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Russia invites Ukraine to join ex-Soviet security bloc

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev holds a cup while addressing the audience during his visit to Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev, May 18, 2010. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

KIEV (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday invited Ukraine to join a security bloc of former Soviet republics, a step that would draw Ukraine closer into Moscow’s embrace.

Ukraine has forged warm ties with its former Soviet masters since the February election of President Viktor Yanukovich as president. Yanukovich, an ex-mechanic from the Russian-leaning east of the country, frequently speaks Russian at public events.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko shunned Russia and attempted to take his country into NATO, despite considerable public opposition. NATO members put Ukrainian membership on the back burner in 2008.

Medvedev, on his first state visit to Ukraine, said he would welcome the former Soviet republic into the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

“If in the future you would consider it proper to join the CSTO, we would be happy to accept you,” Medvedev said in Kiev. “The CSTO is not the Warsaw Pact... we do not need confrontation with NATO or other military blocs.”

The CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It originally began in 1992 as the CST. Members have conducted military exercises and in recent years some of them agreed to set up a peacekeeping force and a rapid reaction force.

Ukraine agreed last month to allow Russia’s Black Sea fleet to extend its lease on a base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol until 2042 in exchange for cheaper gas imports from Russia.

Reporting by Denis Dyomkin, writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Michael Stott