VILNIUS, Lithuania − Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy defended his country’s use of cluster munitions on Wednesday at a NATO news conference, where he said he understood it posed a”challenge” for the U.S. to send his country the weapons system that is banned by other countries in the military alliance.
Russia is already deploying the bombs in Ukraine, he said, promising that Kyiv would only use the artillery on military targets.
“It’s not going to be used anywhere else,” Zelenskyy said through a translator. “It’s all about fairness. We are defending ourselves.”
Zelenskyy is scheduled to meet later in the day with President Joe Biden at the summit as the Ukrainian leader looks to accelerate a NATO invitation.
In addition to the cluster munitions, which are controversial because of the risk they pose to civilians, Zelenskyy said Ukraine needs long-range weapons, a request he said he would discuss with Biden.
Biden agreed last week to provide Ukraine with the bombs that are banned by more than 100 countries, including many NATO nations. His administration has justified the decision that has come under criticism by human rights groups and lawmakers in Biden’s political party with declarations that Ukraine is running low on ammunition.
Zelenskyy presses for NATO membership
Zelenskyy on Wednesday forcefully made the case for Ukraine to receive specifics from NATO nations on the hurdles it must clear to gain entry to the alliance, saying the summit’s results had been “good” but a membership invitation would be “optimum.”
He welcomed a coming Group of Seven announcement of security guarantees, saying they will send a “very specific signal” of support for Ukraine.
Zelenskyy, in a tweet Tuesday, called it “unprecedented and absurd” for NATO to open the summit without a concrete timeframe for an invitation to be extended to Ukraine. As he prepared to attend the gathering in Vilnius, he slammed the “vague” conditions for membership in the latest NATO statement.
“This means that there is still an opportunity to negotiate Ukraine’s membership in NATO − in negotiations with Russia,” Zelenskyy said. “And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror. Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.”
Zelenskyy, who had threatened to skip the NATO summit, arrived in Lithuania on Tuesday for the meeting, addressing a public crowd of supporters of his war-torn nation alongside Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda.
He spent Wednesday morning meeting with key allies in Vilnius, including the leaders of Germany, Canada and the U.K., and delivered remarks at a news conference alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg early in the afternoon. Zelenskky will join Biden and other leaders shortly after at the inaugural meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council.
Stoltenberg said Ukraine was “closer than ever” to NATO membership.
Among Zelenskyy’s goals with joining NATO: eliminate membership as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table in any future peace talks with Russia.
“Today I embarked on a trip here with faith in decisions, with faith in partners, with faith in a strong NATO,” Zelenskyy said. “In a NATO that does not hesitate, does not waste time and does not look back at any aggressor.”
Biden has expressed reluctance with inviting Ukraine to join NATO before the war is over, calling the discussion “premature” in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria ahead of the NATO summit.
“I think we can work it out,” Biden said. “But I think it’s premature to say to call for a vote now, because there’s other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues.”
The White House said Wednesday that Ukraine “still needs to make a number of reforms” in order to become a member.
“We recognize that Ukraine has already made significant progress in terms of reforms,” Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the National Security Council, said. “There is still the need for Ukraine to take further democratic and security sector reforms. The president has been clear that we think Ukraine can get there. But that is still going to be a requirement for Ukraine to join as it has been, frankly, for all members who have joined the alliance.”
Caution over NATO membership for Ukraine
The U.S. said Wednesday that Group of Seven nations would begin discussions about providing long-term security guarantees for Ukraine. That initiative will focus on ensuring Ukraine has a sustainable fighting force that is capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring future Russian aggression, as well as a stable economy. It will address the help Ukraine needs to advance government reforms that allies are stipulating as a condition for NATO membership.
Some NATO allies are cautious about the implications of making Ukraine the alliance’s 32nd member in the middle of Russia’s war in Ukraine, recognizing that its addition could draw them closer to the conflict.
Stoltenberg said Tuesday that NATO leaders would offer an invitation to Ukraine “when the allies agree and conditions are met.”
The alliance announced a new multi-year assistance program to help Ukraine modernize its security and defense bases and bring them in line with NATO standards. The funding will also help Ukraine pay for critical needs such as fuel, demining equipment and medical supplies.
Allies also launched a NATO-Ukraine Council amid the summit and agreed to simplify the process for Ukraine to join NATO by removing a requirement for it to submit a so-called Membership Action Plan.
“This is a strong package for Ukraine and a clear path towards its membership in NATO,” Stoltenberg said.
The White House said Wednesday that NATO had put forward a “very strong, forward leaning message that moves significantly beyond what has been said in the past” about Ukraine’s membership path.
“I would agree that the communique is unprecedented, but I see that in a positive way,” Sloat assessed.
Addressing Zelenskyy’s criticisms at a Tuesday news conference, Stoltenberg similarly argued, “There has never been a stronger message from NATO at any time. Both when it comes to a political message on the path forward for membership, and the concrete support from NATO Allies; military support but also the practical support on how to ensure full interoperability.
“And if you look at all other membership processes,” he continued, “there have not been timelines for those processes, they are conditions based, have always been.”
Republican Sen. Pete Ricketts, one of several lawmakers participating in the summit in Vilnius, said that the first order of business is providing Kyiv with the weapons and support it needs to defeat Russia.
“Then there’s certainly going to be a process for them to apply to become a NATO member. I think that there’s consensus about having that initiation go to Ukraine at the appropriate time,” the Nebraska senator said. “But frankly, first things first, which is: you’ve got to win the war.”
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