Robert Harneis –TDO- There has been a flurry of activity between Ukraine and NATO. Against a background of major military exercises off the Ukrainian coast, it has been announced that negotiations for the country to join the alliance are to start following a visit to Kiev by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, where he met with President Poroshenko.

The NATO leader said that the alliance would never accept the Russian occupation of Crimea and called on Russia to withdraw its ‘thousands of troops’ from the country. He specified that the country would not immediately enter the alliance but would undertake a program of reforms to fulfill the criteria for a future adhesion. He told journalists that Ukraine had ‘clearly defined its future policy and its future in the security sphere’. He added that sanctions against Russia were not NATO’s responsibility but that he was in favor of keeping them in place until Russia changed its attitude to the Minsk Accords.

Stoltenberg’s visit to Kiev came immediately after a visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The idea of Ukraine becoming a member of the alliance is far from being a done deal. All 29-member states have to agree. It is far from clear that all European members, notably France, will wish to generate the fierce Russian hostility that membership would create. In addition, there are considerable problems of corruption to deal with and the Ukrainian army would have to be brought up to NATO standards. According to a recent EU report ‘despite reform efforts Ukraine is still regarded as the most corrupt country in Europe… oligarchs continue to exercise influence over the Ukrainian economy, its politics and its media’. Ukraine also remains divided as a result of the separatist war in the Donbass, an area which shows no signs of returning to the Kievan fold.

In response to Secretary General Stoltenberg’s comments, the spokesman for the Russian government, Dimitri Peskov, said ‘Russia has never had and has not currently any troops in Ukraine’. He indicated that any extension of NATO to its frontiers would be considered as a sign of aggression against Russia. He added that the latest NATO initiative ‘would not contribute to reinforcing the stability of the security of the European continent.’

At the same time, there are reports in the state-owned media that Russia is considering down grading its diplomatic representation with NATO headquarters when the current permanent representative, Aleksandr Grusko, leaves his post.

Russian officials have repeatedly voiced concern over NATO activities near Russian borders and other ‘unfriendly steps’. The situation was aggravated after in April 2014, when NATO suspended all practical co-operation with the Russian Federation.

In February this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused NATO of meddling in Russian affairs and trying to provoke a conflict. He said NATO, with its "newly-declared official mission to deter Russia," poses a threat to global security.

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