(AFP) Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko said that only the West — particularly eventual membership in NATO — can safeguard the country's independence from Russia.

Yushchenko, in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, also told a foreign policy think tank that tensions were rising with former master Russia ahead of a presidential election in January.

"Just in the last 70 years, since 1917, we declared our independence six times and five times we lost it. There was only one reason for this: the international factor," Yushchenko said in an official translation provided during his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That's why NATO membership and Ukrainian independence are synonymous."

Yushchenko also said Moscow's influence was again a factor in the new race.

"Obviously there is a fifth column," he said. "To be more correct, there are politicians who'd like to have . . . information and any financial support from Russia. Those are residues that still remain from those times when Ukraine was colonized."

Yushchenko also warned of "interference" from Moscow in the distribution of Russian passports to residents of Ukraine's mainly ethnic-Russian Crimea region, home to the Russian Black Sea naval fleet.

"Ukrainian legislation does not allow double citizenship," he said.

Russia handed out tens of thousands of passports in two breakaway provinces of ex-Soviet Georgia over recent years in what Georgians saw as a creeping annexation prior to a 2008 war which ended with Russia recognizing the provinces' independence from Georgia.

Yushchenko also repeated that the Black Sea fleet base lease would not be renewed beyond the 2017 expiry date.

"The Ukrainian side believes that the Ukrainian constitution prohibits any military base . . . . I hope the word the Russians gave will be kept and the Russian Black Sea fleet will leave," he said.

If Ukraine eventually joins NATO, the rule on foreign bases would remain the same, he said.

Asked about President Barack Obama's decision to cancel a controversial project to set up an anti-missile shield in eastern Europe, Yushchenko said he had to give a "delicate answer."

The decision alarmed governments in countries with a long history of Russian and Soviet occupation, but pleased Moscow, which had argued the shield — ostensibly aimed at Iran's missile forces — was a threat to its security.

Yushchenko appeared to criticize Obama's move, saying that making "defense stronger and more efficient is always good and this gives more benefits than the policy of risk balancing," which he said was "not a stable policy."


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