Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told AFP Thursday there was "no alternative" to his country eventually joining NATO, but said for the first time that Russia should be included in negotiations on the issue.
Yushchenko also vowed that Ukraine would "guarantee" that all Russian natural gas shipped to Europe through Ukrainian territory would reach its intended recipients, moving to calm Western concerns over another energy dispute.
"Ukraine has no other option -- no alternative exists" to NATO membership to ensure its national sovereignty, Yushchenko said in an exclusive interview in Kiev.
"We must hold negotiations with all parties who are interested, or not interested, in Ukraine moving closer to NATO," the Ukrainian president said, clearly alluding to Russia which is fiercely opposed to Ukrainian membership in the alliance.
His comments came two days after NATO backed away from placing Ukraine and another ex-Soviet republic, Georgia, on a fast track for membership in the alliance despite strong US lobbying for this in recent years.
NATO also agreed at its ministerial meeting in Brussels on Tuesday to renew its dialogue with Russia, suspended following the brief war last August in Georgia, a move welcomed by Moscow as a return to a "position of realism."
Yushchenko, who has led the drive in recent years to disengage Ukraine from Moscow's influence and place it firmly on course for integration into key Western institutions, repeated his view that NATO membership represented no threat to Russia.
"If third parties are needed to provide international guarantees" that would help assuage Russia's concerns about NATO taking in Ukraine as a member "we are prepared for this," he said.
Asked to elaborate, Yushchenko referred specifically to the European Union or "a whole series of states that both sides trust" and that could play a role in confidence-building on the issue.
The Ukrainian president's suggestion to involve Moscow directly in negotiations on Kiev eventually joining the Atlantic alliance was a striking departure from his previous position on the issue.
He denied however reports that he was shifting his staunchly pro-Western policy orientation in favor of a more "pragmatic" tack.
US President George W. Bush has pushed hard for the alliance to continue expanding to take in Ukraine and Georgia and has said Moscow would not have any veto power over this, provided they qualified for membership.
However the alliance failed at its summit last April in Bucharest to grant the two ex-Soviet states Membership Action Plans (MAPs) as sought by Washington amid objections from large European states in NATO.
On the gas issue, Yushchenko insisted Ukraine would pay in full for its imports and guarantee that Russian gas supplies for Europe that pass through Ukrainian territory would be delivered normally.
"Ukraine will not consume gas for free. We are an honest client," Yushchenko said.
"We guarantee transit security" through Ukraine for Russian gas exports and "it is not in our interest to violate the transit or payment procedure," he said.
His comments came hours after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that Kiev had not paid its bills and that Moscow could again be forced to trim supplies if it did not or if it attempted to divert supply meant for customers in Europe.
Despite price increases in the past two years, Ukraine still pays far lower prices for gas shipped from Russia than do customers further downstream in Europe -- Putin put it at roughly half what European clients pay.
The situation is a hangover from the days of the Soviet Union, when Russia and Ukraine were part of a single country, and Putin said that while the transition to world prices had to continue Moscow would try to make it "gentle."
The West however had no right to demand that Russia continue selling gas to Ukraine at below-market rates, Putin said.
Turning to Ukraine's messy domestic political situation, Yushchenko said the emergence of an alliance between the nominally pro-Western Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the pro-Russian opposition leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was possible within days.
"We may end up with a coalition capable of inflicting very serious damage to the national interest and to democracy" in Ukraine, the president said.
Tymoshenko was Yushchenko's ally in the 2004 Orange Revolution while Yanukovych was his bitter opponent, whose fraudulent victory in presidential elections that year sparked the popular revolt.
The creation of a political alliance between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, unthinkable until recently, would further isolate Yushchenko on the Ukrainian political landscape.
Yushchenko also charged Russia with meddling in Ukraine's internal politics and encouraging the alliance between Tymoshenko and Yanukovich.
"Calling every political force in its turn to the Kremlin for consultations is not a policy of good neighbor," he charged, adding that "Russia is our neighbor, and one must always live well with neighbors."
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