Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, was in a fierce and defiant mood in an interview with the Times of London as he urged NATO to respond to the Russian invasion of Georgia by moving quickly to expand the frontiers of the alliance eastwards.

Yushchenko asserted that the fundamentals of international politics had changed. Ukraine had to do everything in its power to ensure it was not going to be next on the Kremlin hitlist.

“It is the first time in Europe since the Cold War that a foreign army has entered the territory of a sovereign state without any internationally accepted legal basis,” he told the Times.

“If we were to be ambivalent about this it would give tacit approval to put our country and our citizens under threat.”

Yushchenko — one of the figureheads of the Orange Revolution that toppled Moscow's favored candidate for the leadership of Ukraine — was careful not to criticize Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin directly.

Even when Yushchenko flew to Tbilisi shortly after the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war, his words were more carefully chosen than those of the other East European heads of state.

Russians form a strong minority in Ukraine, about 17 percent of the population, and could become a flashpoint in any future confrontation with Moscow.

"Ukraine has to move towards the NATO alliance," Yushchenko said, drumming up support before the NATO summit in December.

"It is the only way for our country to protect our national security and sovereignty. When the borders of NATO expand, so too does the region of peace and stability."

The defense budget of Ukraine — as in other nervous Central European states — is to be raised immediately. "I want to remind all political forces in our country that shout about the possible neutral status of Ukraine that neutrality can come at a very high price," he said, casting a nod at pro-Moscow politicians.

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