KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's Parliament, prodded by pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, approved a bill on Thursday that cements the country's neutrality and prevents it from joining NATO.
The bill, which is expected to sail through more readings before making it to the president's desk for signature, bars Ukraine's membership in any military bloc but allows for cooperation with alliances such as NATO.
"The main element of predictability and consistency in Ukraine's foreign policy is its nonaligned status," Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told lawmakers while submitting the bill.
The legislation is seen as a victory for Yanukovych, who during the presidential campaign earlier this year vowed to put an end to Ukraine's NATO membership ambitions and mend relations with neighboring Russia.
"The main task of foreign policy and security is the protection of national interests in the world, and the nonalignment policy is one of the mechanisms. It meets requirements of the time, and we will strictly adhere to it," Yanukovych said during an address to the nation later in the day.
Crucially, the bill allows for Ukraine's political and economic integration with Europe, including membership in the European Union, a course that Azarov said was "unchangeable."
"Coming from our strategic national interests, we will keep cooperation with the European Union as a key partner in overcoming negative consequences of financial crisis, conducting economic reforms, upgrading energy sector," Yanukovych said.
Critics of nonalignment slammed the legislation.
"The only guarantee of Ukraine's national security is membership in the system of collective security of NATO," said Borys Tarasyuk, who had served as foreign minister under ex-President Viktor Yushchenko.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia declined dramatically under the pro-West Yushchenko, a trend that was immediately halted when Yanukovych took over the presidency. In his first gesture of goodwill toward Moscow, Yanukovych signed a deal allowing Russia to extend its lease on the Black Sea Port of Sevastopol for 25 years when the current agreement expires in 2017. Russia responded by giving Ukraine deep discounts on natural gas.
"Our position is firm: relations with Russia will develop in the line of ascent, with the priority in the economic sphere," Yanukovych said, pledging to prepare a 10-year program of social and economic cooperation with Moscow.
At the same time Yanukovych hasn't neglected western integration. Last week he urged bureaucrats to prepare for a Ukraine-EU summit in October by finishing work on key legislation required by Europe, lowering trade barriers and paving the way for a visa-free travel regime.
Analysts say the president's foreign policy treads an ultra-fine line.
"Closer ties with Russia have neutralized risks and conflicts that existed before," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kiev-based analyst, but made Ukraine "increasingly dependent on Russia."
He said that tension in society has increased as a result of these foreign policy moves, and that Yanukovych's administration is trying to allay fears by coming up with a more flexible policy.