate manufacturer who was elected as leader of the troubled state in May. Reeling from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, as well as the war in the east, he is determined to bring Ukraine into the western orbit. “Ukraine’s fight for its independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty has turned into a decisive factor in our relations with the world,” he told foreign ambassadors in Kiev on Monday.

Ukraine had earlier expressed its aspirations to join Nato, but accepted non-aligned status in 2010, when Mr Yanukovych came to power.

Russia is equally determined to prevent its Slav neighbour joining the western alliance, and will have every motivation to keep backing the rebels to prevent what, from its point of view, would be an undesirable geopolitical shift. In the same way, it keeps “frozen conflicts” alive in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to frustrate Georgia’s hopes of joining Nato.

The Kremlin believes that the west betrayed Russia by pushing eastwards after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has long regarded Nato as a threat.

Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, put it plainly on his Facebook page. “In essence, an application for Nato membership will turn Ukraine into a potential military opponent for Russia. And our country will have to respond,” he wrote.

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