The President of Ukraine urged Nato yesterday to resist Russian pressure and make an historic offer of membership to his country.
Viktor Yushchenko said that Ukraine was "devoted" to winning support for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at next month's summit of Nato foreign ministers despite opposition in Moscow and a bitter political crisis at home that has split the pro-Western Orange coalition.
He gave warning that expansion of the military alliance was vital to European security in the wake of Russia's war with Georgia, and the only way to secure Ukraine's independence.
"I am sure that the ball is not on the Ukrainian side of the field, Ukraine has done everything it had to do," President Yushchenko said in an interview with The Times.
"We are devoted to this pace. Everything else is an issue of political will of those allies who represent Nato."
Russia's decision to recognise Georgia's rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after the war in August has triggered alarm in Ukraine over the Kremlin's intentions in Crimea. Tensions are rising over President Yushchenko's insistence that Moscow withdraw its Black Sea Fleet from the pro-Russian region by 2017.
Russia strongly opposes Nato membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which is also seeking a MAP. Former President Putin threatened to target nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it joined.
Nato held back from offering MAP to both countries in April under intense Russian pressure. Some within the alliance claim that this emboldened the Kremlin to wage war in South Ossetia, while others argue that it averted a potentially catastrophic confrontation with Russia.
Next month's meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels will set the stage for the alliance's 60th anniversary summit next year. Many members are reluctant to antagonise Moscow further by offering MAP now, but President Yushchenko pointed to history to stress the importance of membership for Ukraine.
"Since 1918, Ukraine declared its independence six times and five times it failed. One of the fundamental reasons for that is that we had no external partners who would recognise our territorial integrity," he said.
Nato expansion was "especially urgent" after the war in Georgia, he said, adding: "There are many security threats in Europe and one can only respond to these challenges in one way - by expanding the stability and security zone."
He urged members not to use his battle with Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko as an excuse to postpone a decision. The former allies in the pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution have been trading insults since their coalition government collapsed in September.
"A Membership Action Plan (MAP) is not a guarantee for Ukraine to join Nato, but it is a guarantee that we will have a more intensive and ample dialogue... that western Europe can hear us and give their supporting hand to us. This is the signal we would like to receive," he said.
"If we were able to establish the European interest as our own then we need to find the European model to protect it and this is the collective security policy. That's why there is no other alternative for Ukraine.
"This is not a policy of threat to anyone, including Russia. We have already stated that we are ready to give any guarantee to any country that believes, with Ukraine joining Nato, there is a new threat emerging to their national security."
He spoke out as Nato's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, rejected any Russian veto on membership for former Soviet states. He told a conference in Spain: "The emergence of independent states within the former Soviet space is a reality. The ability of these states to determine their own future is a litmus test for the new Europe.
"Do we have to choose between good relations with Russia and further enlargement? My answer is no - we will not choose, will not sacrifice one for the other. It would bring new dividing lines." Georgia's President Saakashvili told the conference: "This is a key moment for Europe, attributing the status of candidate is not a technical question, it is a strategic choice."