November 13, 2008 / 3:33 PM / 10 years ago

U.S., Russia spar on missiles; Ukraine eyes NATO

TALLINN (Reuters) - The United States criticized on Thursday Russian threats to deploy tactical missiles near the Polish border and the NATO military alliance said it would press for closer ties with Ukraine.

Ukraine's Minister of Defence Yurii Yekhanurov speaks during the informal high-level NATO-Ukraine consultations in Tallinn November 13, 2008. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Moscow is at odds with Washington over its plan to install parts of a missile defense shield in eastern Europe and with NATO over former Soviet Ukraine’s ambition to join the military alliance, fearful Russian security would be threatened.

The NATO-Ukraine talks were being held in the capital of Estonia, another former Soviet republic, which entered NATO in 2004, breaking away from its powerful neighbor to the east.

Russia has threatened to put tactical missiles in Kaliningrad, its Baltic enclave next to Poland, if the United States goes ahead and puts parts of the shield against what Washington calls “rogue states” in Europe.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking after a NATO meeting with Ukraine, said the Russian threats were “hardly the welcome a new American administration deserved,” referring to the fact they were made immediately after Barack Obama won a presidential election.

“Such provocative remarks are unnecessary and misguided,” Gates told a news conference. He said the United States did not want a relationship with Russia “headed toward the past.”

“We just hope that the evolution of politics and economics in Russia moves Russia toward resuming the movement toward integration with western institutions ... We want them to be a part of this family,” Gates added.

Gates said an offer by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in an interview to French daily Le Figaro, to cancel deployment of the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad if Obama scrapped plans for the missile defense system was not “credible.”

Gates said Washington had put forward detailed proposals to Russia for working together on missile defense and said he was puzzled why Russia would point missiles at European nations, when the argument was between Washington and Moscow.

UKRAINE STILL NEEDS REFORMS

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Ukraine should press ahead with defense and security reforms to gain membership to the alliance.

Though prospects looked dim for Ukraine to get a promised action plan in December for entrance into the alliance because of political turmoil at home, that was the direction the process was going, he said.

Ukraine already takes part in all NATO’s missions, but in Ukraine itself only about a third of the people support membership of the alliance, according to opinion polls.

Political splits in Ukraine have made some NATO members anxious. Scheffer noted that there was a fist fight in Ukraine’s parliament on Wednesday.

“... silver, gold and bronze medals for boxing you do at the Olympic games and usually not in parliament,” he said, though he added that this was “democracy at work.”

Gates has pushed allies to offer Ukraine and Georgia, a former Soviet republic that battled with Russia in August, a Membership Action Plan (MAP) — the path to NATO membership — this year, but this now seems unlikely, analysts have said.

NATO is due to decide in December. De Hoop Scheffer said it was too early to say what the outcome would be.

“If the outcome will be no MAP in December, that does not mean no MAP at all. The allies will follow the trajectory they set out in Bucharest,” he said, referring to the promise made to Georgia and Ukraine that they would eventually enter NATO.

Editing by Elizabeth Piper

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