The Ukrainian parliament has come out strongly in favor of moving towards NATO membership. Renouncing neutral status is the first step on the path to joining the powerful military alliance.
Ukraine's parliament voted to drop its neutral, "non-aligned" status on Tuesday, the first step on the path to eventually joining NATO. The move provoked ire in Moscow, that had originally pressured Kyiv to adopt the non-aligned status.
The bill passed easily with 303 votes, 77 more than needed for ratification. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said the decision underscored Ukraine's intent to pivot towards Europe and the West, saying "this will lead to integration in the European and the Euro-Atlantic space."
NATO also welcomed the change, although an accession to the military alliance would likely take years. A NATO spokesman in Brussels said: "Our door is open and Ukraine will become a member of NATO if it so requests and fulfills the standards and adheres to the necessary principles."
Russian officials condemned the bill. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Ukraine's renunciation of its neutral military and political status an "absolutely counterproductive" move that would only exacerbate tensions in the east.
"It will only escalate the confrontation and creates the illusion that it is possible to resolve Ukraine's deep internal crisis by passing such laws," Lavrov said in televised remarks.
Lavrov also criticized the idea that joining NATO could settle the crisis. Russian envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also called the new law "an unfriendly step towards us."
Ukraine sought NATO membership in the immediate post-Soviet period, but was never viewed as a serious candidate due to widespread corruption and a military in tatters. The nation first assumed neutrality, a designation normally used by nations such as Switzerland which refuse to participate in military conflict, in 2010 due to pressure from Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had planned to enlist Ukraine in a new, Kremlin-led alliance to rival NATO or the European Union. It was conflict over whether to move towards Russia or the EU that led to protests and a pro-Russian uprising that has claimed 4,700 lives in eastern Ukraine.