Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told a German newspaper he will seek to hold a national referendum on the question of whether to seek to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Poroshenko said the idea of joining NATO, the Western military alliance, has grown in popularity as violence with Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has persisted. New violence between Ukrainian forces and separatists operating with tacit Russian backing flared up this week in the town of Avdiivka, where as many as nine government soldiers have been killed in mortar attacks launched by the separatists.
Poroshenko said he would work toward toward accession to NATO if a majority of Ukrainians pass the referendum.
"Four years ago only 16 percent of Ukrainian people supported the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. Now 54 percent of Ukrainians support the idea," Poroshenko said. "As a president, I am guided by the views of my people -- I will hold a referendum on Ukraine's prospects for membership in NATO."
Whether NATO's member states are interested in taking on Ukraine as an ally remains an open question. According to The Wall Street Journal, Western diplomats in Washington and across Europe have been searching for new ways to engage Russia, though the renewed violence in Ukraine has made matters more difficult.
The Journal reported Wednesday that NATO officials scrapped plans to meet with Ukrainian counterparts to discuss NATO's missile defense system shield in neighboring Romania out of concern the meeting would be seen by Moscow as a provocation.
The relationship between NATO and Russia is at a delicate moment, diplomats acknowledged. NATO countries, led by the United States, have undertaken the largest peacetime troop deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War. The military escalation is a response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, to bolster defense of NATO's eastern European members. The military buildup comes as the Trump administration is widely viewed as willing to seek a more cooperative relationship with Russia.
Public polling conducted in Ukraine on the NATO question affirms Poroshenko's position, though the most recent survey did not find an outright majority favored NATO membership. The poll, conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Fund, found 44 percent favored NATO membership, while 26 percent favored no military alliances. Six percent of Ukrainians favored a military alliance with Russia.
The poll surveyed 2,018 Ukrainians outside the disputed Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2013, and the portions of Donetsk under separatist control. It was conducted in mid-December, before the most recent flare-up of violence between the two sides. The margin of error is 2.3 percentage points.