Ukraine reiterated Friday its desire to join NATO despite Russian qualms, after the Western alliance hinted heavily that the politically troubled ex-Soviet state could soon win approval for membership.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: a red or green light for Ukraine?
During the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said: "Ukraine's strategy towards joining NATO is irreversible."
The Sofia talks were the first such contact with NATO since parliamentary elections on March 26 which were widely praised as free and fair, although they have left Kiev in political limbo.
NATO officials at the Sofia talks say there is widespread support for Ukraine's bid, despite its political problems. Speaking on Thursday, NATO head Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hinted there could be an opening to aspiring members at a summit in the Latvian capital in November.
"I have no doubt that in Riga, countries aspiring to NATO membership will want a signal. There will be a signal at Riga," de Hoop Scheffer said.
"When they are ready, NATO is ready," he said in comments that referred also to Georgia, another ex-Soviet republic bidding to join NATO.
Ukraine struggles with a turbulent past
Independence Square in Ukraine's capital Kiev
Addressing the political dispute that has dragged on in Ukraine since March 26 parliamentary elections, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the country faced an uphill struggle to join NATO.
"The Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people will have to decide whether or not this is something that they wish to pursue," Rice told reporters on the sidelines of the Sofia meeting on Thursday. "And they will also have to work very hard, I think, to meet the criteria," she added.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has set out an ambitious pro-West agenda since coming to power in 2005 after a wave of popular protests known as the "orange revolution" that brought down a Moscow-backed regime.
But his party performed badly in March and has been forced into coalition talks that could bring to power either a government favoring links with Europe and NATO or one preferring a strong bond with Russia.
New dividing lines in Europe ?
Moscow, which held sway over Kiev in Soviet times and maintains a strong influence over its Western neighbor, meanwhile reasserted its opposition to Ukraine's NATO hopes.
"We are against the creation of new dividing lines in Europe," Mikhail Kamynin, Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying in an interview with RIA-Novosti news agency on Thursday.
"Today there are algorithms of cooperation with NATO that allow states to cooperate in the widest security spectrum without formal accession to the alliance," Kamynin said.
NATO sending Ukraine mixed signals
NATO foreign ministers meeting at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia
But NATO on Thursday appeared to play down reports that Ukraine could be offered the alliance's "membership action plan", the key step before being invited to join.
"Ukraine's aspirations to join the Alliance are welcomed by all allies," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters in Sofia. "What I cannot predict is timelines for membership action plans," he added.
Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are currently in the membership action plan with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
Ten countries that were once allied with Russia -- Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- have joined NATO since 1999.
Also on Friday, during a sideline meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a bilateral agreement with Bulgarian officials to establish three military bases in the country as the U.S. shifts troops from old Cold War positions to smaller units closer to the Middle East and Africa.
NATO boosts Darfur aid
Moving from the European to the African continent during talks in Sofia, NATO has said it is ready to boost assistance in Sudan's violence-scarred Darfur region. The alliance has said it will increase logistical support, but said any presence should be limited and only in support of African or U.N. efforts. In NATO's first operation on the African continent, the alliance has provided training and transportation to African Union troops trying to stem the violence there. Some nations, such as the United States, would like to see a stronger NATO presence on the continent.