HELSINKI, Oct. 26 â€“ Ukraine can defend itself without any military help from Russia, President Viktor Yushchenko said Thursday, responding to comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had offered such assistance.
â€śUkraine is a sovereign nation and it is able to protect its integrity and the national sovereignty,â€ť Yushchenko said at a press conference in Helsinki. â€śWe have the armed forces that are capable of implementing this important function.â€ť
Putin, in an appearance onRussian television Wednesday, said Russia, if asked by Ukraine, would use its Black Sea Fleet to help to protect the country from â€śan outside interference.â€ť He also said Moscow will seek to extend the lease of Sevastopol naval bases in Ukraineâ€™s Crimea beyond 2017, when the lease is due to expire.
The comments from Putin show that Moscow has been desperately trying to encourage Kiev to scrap cooperation with NATO in exchange for closer political and military cooperation with Russia.
The developments come as Ukraine has been seeking over the past 1.5 years accession to NATO, an alliance that Russia views as a military threat.
Yushchenko has persistently argued that joining NATO would provide Ukraine with its required level of security. He also has also argued that Ukraine does not have enough resources to replace outdated anti-aircraft systems.
â€śUkraineâ€™s integration into Europe anticipates integration in political, economic and defense spheres,â€ť Yushchenko said. â€śThe integration into NATO is going through an active phase.â€ť
Putinâ€™s comments may be seen in Kiev as controversial and provocative, as Russia has been the only country with which Ukraine had repeatedly clashed over the past three years, up to a possibility of a border conflict over a tiny island in the Kerch Strait in October 2003.
Russiaâ€™s move to shut down natural gas supplies to Ukraine in the middle of the winter 10 months ago had even forced Yushchenko to consider an appeal to five nuclear nations, including the U.S., for protection.
Ukraine has the right to seek such protection in extreme emergencies following its decision to surrender the nuclear arsenal it inherited after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is seen by Ukraineâ€™s Defense Ministry as the main source of potential instability in the region.
Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko on Thursday said Ukraine will probably not extend the lease of the Sevastopol bases; he also argued the government doesnâ€™t consider the Black Sea Fleet as a force that may help Ukraine.
â€śIn our plans for deployment of forces we never consider any help from the Black Sea Fleet,â€ť Hrytsenko said. â€śWe are capable of doing so on our own.â€ť
â€śThe Black Sea Fleet is stationed in Ukraine as an exception, because the constitution does not allow stationing of foreign troops,â€ť Hrytsenko said. â€śI am convinced [eventually] there will be no foreign troops on the territory of Ukraine.â€ť
Yushchenko is in Helsinki today, where he is meeting Finnish leaders ahead of an Oct. 27 summit with EU officials. Finland currently holds the rotating EU Presidency. (tl/ez)