Ukraine’s president has called on Nato to back a membership action plan (MAP) for the country as a formal step towards joining the military alliance, arguing that such a “signal” would deter Russian aggression.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s comments came during a phone call with Nato’s general secretary Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday to discuss Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders and its alleged stoking of the conflict in the eastern Donbas region controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
“Nato is the only way to end the war in Donbas. Ukraine’s MAP will be a real signal for Russia,” Zelensky said according to a statement.
His conversation with the Nato leader took place a day after two Ukrainian soldiers died in attacks by Russian-backed separatists. Late last month four soldiers died in a single day, marking the highest daily fatalities since a July ceasefire was called and adding to a rising death toll amid an upsurge of fighting this year.
The simmering seven-year conflict that erupted after Russia’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has claimed 14,000 lives.
Writing on Twitter on Tuesday, Stoltenberg expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity but stopped short of clarifying whether Nato was ready to offer a so-called MAP.
“I called President Zelensky to express serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine and ongoing ceasefire violations . . . we remain committed to our close partnership,” he said.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, later warned that Ukraine joining Nato would “further aggravate the situation” in Ukraine’s restive east, adding that membership of the western military alliance was “deeply unacceptable” for many citizens.
Ukraine ties with Nato have deepened in recent years, with Kyiv sending troops to join its response forces, exercises and operations, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Ukraine last year became the sixth country — along with Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden — to be granted “enhanced opportunities” for deeper co-operation.
But Kyiv faces potential obstacles to joining the military alliance — not least Russia’s annexation of part of its territory. Nato is also demanding the reform of Ukraine’s security and defence sector.
Zelensky told Stoltenberg on Tuesday that Ukraine was “committed to reforming” its army and defence sector, but said reforms alone would “not stop Russia”.
In a call with Ukraine’s president on Friday, Joe Biden gave his “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression”. But the White House made no mention of any request to join Nato in the readout of the call.
Russia has long opposed Ukraine’s bid to join Nato, arguing that it would break a promise by the alliance not to expand eastward to Russia’s borders. Its neighbour’s potential membership, and how it might affect Russia’s critical naval base on Crimea, is widely seen as one factor in the Kremlin’s decision to annex the peninsula in 2014.
A Nato official said on Tuesday the alliance had an open-door policy on membership and stood by its 2008 decision in principle for Ukraine to join, albeit without a timeline. The official added: “Nato will continue to support Ukraine by helping to strengthen the capacity of its armed forces, as well as the broader reforms that help the country move forward with its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
Russia has brushed off concerns over its military build-up in Crimea and areas bordering eastern Ukraine, stressing that it has a right to move troops around its territory without the permission of others, and saying that it does not pose a threat to any other country.
The US state department said on Monday that the US had asked Russia for an explanation of recent provocations. “We have sent that message very clearly to our Ukrainian counterparts, and implicitly to the Russians as well, that we stand by Kyiv, we stand by our partner, Ukraine, in the face of this intimidation and aggression.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington