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Russia balks over Baltic states

The applause had barely died down in Paris, nor was the ink dry on the Founding Act, before the ground was being staked out for the next round of international wrangling over the expansion of Nato.

Undeterred by repeated Russian warnings to stay out of former-Soviet republics, the alliance made clear it would make no such commitment; the Baltics - a particularly touchy issue with Moscow - would not be ruled out as future members.

"It is absolutely clear that the Baltic states continue to be eligible for Nato membership," Jamie Shea, spokesman for Nato, told a press conference at the summit for the signing of the partnership accord.

In the run-up to yesterday's ceremony, Moscow has continued to stress that it would reconsider its relationship with the alliance if it sought to take in former Soviet republics, arguing that this would be tantamount to an unacceptable threat to Russia's security.

Before leaving for Paris, President Boris Yeltsin warned that Nato would "fully undermine" its relations with Russia if it expanded to include former Soviet republics. He said he hoped for a "dialogue" with the Baltic States to persuade them that joining Nato would not improve their security.

Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are a particularly sore point in Moscow, not least because they include millions of ethnic Russians. There are also strategic and political complications: if, for instance, Lithuania were to join the alliance, along with Poland, Russia's enclave in Kaliningrad would be ringed by Nato powers.

Nato's willingness to endorse their eligibility in public may be largely rhetorical - the Baltics do not seem to have much chance of membership in the near future - but it will have pleased Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

After a long period of tense relations with Moscow, the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, also revealed that he hopes to sign a friendship treaty with Russia during Mr Yeltsin's visit to Kiev on Friday and Saturday. Ukrainian and Russian officials said documents had been prepared for signing, including some concerning the running dispute over the Crimean city of Sevastopol, and the division of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet. Many Russians dispute that Crimea is Ukrainian as it was transferred from Russia only 43 years ago, by Nikita Khrushchev.

The visit has been postponed six times in the past few years. The chances of success seemed to fade recently as Kiev began to develop closer ties with Nato, deepening Moscow's sense of isolation. But yesterday, Mr Kuchma said: "I have high hopes of signing a wide-ranging political treaty ... today I like Yeltsin more. He is less influenced by political factions now."