Washington supports Ukraine's bid to join NATO and the former Soviet republic is free to choose its own foreign policy alliances regardless of what other nations want, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told Ukraine's president on Tuesday.
Both assertions were a shot at Russia, which vehemently opposes having its neighbors join the Western military alliance and is uncomfortable with their desire for greater economic and political integration with West.
Biden met with President Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev, then said in a speech later that if Ukraine chooses to join NATO, "which I believe you have, we strongly support that."
Polls have shown a majority of Ukrainians to be against NATO membership.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, were looking for signals that Washington's effort to improve ties with Moscow would not hurt its Western integration, and also for support as Russia tries to reassert some control over its former Soviet satellite states.
"We don't recognize, and I want to reiterate this, any spheres of influence. We do not recognize anyone else's right to dictate to any other country what alliance it should seek to belong to, or what relationships, bilateral relationships, you have," Biden said.
Biden's comments echoed the stance of President Barack Obama, who stressed at a Moscow summit earlier this month that "NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation."
Obama's speech was part of a White House effort to produce a more productive relationship with Russia, after ties approached Cold War lows last year during the Russian-Georgian war.
But better ties with Moscow "will not come at Ukraine's expense," Biden said. "To the contrary, I believe it can actually benefit Ukraine. The more substantive relationship we have with Moscow, the more we can defuse the zero-sum thinking about our relations with Russia's neighbors."
Earlier Tuesday, Yushchenko welcomed Biden to Ukraine, calling it a "European country where democracy rules" a not-so-veiled dig at Russia.
"We are going forward, we have chosen a European path," Yushchenko told Biden at the start of their meeting. "There is a lot of homework to do, because sometimes it is very difficult."
Biden was to meet Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko later Tuesday as well as key opposition leaders who plan to participate in January's presidential election.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko — allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought Yushchenko to power — are now bitter foes after falling out over a number of issues. Their rivalry has prevented an effective response to the global economic crisis.
That has allowed Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-backed presidential candidate who lost the 2004 election yet who is very popular in Ukraine's Russian-dominated east, to come back into the running for the January vote.
Biden is also set to meet with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the reformist former parliament speaker, who also plans to run for president.
Russia is watching Biden's visit to its former Soviet backyard with keen interest, suspicious that Washington is out to block any moves in Ukraine and Georgia back toward dependence on Moscow, their former Soviet provider.
But the U.S. has repeatedly denied that it seeks to dictate who should rule in any democratic country.
Biden on Wednesday visits Georgia, where President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to see through his term, which ends in 2013. The opposition has demanded his resignation, accusing him of launching an unwinnable war against Russia in August.
The Russian army quickly crushed the Georgian army last August after Georgia attacked its own breakaway province of South Ossetia to try to bring it back under control.
Thousands of Russian troops now remain in South Ossetia and another separatist-held Georgian enclave, Abkhazia, and Russia has recognized both regions as independent nations.
Washington said it did not support Georgia's attempt to retake South Ossetia by force.
Saakashvili, who had committed thousands of troops for U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, pleaded for military support from Washington during the fighting, but the U.S. did not intervene.
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