"It is a very legitimate political decision made by the capitals of 19 nations as to when and who will be drawn as a member of NATO," Gen. Joseph Ralston told about 100 people in the Kansas Union's Alderson Auditorium.
Ralston, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, concluded the three-day "Building a Vital U.S.-Ukraine Partnership" conference.
Ralston noted that the U.S. and NATO already have a defense partnership with Ukraine.
"We work very carefully with our political masters, both in the U.S. State Department and the military, to make sure that we stay within the bounds that are authorized by political authority," he said.
Ralston said his job is to provide information to the political authority about how NATO and a possible new member would integrate militarily; the status of reform in the country's military; and the importance of the country geographically.
"We will do our part on the uniform side by providing the best military information we can, and then we'll all salute very smartly at the end of the process once the decision is made," Ralston said.
On a separate subject, Ralston said there is room for European nations to provide more for their defense with an expeditionary force that doesn't include U.S. military units.
At the same time, Ralston said he foresees problems if an all-European force sets up a headquarters and military action planning process separate from NATO. That would cause "more confusion than normal," he said.
Ralston also warned against "double tasking" military units to both NATO and an expeditionary force.
Asked during a question-answer session about Montenegro becoming independent from Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Ralston again said the issue was primarily political. He agreed, however, that there could be possible military implications.
Several Ukrainian military personnel were present for Ralston's short appearance. Col. Leonid Holopatyuck, who serves on the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said he heard nothing unexpected in Ralston's speech. He said he agrees with Ralston's comment that being a member of NATO is a major responsibility for a country.
Because of defense agreements and cooperation with NATO and the U.S., Ukraine is not worried about possible NATO membership.
"We are in no hurry," he said.
The Ukraine partnership conference was sponsored by the U.S. European Command, the Kansas National Guard and the U.S. National Guard. Co-sponsors were the Foreign Military Studies Office and Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and the Center for Russian and East European Studies at KU.
-- Staff writer Mike Belt can be reached at 832-7165.