Ukrainian Leader Makes a Push to Join NATO

President Bush, heading to his final NATO summit as president, made an overnight stop in Kiev, Ukraine, to meet with President Viktor Yushchenko.

Bush made a joint appearance with the Ukrainian leader and proclaimed "the U.S. strongly supports" Ukraine's effort to join the NATO alliance, despite Russia's strong opposition.

The issue has caused great consternation for some NATO members who fear the matter will only increase the growing tension between the United States and Russia.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News' David Kerley, Yushchenko insisted his desire to become part of NATO is nothing more than an effort to secure his country's future.

"Only by joining the collective security system will we be able to eliminate all the threats that have troubled Ukraine for many years in the context of national sovereignty and territorial integrity," Yushchenko said from his office.

A majority of Ukrainians do not support the plan, particularly on the eastern side of the country that borders Russia. Many are Russians and others are loyal to the old communist lifestyle.

That was evident Monday when several thousand people took part in protests around Kiev, one in front of the U.S. Embassy.

"No to war, No to NATO" read one banner. Many carried Soviet era-flags with the hammer and sickle.

Yushchenko dismissed the protests insisting that in time all Ukrainians will support NATO membership. "Twenty years ago, how many citizens of the German Democratic Republic wanted to join NATO? I think not many," he said.

But Germany is leading the opposition and fears that expanding NATO further eastward is not worth the risk of antagonizing the Russians. That decision will be made at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, where the president heads tonight.

Ukraine's membership, even into the first step toward joining NATO -- the Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- is very much in doubt. There needs to be consensus among all 26 members and while the United States supports its acceptance into MAP, France as well as Germany are opposed.

But Yushchenko remains optimistic as does Bush. "We are speaking about joining only the MAP and joining the MAP has nothing to do with NATO membership" anytime soon.

Yushchenko believes when that time comes public opinion will change in favor of NATO membership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it very clear he opposes Ukraine's (as well as ex-Soviet Georgia's) desire to join the western alliance going so far as to threaten to point nuclear weapons toward Ukraine if it establishes NATO bases in the country.

Yushchenko adamantly denies it would be a threat to Russia.

"I am not afraid of this threat because this will not happen," Yushchenko said. "Ukraine is not a threat to Russia and there will be no additional threat to Russia if we join NATO."

The interview was conducted in an elaborate meeting room ironically reminiscent of czarist Russia with pink silk fabric and gold trim aligning the walls and chandeliers adorning the high ceiling.

Yushchenko touched on a subject he rarely likes to discuss: his poisoning with dioxin during his run for president back in 2004, that left his face disfigured although his appearance has greatly improved.

Suspicion has been that the Russian government, which supported his opponent, was behind the poisoning, but that has yet to be proven. Yushchenko believes those responsible for his poisoning are hiding in Russia.

"I know that many people are interested in my health," Yushchenko said. "During the last year, I've managed to get the majority of my energy back."

As for those responsible for the attack, Yushchenko believes they have found safe harbor in Russia. "Do you believe there is a connection to the Russian government?" Kerley asked. "I think I should not give any comments on this for the sake of the investigation," he said.

"It was a very, very difficult time for our entire family," said Ukraine's first lady Kateryna Yushchenko, a Ukrainian-American who was born in Chicago.

Also speaking exclusively to Kerley, Kateryna Yushchenko relived the harrowing ordeal. "There was a time when we went to a hospital where they told us that if we had not brought him, he would have died within nine hours."

She takes comfort in the fact that there had to be a higher purpose for what they were enduring.

"There must be a reason that we're going through what we are going through," she said. "He needed to survive to create the change in our country that is happening today. A very difficult path, but one that I think we are undergoing in a dignified and very positive manner."