By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 8, 2008 - The United States continues to support NATO membership action plans for Ukraine and Georgia, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today following a meeting with Ukraine's defense minister. Gates met with Yuriy Yekhanurov as part of the South East European Defense Ministerial conference here. The two men met in advance of a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Budapest tomorrow.
President Bush expressed support for the NATO membership action plans during the alliance's April summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania.
"We reaffirmed the president's pledge in Bucharest of U.S. support for MAP for Ukraine," Gates said after today's meeting with Yekhanurov. "I encouraged the Ukrainian government to continue educating their citizens as to the benefits of being in NATO, and also the importance of continuing their efforts toward defense reform and interoperability.
"Our position, in principle, remains unchanged," Gates said.
At the April meeting of NATO heads of state in Bucharest, the alliance welcomed Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations and agreed that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. The membership action plan is the next step, and that will be discussed at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in December.
Ukraine is the only non-NATO country that participates in every NATO activity, Gates said. The country also has provided aid and troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week that Germany views the December meeting as "an initial evaluation on the road to MAP." She said Germany's stance has not changed since the Bucharest summit. Critics of Germany's policy say NATO's failure to invite Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance in April paved the way for Russia's invasion of Georgia in August.
Ukraine is in the midst of political change, with a new prime minister and a coalition government. Gates said he told Yekhanurov that the United States stands ready to work with whatever coalition faction takes charge.
The secretary said he is pleased that Russia appears to be fulfilling its obligations under a cease-fire agreement to withdraw its troops from Georgia by the Oct. 10 deadline. "At the same time, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to reaffirm the United States' strong support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.
Yekhanurov said Ukraine will continue to work with the United States to professionalize its military and reform its defense structure. He pointed to establishment of a noncommissioned officers academy in the eastern part of the country as one example of the progress the military is making. U.S. servicemembers have worked with Ukraine's military to make the academy a reality.
The defense minister said 31 percent of the Ukrainian people are in favor of NATO membership, with 40 percent undecided. "Most members of the government are in favor of membership," he said through a translator.
The minister thanked Gates for the "continued support of the United States concerning Ukraine's integration and participation in all kinds of NATO operations."
"I think this is really instrumental, and we have seen the practical results right now," he said.
Ukraine has a significant airlift capability, and the defense minister pledged to ensure it remains "one of the best in the world."