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Clinton: ‘NATO’s Door Remains Open’ to Ukraine

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko. Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

During a five-country tour of the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Ukrainian officials Friday that the door to NATO membership is still open, though the U.S. would not pressure the country to join.

She met with government officials, including Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko. “Ukraine is a sovereign and independent country that has the right to choose its own alliances and NATO’s door remains open,” she said, quoted the Agence France-Presse. “But it’s up to Ukraine to decide whether or not you wish to pursue that or any other course for your own security interest.”

Clinton is visiting four former Soviet republics, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, in addition to Poland, through Monday. (Follow her trip on the State Department’s interactive map.)

To learn more about Clinton’s mission in the region, we spoke to Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:

What is the significance of Clinton’s comments about NATO to Ukraine?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: I think it surely reflects a view that that has to be the policy toward all countries, whatever their current level of interest. With respect to Ukraine, it surely reflects a calculation that, while Ukraine has backed away from interest in membership, that may not be their position five years down the road or 10 years down the road. And no one should treat the decision to take membership off the table as a reason to downgrade cooperation between NATO and Ukraine, which goes forward, by the way.

It’s worth remembering that Ukraine began its move toward membership in NATO under a prime minister by the name of Yanukovych — before the Orange Revolution. (Former President Viktor) Yushchenko pushed it further, but the previous government had wanted to expand cooperation with NATO and did.

Right now, this is a divisive issue in Ukraine. Five years from now, it may not be.

What’s Clinton’s overall mission in these countries?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: I think the administration realizes that a little bit of cooling off was probably good in the attention paid to Ukraine and Georgia, in particular. But that can’t mean neglect, and so she’s showing the flag. She’s affirming American interest in the rest of the former Soviet Union, making clear both to those countries and to Moscow that there’s no sphere of influence and that the United States intends to try to develop relations actively. That’s particularly true in Georgia.

But if there’s a stop on the trip that involves real fence-mending, it’s with Azerbaijan, where the administration’s failure to invite (Azerbaijani President Ilham) Aliyev to the Washington (nuclear) summit was very badly misunderstood. At every stop, she’s doing a slightly different kind of repair job. But through the region, she’s trying to make the point that the United States has not lost interest.

What message does the trip send to Russia?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: The message is we’ve got a good “reset” going, and that doesn’t mean that the United States is going to be less interested in other former Soviet countries, it might even be the reverse. And I think there’s a reasonable hope that with the framework of Russian-American relations in better shape, Moscow may be less inclined to treat American relations with its neighbors as some strategic affront.

What should we note about the Georgia visit?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: The Georgia stop is particularly sensitive, because the Georgians feel that they are the ones who have kind of borne the heaviest price of the “reset”, and [Clinton] will want to make clear that that is not the case. She will probably be using the word that was used by American officials during the summit with President Obama last week — that is referring to the presence of Russian troops in Georgia as “occupation”.

She will be talking about specific concerns that they’ve got about defense cooperation, including arms sales. She also is going to want to take a reading of the new phase of Georgian politics, because whatever you think of (Georgian President Mikheil) Saakashvili, he is clearly restored his political dominance of Georgian politics.

A year ago, it was right to wonder whether he was going to make it — this was at a time when opposition seemed to be rising — it’s clearly subsiding now. He’s the master at Georgian politics, and one thing American policy needs to do is take account of that.

It needs also to try to get the Russians over their hope that Saakashvili will somehow go away. He’s plainly not going away, and a realistic policy for the future has to take account of that.

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