Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko vowed on Monday that his country will carry out reforms for it to meet the necessary standards to be able to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
He added that Kiev and NATO will begin discussions on a roadmap to get Ukraine into the alliance by 2020.
His announcement came a day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged, during a visit to Kiev, Russia to take the “first steps” in easing the violence in eastern Ukraine.
At loggerheads with Russia and fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine passed a law in June prioritizing NATO membership as a foreign policy goal.
Speaking alongside Poroshenko on a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pledged the alliance’s support for Ukraine as it faces a bloody insurgency by pro-Russian separatists in the east.
“Russia has maintained its aggressive actions against Ukraine, but NATO and NATO allies stand by Ukraine and stand on your side,” Stoltenberg said in his opening remarks of the NATO-Ukraine Commission session in Kiev.
Ukraine and the West accuse Moscow of smuggling weapons and troops across the porous border, a charge it denies. The US and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia, though Moscow has denied backing the rebels.
“Ukraine has clearly defined its political future and future in the sphere of security,” Poroshenko told reporters.
“Today we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”
NATO leaders agreed at a summit in 2008 that Ukraine would one day become a member of the alliance and the country already contributes troops to NATO missions including in Afghanistan.
A formal NATO membership plan for Ukraine would mean meeting targets on political, economic and defense reforms, with national plans submitted annually to show progress.
But there are even larger barriers.
NATO rules state that aspiring members must “settle their international disputes by peaceful means”, meaning Ukraine would need to resolve the Donbass conflict — an insurgency by pro-Russian forces — that has so far killed more than 10,000 people.
Responding to Stoltenberg’s comments, the Kremlin said on Monday that Russia does not have troops in Ukraine.
It added: “Ukraine’s possible NATO membership will not boost stability and security in Europe.”
On Sunday, Tillerson visited Kiev and said Russia must make the first move in staunching the violence in eastern Ukraine.
Russia must take the first steps to de-escalate violence in eastern Ukraine, he said after meeting Poroshenko. He added that Washington’s primary goal is the restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity.
Tillerson’s tough talk clearly pleased Poroshenko, who has long complained about Russian interference in his country’s east and has watched nervously as the Trump administration has sought to improve ties with Moscow.
He thanked Tillerson for the continued US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and expressed deep appreciation for his “symbolic and timely visit immediately after the meetings at the G20 in Hamburg” where US President Donald Trump met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 have driven ties between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
“We are also here to demonstrate NATO’s solidarity with Ukraine and our firm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of your country,” Stoltenberg said.
“NATO allies do not and will not recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea.”
Ukraine sees NATO accession as a way to bolster its defenses against former master Moscow.
However, Kiev has yet to officially apply to start the lengthy and politically challenging process of joining the alliance.