Ukraine has given up its bid to join NATO but will continue to pursue greater collaboration on security matters with the alliance, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday.

The nation of 45 million people, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, applied for membership in NATO five years ago. It has participated in NATO-led military exercises and in operations such as the intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the naval anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast. Ukraine also has contributed a medical team to the NATO-led international force in Afghanistan.

But the effort to join the alliance has sparked strong opposition from neighboring Russia, Ukraine’s main trading partner, which has ramped up the pressure on Kiev in recent months. Moscow has long opposed NATO’s plans to expand eastward to include other nations of the former Soviet Union.

“As you know, the current Ukrainian leadership has decided to pursue what is called a non-bloc policy; they have decided not to pursue NATO membership,” Rasmussen said. “It’s their decision, we fully respect that, but at the same time, Ukraine has decided to continue cooperation with NATO within the NATO-Ukraine Commission.”

He was speaking in Brussels during a meeting of the alliance’s 28 defense ministers. Other topics on the agenda included the 12-year war in Afghanistan. Ministers also discussed the alliance’s role in defending against cyberattacks, its ballistic missile shield and the escalating war in Syria.

The two-day meeting was attended by both the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministers.

Since 1999, NATO has inducted 12 new members, mostly former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, as well as the three Baltic states.

Rasmussen said that Georgia, another candidate nation, remains on track to join the alliance once it fulfills the conditions and criteria for membership.

Georgia, which also was part of the Soviet Union, fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

The U.S. administration has long backed Georgian membership in NATO. But since the 2008 war a number of European nations have opposed it, saying Georgia’s accession would constitute an unnecessary provocation for Moscow.

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