KIEV | Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko blamed the Russia-Georgia war on a security imbalance in the Black Sea region that he said could be corrected by NATO's further expansion to the East.
But he downplayed fears that his country is vulnerable to military aggression by Moscow even if it does not gain admission to the Western alliance.
"I don't believe that kind of danger exists for Ukraine, because Ukraine is not Georgia," Mr. Yushchenko told The Washington Times Wednesday. "Ukraine has a different potential, different possibilities. In other words, our relations [with Russia] can only bring about a dialogue."
Asked about recent remarks by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that NATO membership for Georgia would require a military response from the Western alliance, Mr. Yushchenko spoke in broader terms of the need for collective security throughout the region.
"This showed that the Black Sea region is unbalanced and that it can be a source of danger," Mr. Yushchenko said. "This is a problem not only for Georgia. I am convinced this is a problem not only for our region. This is a problem for the European continent and, in a wider sense, even a world problem."
Looking composed and relaxed, the silver-haired Mr. Yushchenko, 54, has regained the youthful vigor for which he was famous before dioxin poisoning left his face badly scarred in a purported 2004 assassination attempt.
He answered questions for nearly an hour, touching on a wide range of issues, including his nation's quest for membership in NATO and the European Union and his desire for Russia's Black Sea Fleet to eventually leave its base in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.
He also expressed disappointment at the rivalry with a one-time political ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, that led to the collapse of a parliamentary coalition this week.
Ukraine's relationship with Russia sparked the dispute, with Mrs. Tymoshenko accusing Mr. Yushchenko of unnecessarily antagonizing Moscow after last month's invasion of Georgia.
The two are expected to run against each other for the presidency when Mr. Yushchenko's five-year term ends in January 2010.
Mr. Yushchenko will travel to the United States next week to attend the 63rd session of the U.N. General Assembly, where he will have an opportunity to discuss with dozens of world leaders the war in Georgia and its impact on the centerpiece of his four-year presidency: Ukraine's quest for NATO membership.
"When we talk about the best answer for Ukraine, including its territorial integrity, and the inviolability of our borders, the answer is only one - joining a collective system of defense," he said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has stated repeatedly that former Soviet republics lie in his country's sphere of interest.
'DIALOGUE': Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko emphasizes that "Ukraine is not Georgia."
"I'm not going to say, however, that there aren't going to be ways for destabilization. In this country, there are instruments, and there are many of them," Mr. Yushchenko said of Russia.
He said he was unhappy that the leadership in Moscow has kept silent when some Russian politicians have laid claim to Crimea.
The peninsula has a large ethnically Russian population and was ceded to Ukraine in 1956. Both the Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea fleets are based there, on opposite sides of the same harbor at Sevastopol.
Mr. Yushchenko said it was critical that Kiev and Moscow shore up the agreement that allows Russia to base its fleet in Sevastopol until its lease expires in 2017.
"The Black Sea Fleet should not be a negative in our relationship with the Russian Federation," Mr. Yushchenko said. At the same time, he said, he prefers that the fleet leave Ukraine when its lease ends.
The president expressed frustration that Ukraine has fallen short in its bid for eventual NATO membership.
He chided NATO for not offering his country a membership action plan at an April summit in Bucharest.
Many analysts think the Russian invasion of Georgia last month will make it more difficult for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO or even gain a membership action plan when NATO foreign ministers meet again in December.
"Everyone needs to understand that everything Ukraine needed to do to obtain a positive answer [on NATO membership], if we speak openly and honestly, it has done that," he said.
Today, he said, "when we aren't talking about NATO membership, we're talking about a partnership agreement, that we want to have tighter cooperation. ... We need to get a signal from the alliance itself that we are respected, that we are valued."
Mr. Yushchenko, however, saved his harshest words for Ukraine's prime minister, Mrs. Tymoshenko, his ally in the 2004 Orange Revolution that toppled a pro-Russian government.
Their relationship has since dissolved. Earlier this month, Mrs. Tymoshenko pulled out of a coalition government and joined forces with Viktor Yanukovych, the president's political nemesis who heads the pro-Russia opposition.
"It's disgusting to speak about this because what happened in the last two months is an example of how easily national interests can be demolished with blackmail ... and how easily internal politics and external politics can be changed to suit one's own self interest," Mr. Yushchenko said of his former ally.
Mrs. Tymoshenko, in turn, has accused Mr. Yushchenko of ruining Ukraine's relationship with Russia.
She urged Ukraine to follow a "balanced" policy with Moscow and blamed Mr. Yushchenko of antagonizing Russia.
"I think that the president carries personal responsibility for everything bad that will happen in relations between Ukraine and Russia," Mrs. Tymoshenko told reporters in Kiev on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.