By John Irish and Andrew Gray BULBOACA, Moldova (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pressed his case for Ukraine to be part of the NATO military alliance as he joined European leaders on Thursday in Moldova ahead of an expected counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion. Addressing leaders at the start of the gathering, Zelenskiy asked NATO members to […]
Zelenskiy presses NATO, EU case at Moldova summit close to Ukraine’s border
By John Irish and Andrew Gray
BULBOACA, Moldova (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pressed his case for Ukraine to be part of the NATO military alliance as he joined European leaders on Thursday in Moldova ahead of an 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.
He spoke as divisions between NATO members spilled out into the open 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.
Leaders used the occasion 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.
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. Moldova shut its airspace except for official delegation planes.
“This year is for decisions,” Zelenskiy said, speaking in English. “In summer in Vilnius at the NATO summit, a clear invitation from members of Ukraine is needed, and security guarantees on the way to NATO membership are needed.”
Zelenskiy also called for a coalition of powers to supply Patriot air defence systems and fighter jets to Ukraine to help fend off Russian forces.
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.
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.
NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) surveillance aircraft watched the skies over the Moldova summit venue. Missile debris from the war in Ukraine has been found in Moldova several times since Russia invaded 15 months ago.
The head of Russia’s FSB security service accused the West of pushing Moldova to participate in the Ukraine conflict.
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.
With Kyiv promising a counter-offensive using recently acquired Western weapons to try to drive out Russian occupiers, much of the summit’s focus was on Ukraine.
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, and was also expected to touch on a range of strategic issues including energy, cybersecurity and migration.
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 relation between both countries”.
(Reporting by John Irish, Andrew Gray, Olena Harmash, Benoit Van Overstraeten and Alexander TanasWriting by Matthias Williams, John Irish and Frances KerryEditing by Andrew Cawthorne, Mark Heinrich and Ros Russell)