Even as Europe signals mixed support for Ukraine's entry into NATO, US President George W. Bush will travel to Kyiv to show his support for the current government. But that might not be enough, experts say.
Ukraine might not be on fast track to join NATO
The Ukrainian government hopes that Bush's visit Monday, March 31, will signal an impending NATO membership offer. But experts believe that Bush will more likely try to soften the disappointment over NATO's reluctance to expand its military alliance to include Ukraine.
Some NATO members, and Germany in particular, oppose offering Ukraine and Georgia the coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest. The plan is one of the last steps before full membership in the trans-Atlantic alliance, which still requires a vote by existing members. Membership for Ukraine and Georgia, as well as NATO troops in Afghanistan, is expected to get top billing at the summit, which starts Wednesday.
Ukraine's pro-Western government headed by President Viktor Yushchenko badly wants into the NATO club. But the country's chances of being offered a MAP when the summit starts are about 50-50, according to experts.
Bush unlikely to champion cause
President Bush has been supportive of Ukraine in the past
Bush, who recently met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, is a vocal supporter of NATO membership for both countries. He plans to visit the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Monday and Tuesday on his way to Bucharest.
Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said Bush will not force the expansion issue and would continue to pursue "quiet consultations" with NATO members.
Bush is already locked in a testy back-and-forth with Russia over US missile defense. Experts say he's unlikely to push NATO expansion. The Bush visit can more be seen as a sign of moral support, said Vadim Karasev, head of the Ukrainian Institute for Global Strategies.
"This is a very symbolic visit from a psychological and political view," Karasev said.
Because of the decision's important political ramifications, Ukraine's leadership would be naive to count on Bush's unequivocal support, Karasev said.
Not all Ukrainians love NATO
Not all Ukrainians want to be part of NATO
It's not only current NATO members who are divided on Ukraine. The country's government is split between the ruling coalition, which supports NATO, and the opposition, which wants nothing to do with it.
When Ukraine's government sent a letter to NATO in January declaring itself ready to begin with its MAP in April, the opposition reacted strongly. The pro-Russian Party of Regions together with the communists stalled parliamentary business for more than a month by insisting that any NATO membership be agreed to by a national referendum.
Some opposition members are planning protests during Bush's visit. Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych has been championing a possible friendship and cooperation agreement with Russia as an alternative to NATO membership.
Russia's influence continues
Germany has shown skepticism over Ukraine's NATO bid
There's a sense among Party of Regions members that Ukraine's future does not lie with the West.
Vadim Kolesnichenko, a parliamentarian for the party, said that people need to understand the negative consequences joining NATO would have on the country's prosperity.
"The US is far away, but Russia is very close," Kolesnichenko said.
This week's summit will be a chance to talk about the NATO action plan and also the position of Russia to the question, said parliamentarian Serhii Shevchuk of the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko bloc.
"Each time that NATO was enlarged, starting with the countries in central and eastern Europe, Russia was outraged and fought to stop it," Shevchuk said. "This was especially the case when the Baltic countries joined NATO. And it's occurring for the third time."
Russia's unhappiness is to be expected, but won't last, Shevchuk said. Once Ukraine is offered a MAP, opposition will die down, he said.