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U.S. senator urges broad public discussion of NATO membership in Ukraine
Associated Press Writer
16 January 2008

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - A senior U.S. senator on Wednesday urged Ukraine to hold a broad public discussion on joining NATO -- an issue that sharply divides this former Soviet republic where many are suspicious of the West.

Western-leaning President Viktor Yushchenko is pushing for membership of the military alliance, but opinion polls show more than half of Ukrainians are opposed to the idea. The government says a decision on whether to join NATO will be made based on a nationwide referendum.

"The United States certainly supports that vital discussion in this country," Senator Richard Lugar told The Associated Press in an interview.

Yushchenko stepped up his efforts Tuesday by formally requesting NATO's Membership Action Plan, a key step on the road to joining the alliance. He expressed hope that a decision on the plan could be reached at a NATO summit in April in Bucharest, Romania.

Ukraine's NATO bid also faces strong opposition from Russia, which has been angered by NATO's eastward expansion and deployments close to its borders.

Lugar, the leading Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that the discussion wouldn't be easy. "Other countries may want to enter into an international debate, they may have comments also," he said.

Lugar, who has devoted much of his career to nuclear safety and energy security, also urged Ukraine, which depends on Russia for most of its energy supplies, to develop its own oil and gas fields and consider alternative energy sources such as wind power.

"Very clearly there are resources in this country -- oil and natural gas. This is going to require cooperation with international companies, with international investment," Lugar told the AP. "I am most hopeful that there will be a timetable that will be moved up to think through what resources there are available here."

Lugar expressed hope that relations with Washington would further strengthen after the government of pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko took office in December after months of political deadlock.

"Relations are excellent and my guess is that they will grow even stronger," Lugar said.

Yushchenko on Tuesday invited President George W. Bush to visit Ukraine in April. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev said such a visit was possible.