Ukraine Pushes for NATO Membership as Gas Talks Commence

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Ukraine kick-started the process to strengthen its ties with NATO and will strive to join the alliance in the “short term,” its government said, a day after its president declared the worst of its separatist war was over.

The country of more than 40 million people is scheduled to hold talks today in Berlin to resolve a dispute over natural gas supply before the onset of winter. Russia stopped selling the fuel to Ukraine in June without pre-payment after raising the price 81 percent, which has prompted officials in Kiev to urge companies and households to cut consumption. Russian gas exporter OAO Gazprom (GAZP) says Ukraine owes it $5.3 billion.

Ukraine’s push to end its neutral status and join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will probably exacerbate the worst standoff between Russia and its former Cold War foes since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Sporadic fighting between pro-Russian rebels and government troops in the eastern Donetsk region of the former Soviet Republic is threatening a shaky cease-fire reached three weeks ago.

Standoff in Ukraine

“The cabinet has submitted a draft law to parliament that envisages the cancellation of our non-aligned status and ensuring a European integration course to create grounds for Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic security space,” the administration in Kiev said in an e-mailed statement today. “Ukraine’s government underlines that Ukraine’s aim is to receive special partner status with NATO now and membership in the short term.”

NATO Membership

Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticized the U.S. and European Union countries for encroaching into former communist eastern Europe, saying they have violated agreements signed at the end of the Cold War and pose a threat to his country’s national security.

“In Russia’s eyes, NATO is an enemy,” Martin Stropnicky, defense minister in NATO member Czech Republic, told Bloomberg in an interview yesterday. “In this situation, thinking about some hypothetical possibility of Ukraine’s entry to NATO would probably be the best way to prevent any agreement on stabilizing the situation there.”

Quasi-Statelet Veto

Putin wants to turn Luhansk and Donetsk into quasi-statelets with the right to veto national initiatives such as Ukraine joining NATO, according to five current and former Russian officials and advisers. He’s suggested Ukraine switch to a federal system that would give regions a veto over major state decisions, such as EU or NATO membership.

The U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on Russian people and companies they blame for fueling a conflict that has killed more than 3,500 people in eastern Ukraine, according to United Nations estimates. Russia denies stoking the conflict, which erupted after Putin annexed Crimea in March.

In August, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated a decision taken in 2008 that Ukraine may join the alliance if it chooses to and meets necessary criteria. No official process for Ukrainian membership has begun.

With Poland and Baltic states lobbying that the alliance boost its presence in countries bordering Russia, NATO also announced plans to create a force of as many as 5,000 troops that could mobilize within 48 hours to repel aggression against any of its members.

Worst Over?

In the wake of a fragile Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said yesterday the worst of the war with pro-Russian separatists had passed as the country’s focus moves to elections, securing winter gas supplies and preparing a bid for EU membership.

“I have no doubt that the main, most dangerous part of the war is over,” Poroshenko told reporters yesterday in Kiev.

Ukraine has refused to pay the higher prices Gazprom demanded in April, raising concern about the reliability of Russian flows to Europe as the heating season begins. Gazprom supplies about 30 percent of Europe’s gas, half of which transits Ukraine. Countries including Slovakia and the Balkan nations suffered disruptions in freezing temperatures in 2006 and 2009 when supplies were cut during previous disputes.

Gas Talks

There is a more than 70 percent chance that Russia will stop gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine this winter to discredit Ukraine as a transit route, Naftogaz Ukrainy Chief Executive Officer Andriy Kobolyev said on Sept. 23. Gazprom is a reliable supplier and security of gas transit to Europe depends on Ukraine, the company’s press service said yesterday.

European nations have pumped record volumes into storage facilities to guard against any shortfalls. As a result, most EU countries will be able to meet their usual gas demand in the event a cutoff lasts three months, according to the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne.

Poroshenko granted the separatists in Ukraine’s eastern, mostly Russian-speaking regions powers to govern the areas they control as part of a cease-fire agreed Sept. 5 in Minsk, Belarus. While a final settlement hasn’t yet been found, a truce monitoring group including officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and 76 Russian servicemen began operating today, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Facebook.

The truce remained fragile, with rebels attacking government forces in 10 towns and the airport in Donetsk city today, the military said. Newly appointed Luhansk regional Governor Hennadiy Moskal said the situation in the contested province was worsening and rebels weren’t meeting their Minsk obligations.

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