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Dec 24, 8:29 AM EST

Russia: NATO pushed Kiev to drop nonaligned status

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MOSCOW (AP) -- NATO members pushed Ukraine toward dropping its nonaligned status, Russia claimed Wednesday, and also criticized the alliance for expanding its military presence near Russian borders.

Ukraine's parliament abandoned the nonaligned position Tuesday, possibly paving the way for a bid to join NATO, in defiance of Russia's protests.

The move doesn't guarantee that Ukraine will apply to join the alliance and its prospects for membership in the near term appear dim anyway. With a war against pro-Russian separatists in the east and its economy in shambles, Ukraine has much to overcome to achieve the stability that the alliance seeks in its members.

Valeriy Chalyi, a deputy chief of staff for the Ukrainian president, emphasized Wednesday that the parliament vote doesn't mean that the bid to join the alliance is on the immediate agenda. He added that Ukraine should focus on reforms to meet membership criteria.

Despite that, Moscow strongly protested the Ukrainian parliament's move. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said Wednesday that unidentified NATO members had pushed Ukraine to make the move in a bid to turn it into a "forward line for confronting Russia."

"Under the slogan of a `Russian threat,' NATO is expanding its military potential in the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania," Antonov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.

He added that NATO has doubled the number of its military flights near Russia's borders to about 3,000 this year. He said Russia was particularly concerned about pilots from non-nuclear NATO members, like Poland, being trained for nuclear weapons.

NATO, in its turn, has accused Russia of putting civilian flights at risk by boosting the number of its military air patrols and having its planes fly with their transponders switched off.

The alliance has halted cooperation with Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Amid the tensions, NATO has moved to reassure its members in eastern Europe by stepping up air patrols over the Baltic Sea and rotating military units in and out of countries like Poland and the Baltic republics.

Antonov also said that Russia plans to expand military cooperation with China, Egypt and Latin American countries. In particular, Moscow is discussing provisions for its navy ships to use ports in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela for replenishing supplies and undergoing maintenance.

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