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Ukraine abandons non-aligned status

Ukraine's parliament has voted to abandon the country's non-aligned status, a move that could be a step towards seeking membership in Nato.

Although Ukraine pursued Nato membership several years ago, it declared itself a non-bloc country after Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych became president in 2010.

Mr Yanukovych fled the country in February after months of street protests that exploded into violence, and was replaced by Western-leaning Petro Poroshenko in May.

Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and its support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine appear partly rooted in fears that the Western military alliance could expand its presence on the Russian border by allowing Ukraine to join.

The vote, which was approved 303-9, was initiated by Mr Poroshenko.

The vote by Ukraine's parliament challenges the Kremlin's desire to keep Nato from taking a giant step towards the Russian heartland.

Five Nato countries - Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland - share relatively short borders on Russia's western outskirts, totalling about 780 miles. Adding Ukraine's 900-mile border with Russia to that would move the alliance's eastward flank substantially, and put it roughly on the same longitude as Moscow.

The move is likely to add difficulties to tomorrow's talks aimed at resolving the Ukrainian crisis.

Supporters of the move said it was justified by Russian aggression towards Ukraine, but opponents said it will only increase tensions, and Moscow echoed that view.

"This is counter-productive, it only heats up the confrontation, creating the illusion that accepting such a law is the road to regulating the deep internal crisis in Ukraine," said Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

Russia routinely characterises the Ukrainian crisis as an internal matter and rejects claims from Kiev and the West that it has sent troops and equipment to rebels in eastern Ukraine and shelled government positions from Russian border areas.

The vote does not necessarily mean Ukraine will apply to join Nato, but "in the conditions of the current aggression against Ukraine, this law opens for us new mechanisms", Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin told the parliament.

However, Ukraine's prospects for Nato membership in the near term appear dim. With its long-underfunded military suffering from the war with the separatists and the country's economy in peril, Ukraine has much to overcome to achieve the stability the alliance seeks in members.

An alliance source said: "Our door is open and Ukraine will become a member of Nato if it so requests and fulfils the standards and adheres to the necessary principles."

Negotiators from Ukraine, Russia, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the eastern rebels are to meet tomorrow in the Belarusian capital Minsk for another round of talks on resolving the Ukraine crisis.

Since a ceasefire agreement was reached in Minsk on September 5, fighting has diminished, but both sides report frequent ceasefire violations and there is incomplete progress on the stipulation for each side to pull back its heavy weaponry to create a buffer zone.

Russia's envoy to Nato, Alexander Grushko, said the Ukrainian vote creates "serious complications in the search for a way to end the violence and change the situation into a political process".

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