The divisive issue of whether Ukraine should join NATO will be put to a vote years from now, after the necessary reforms have been completed, President Petro Poroshenko announced Monday.
Russia's steadfast opposition to its neighbor and longtime ally becoming a member of the Western military alliance is a major factor in the armed conflict racking eastern Ukraine as Moscow attempts to thwart what it sees as the Kiev leadership's about-face to align instead with Europe.
An Oct. 26 parliamentary election has empowered a coalition in favor of pursuing membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as soon as possible, although all parties recognize that it will take years to meet the alliance conditions for new members.
Poroshenko has taken a more go-slow approach to NATO membership in view of Moscow's aggressive action in protest of Ukrainians' ouster of Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich in February. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to seize Ukraine's Crimean peninsula days after Yanukovich was toppled by a pro-Europe rebellion and he is accused by a broad array of foreign governments of arming and instigating separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. More than 4,300 people have been killed since fighting broke out in April.
"The decision on accession to NATO lies solely in the competence of the people of Ukraine," Poroshenko said at a news conference Monday with visiting Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Poroshenko said Ukraine was committed to making the reforms and investments necessary to meet NATO requirements but that a referendum would be held after those milestones are reached, sometime around 2020, to determine whether or not to join what is now a 28-nation alliance.
Putin has cast NATO expansion into the former Soviet sphere of influence as aggression aimed at undermining the security of Russia, and the frequency of provocative air and sea space violations has tripled this year as Moscow takes a more hostile posture against its NATO-member neighbors.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Monday that aerial intrusions by Russian fighter planes, numbering more than 100 so far this year, are putting commercial aircraft at risk.
"They're not turning on the transponders, they are not filing their flight plans and they're not communicating with civilian air-traffic control," Stoltenberg told reporters at an alliance gathering in The Hague. "That poses a risk on civilian air traffic."
Stoltenberg also commented on the status of Ukraine's eligibility to join NATO, saying that although it had been put on the back burner it remains available to the embattled country.
"It's up to each sovereign nation to decide itself what kind of security arrangements it would like to be part of. And therefore I respect this decision of Ukraine, but our policy is the same. The door is open," he said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Moscow last week and has reported that he made little progress in persuading Putin to cease supporting the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine and to respect that country's territorial integrity. Rebels control two major industrial regions in the east, as well as the Crimean peninsula that is home to the Russian Black Sea fleet and other strategic ports and bases.
"I'm taking Russia at its word that it doesn't want to destroy the unity of Ukraine," Steinmeier told Der Spiegel magazine. But his meeting with Putin left him with the impression, he said, that the Kremlin leader is "speaking a different language."
The German weekly also ran an extensive retrospective on the conflict, which arose out of Ukraine's turn to embrace NATO and the European Union. The lead article was titled: "Summit of Failure: How the EU lost Russia over Ukraine."