Ukraine`s defense minister said Monday that the country could join NATO by 2010, according to RIA Novosti.

Membership in the Western security alliance remains a hotly disputed issue among Ukraine`s leadership, with the Western-leaning president pushing for accession, and the recently appointed pro-Russian government resisting the idea.

"We still have the chance to join NATO in around 2010," Anatoliy Hrytsenko said, adding that all branches of power should coordinate efforts to achieve this goal.

The drive for NATO membership was one of the key policy issues agreed to by lawmakers in August, through the national unity pact proposed by President Viktor Yushchenko.

However, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who draws his support mainly from the Russian-speaking southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, said at a Ukraine-NATO commission meeting in Brussels in September that NATO accession remains deeply unpopular among the population, and that the country is yet not ready to push for membership.

Yanukovich`s statement has met sharp criticism from the president and the defense minister, but the Defense Ministry`s press service Monday quoted Hrytsenko as saying: "We are not ready to join the alliance at present, we are still moving in that direction."