KIEV - Agence France-Presse
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called yesterday for stronger efforts to join NATO, saying Ukraine shares Georgia's "pain" in its conflict with Russia.
"We must intensify our work to win membership in the European security system and strengthen the defence capabilities of our country," Yushchenko said in a speech marking the 17th anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.
"Anyone who cares about Ukraine must openly declare that entry into the Euro-Atlantic security system is the only way to protect the lives and ensure the well-being of our families, children and grandchildren," he said.
Yushchenko condemned the "forceful intervention and "aggression" waged against Georgia but vowed his country would not be Russia's next target. "Ukraine will do everything to prevent any military escalation in our region."
Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian minority, has sided with Georgia in its confrontation with Russia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, whose rebel leadership is backed by Moscow.
Ukraine has sided with the West in condemning Russia for sending tanks and troops into Georgian territory in response to a Georgian offensive on August 7 to retake South Ossetia, where residents have been given Russian passports.
Addressing several thousand people gathered on Kiev's independence square, Yushchenko said "the events in Georgia did not leave Ukraine indifferent.
"I share a deep empathy with all the suffering people of the indivisible Georgian land. Your pain is in our hearts."
Ukrainians watched a military parade on Kiev's main Kreshchatyk street, cheering tanks, armored personnel carriers and missiles mounted on vehicles as they rolled by.
There was also a fly-past of some 22 fighter jets and other warplanes in the parade, the first military display since 2001 to mark the anniversary of Ukraine's secession from Moscow.
At its summit in Bucharest in April, NATO leaders agreed that Georgia and Ukraine should eventually join the organization, but neither nation was given candidate status and no timetable was set.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has underscored that NATO's offer to Ukraine and Georgia to eventually join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remains valid.
The Georgia conflict has heightened tensions over Russia's Black Sea fleet based in the port of Sevastopol in Ukraine's Crimea republic.
Ukraine has called on Russia to begin preparations for a withdrawal from Sevastopol after Moscow sent ships from the base to Georgia during its military campaign.
Russia retained control of the port after the break-up of the Soviet Union, on a lease that runs out in 2017, a deal which some see as an obstacle for Ukrainian efforts to join NATO.
Russian warships returned to Sevastopol from Georgia last week, greeted by cheering crowds of ethnic Russians, while Ukrainian nationalists have held protests nearby.
Yushchenko has been criticized by the opposition for his strong support of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. He was among five leaders from eastern Europe who staged a public show of support for him in Tbilisi earlier this month.
Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych said the parade was a "demonstration of non-existent military power" in a commentary to the weekly Zerkalo Nedeli.