President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pressed his case on Thursday for Ukraine to be part of the NATO military alliance and said he was confident a coalition of countries would form to provide Kyiv with Western fighter jets and Patriot missile-defence systems.
The Ukrainian leader joined a meeting of European leaders in Moldova, seeking to bolster Western solidarity and keep up pressure for concrete support ahead of his country’s expected counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion.
Addressing leaders at the start of the gathering, Zelenskiy asked NATO members to take a clear decision on whether to admit Ukraine and also reiterated calls for Western fighter jets to protect Ukrainian skies after another deadly strike on Kyiv.
Noting that the F-16 fighter jets he is seeking are supplied by the U.S., Zelenskiy said after the meeting he had “heard powerful support from many countries”, adding: “With help of the United States we will create this coalition.”
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden endorsed training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, although such programmes will take months to complete and Western countries have not yet said they will supply the jets.
Until Ukraine had fighter jets, Russia would continue to have air supremacy, Zelenskiy said, highlighting the importance of having more Patriot air defences in the immediate term. “We have many different systems, I am grateful to all our partners, but Patriots are Patriots,” he said.
He said Ukraine sought future security guarantees if NATO membership was not possible for now, but insisted that the best security guarantee was NATO membership.
There have been divisions between NATO members over the speed of Ukraine’s accession, with some fearing that a hasty move could bring the alliance closer to direct confrontation with Russia.
“We told President Zelenskiy that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu said at a news conference closing the summit of the EU’s 27 member states and 20 other European states.
She hosted the meeting at a castle just 20 km (12 miles) from Ukrainian territory and near the Russian-backed, breakaway Transdniestria region of Moldova.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, a staunch ally of Ukraine, said at the closing news conference his country would help Ukraine train F-16 fighter pilots but that Warsaw had too few Patriot batteries to supply any to Kyiv.
Leaders used Thursday’s meeting as a symbolic show of support for Ukraine and Moldova while also tackling other issues, including a rise in ethnic tensions in Kosovo and efforts towards lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Zelenskiy said at the start of the meeting that he would seek a clear invitation to Ukraine to join NATO at the alliance’s summit in Vilnius this summer.
The summit was a security and organisational challenge for Moldova, an ex-Soviet republic of 2.5 million people that is seeking a path to EU accession while being wary of Russia.
Sandu, a pro-Western leader whose relations with Moscow became severely strained after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, was using the summit to push for talks to make Moldova’s EU entry as fast as possible.
Zelenskiy echoed her comments and said Ukraine’s NATO hopes rested on “unity throughout the alliance, and we work on it”.
“Our future is in the EU. Ukraine is ready to join NATO,” he said.
Diplomatic sources said a speech from French President Emmanuel Macron in Bratislava on Wednesday in which he called for EU enlargement “as quickly as possible” was a signal that Paris, once hesitant, would back EU membership talks for Ukraine and Moldova to start at the end of the year.
Zelenskiy also said Ukraine was working towards holding a summit to discuss parameters for ending the war but had not set a date yet, as Kyiv wanted to bring more countries to the table.
MOLDOVA EU HOPES
Moldova, like Ukraine, applied to join the EU last year shortly after the Russian invasion, and Chisinau was planning to use the summit to showcase economic and rule-of-law reforms and convince leaders to open accession talks.
The government has accused Russia of trying to destabilise the mainly Romanian-speaking country through its influence over the separatist movement in mainly Russian-speaking Transdniestria.
The EU also sought to use the summit to tackle tensions in northern Kosovo between the ruling ethnic Albanian majority and minority Serbs, which have flared into violence in recent days, prompting NATO to deploy 700 more peacekeepers there.
Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani accused Serbia of deliberating trying to destabilise her country, while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the ball was in Kosovo’s court to defuse the crisis.
The summit was the second meeting of the European Political Community, a brainchild of Macron.
It provided an opportunity to address other frictions as well, including between Azerbaijan and Armenia, whose leaders were expected to hold talks with Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU officials.
European Council President Charles Michel said this was a chance for Azerbaijan and Armenia to show “a common political will to normalise the relations between both countries”.