MOSCOW – Russia's defense minister said the Kremlin (search) cannot prevent ex-Soviet republics from joining NATO, but it would view any foreign military bases in neighboring countries as a threat, a news agency reported Friday.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (search) said in an interview with Profil magazine that he would not rule out more former Soviet republics following the three Baltic states and joining NATO in the next seven to 10 years, according to Interfax, which obtained the text in advance of publication.
"If Georgia or Ukraine decides to join NATO (search), they will join. We cannot prevent this, and we probably shouldn't," Ivanov said, according to the report. He said many countries want to join NATO because "without this they won't let them into the European Union."
The statement came as an acknowledgment of Russia's waning influence as other former Soviet republics turn to the West, seeking closer integration with — and eventual membership in — NATO and the EU.
Russian officials have said that its neighbors are sovereign and free to form their own foreign policy. But they have watched warily as NATO has expanded eastward, taking in first former Warsaw Pact members and then Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania last year.
In Georgia and Ukraine, new Westward-leaning presidents have replaced longtime leaders with close Russian ties in the past two years, and Moldova's leadership has recently turned its backed on Russia to seek closer ties with Europe.
With NATO growing, Ivanov reiterated Russian warnings that foreign base on its doorstep would be seen as an aggressive move and said there are no grounds for placing U.S. or NATO bases in Georgia, where Russia recently agreed to withdraw its troops from two Soviet-era bases by the end of 2008.
"I have said repeatedly: If a serious military base appears in the Baltics, we will interpret it as a threat to Russia. There is no other way to explain a base in this region," Interfax quoted Ivanov as saying.
At the same time, he said that the Western alliance has changed since the Cold War, and that a country joining NATO does not mean that major military bases will be established on its territory, according to Interfax.
U.S. officials have said Washington has no plans for bases in Georgia, where it has trained troops. But amid planned shifts in American troops abroad, Russia fears its longtime military presence in the strategic Caucasus Mountain nation could be replaced by American forces.
Ivanov said the idea that bases in Georgia could be needed because of its proximity to the Middle East was "an insufficient argument. There are already (U.S.) bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and a number of other countries."
Ivanov said that because of links between the Russian and Ukrainian defense industries, Ukrainian membership in NATO would force Russia to "invest quite big money to avoid any kind of dependence on supplies of products and parts from Ukraine," the report said.