TALLINN, Estonia– Ukraine is making progress, but still has a long way to go before becoming a full member of NATO, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. Gates spoke to reporters at the conclusion of a meeting here of NATO defense ministers to discuss Ukraine’s path to membership in the alliance. The secretary also spoke about Russia and how the security environment has changed since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August.

The NATO representatives met with a Ukrainian team led by Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. Gates called the meetings good and productive, and he praised Ukraine for what it has done to date.

“Ukraine participates in all NATO-led operations and continues to build expeditionary forces compatible with alliance requirements and goals,” the secretary said.

Still, Ukraine cannot rest on its laurels. The NATO ministers called on Ukraine to speed the pace of security-sector reform, specifically addressing defense budget shortfalls and urgently needed improvements in planning and prioritization, the secretary said.

“Despite political uncertainty, the leadership in Kiev must continue to show the sustained commitment required to join the alliance,” Gates said.

The secretary emphasized that one of the main reasons he made the trip to Tallinn was to support the countries of the region who wish to more fully integrate with the West. “These nations are, quite understandably, on edge due to Russia’s incursion into Georgia last summer,” Gates said.

The secretary called Russia’s more recent behavior troubling as well. Within hours of the conclusion of the recent U.S. presidential election, Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev threatened in a speech to put weapons in Kaliningrad – a small sliver of Russia on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. The speech was “hardly the welcome that a new American administration deserves,” Gates said. “Such provocative remarks are unnecessary and misguided.”

Gates repeated what is fast becoming a mantra. “As we have tried to make clear, Russia has nothing to fear from a defensive missile shield, or for that matter, the presence of democratic nations on its periphery,” he said. “Rather than associate with the rhetoric of a bygone era, the United States would prefer that Russia work with us to combat mutual security threats. We will continue to seek a positive, constructive relationship with the Russian government.”

The United States has put forward proposals to ease Russian concerns and has been answered by missiles, Gates noted. “Quite frankly, I’m not clear what the missiles would be for in Kaliningrad,” he said. “After all, the only real emerging threat on Russia’s periphery is in Iran. I don’t think the Iskander missile has the range to get there from Kaliningrad. Why they would threaten to point missiles at European nations seems quite puzzling to me.”

Still, Gates said, the United States does not want a relationship with Russia that dwells in the past, but one that looks to the future. “That means greater integration of Russia with the rest of Europe as well as the United States,” the secretary said. “It means the Europe ‘whole and free’ that we talked about in 1989 and 1990 extends to and includes Russia.”

No one in U.S. or European governments wants to exclude Russia from these relationships, Gates said.

“We just hope that the evolution of politics and economics in Russia moves Russia toward resuming the movement toward integration with western institutions,” he said. “We want them to be a part of this family, and we are going through a period that they are taking a difficult line. I’m hoping that this is transitory, and they will resume a more productive and positive relationship going forward.”

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