Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pressed his case for Ukraine to be part of the Nato military alliance as he joined European leaders on Thursday in Moldova close to his nation's border, ahead of an expected counter-offensive against Russia's invasion.
Addressing leaders at the start of the European Political Community summit, Mr Zelenskyy asked them to take a clear decision on whether to admit Ukraine at the military alliance's next summit in Lithuania, on July 11-12.
“This is the sole point I want to emphasise,” he said.
“At the Nato summit, [a] clear invitation for membership for Ukraine is needed.”
He warned that any doubts European leaders show before admitting Kyiv into the alliance would embolden Russia.
“We must remember that every doubt we show here in Europe is a trench that Russia will definitely try to occupy,” he said.
Russia is “afraid” of Nato and “tries to swallow only those who are outside the common security space”, Mr Zelenskyy said.
When Russia fails to invade its neighbours, it leaves a “frozen war” instead, he added, in a clear reference to host country Moldova's Moscow-backed separatist region of Transnistria.
“That is why every European country that borders Russia and does not want Russia to tear it apart should be a full member of the EU and Nato,” said Mr Zelenskyy.
The Ukrainian President was the first of more than 40 leaders to be greeted by Moldova’s President Maia Sandu for the second European Political Community summit, at a castle 20km from the Ukrainian border in the town of Bulboaca.
“Ukraine keeps Moldova safe today and we are very, very grateful for that,” said Ms Sandu. There were fears in Moldova after Russia invaded Ukraine last year that should it be successful, it would also try to invade Moldova.
Symbolism of Moldova as host
The main topic of the summit was support for Ukraine. Other issues, including a surge in ethnic tensions in Kosovo and efforts towards lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, were also on the agenda.
Leaders from 27 member states of the EU and neighbouring countries, including the UK and Turkey, were invited. Newly re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the few leaders to skip the summit.
It is highly symbolic for the second EPC summit to take place in Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe and highly dependent on Russian gas imports. The country succeeded in overcoming an energy crisis this winter with strong financial support from Brussels.
Organising the EPC was a challenge for the small ex-Soviet republic of about 2.6 million people, which shut its air space on Thursday except for official delegation planes.
Moldova, which has long wanted to join the EU, was granted candidate status in June, at the same time as Ukraine.
Seemingly alluding to Moldova, Mr Zelenskyy said countries waiting to join the bloc and Nato were disappointed it was taking so long.
“Think about this disappointment,” he said, “and the disappointment both of our soldiers fighting for freedom and those nations for whom our struggle in Ukraine is their hope.”
Despite Mr Zelenskyy's pleas, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he did not believe Ukraine would join Nato any time soon. There are fears this would place the alliance in direct confrontation with Russia.
Speaking to reporters as he arrived at the summit, Mr Rutte said the Vilnius summit would “stop short of offering full membership of Nato at this stage”.
“It's not possible because of this awful aggression of Russian happening inside Ukraine.”
He said he was “happy” the Netherlands, the UK, Denmark and Poland had recently agreed on a “fighter jet coalition” for Ukraine.
“We also need to work on expanding the Patriot coalition, which is currently the US, Germany and the Netherlands, because Ukraine is urgently in need of more Patriot systems,” Mr Rutte said.
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda said allies should compensate Ukraine for their inability to fast-track the request.
“Ukraine needs to know what happens after the war is over,” he said.
French President Emmanuel Macron suggested in a speech in Bratislava on Wednesday that Ukraine be granted an “Israel-type package”, apparently referring to Israel's highly equipped security apparatus which is backed largely by a foreign power – the US.
“I think we have to build something between the security provided to Israel and a fully fledged membership,” he said.
No date given for expected peace summit
Mr Zelenskyy called for the fighter jet coalition to move forward fast.
“Every step in air defence enforcement is literally saving lives,” he said.
“I will need today to convince as many partners as possible. I don’t need to tell you how much is at stake.”
Three people including a child were killed by Russian missile attacks on Wednesday night.
The Ukrainian President said “at least 484 Ukrainian children [have been] killed by Russia” since it invaded last year.
“This year is for decisions,” he stressed.
Ukraine is expected to launch a much-anticipated counter-offensive within days, according to Ukrainian officials.
Mr Zelenskyy also confirmed his country was preparing a peace summit for this summer but declined to give a date.
“Of course we want to involve as much as possible countries, that’s why we did not fix the date,” he said.
It is not known if China’s leader Xi Jinping will attend, although there are indications that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s will, The Wall Street Journal reported.
French officials have said the idea of a peace summit is strongly supported by Mr Macron but they also declined to give a date, stressing that work is continuing on nailing down participants.
Denmark’s Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod last month said his country was willing to host peace talks.