KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday, in an apparent answer to Russia’s move to illegally annex four of the country’s partially occupied regions.
The remarks were more symbolic than practical: The speedy admittance of Ukraine to the alliance would require members to immediately send troops to fight Russia, under collective defense obligations.
(Putin illegally claims annexation of Ukrainian regions, escalating war)
Asked about Ukraine’s application at a news conference in Brussels Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg affirmed that any democracy in Europe can apply to join the alliance, but did not signal Ukraine would be accepted while at war. NATO could already expand by year’s end; Sweden and Finland requested to join in May.
“A decision on membership of course has to be taken by all 30 allies and we take these decisions by consensus,” he said. “Our focus now is on providing immediate support to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s brutal invasion.”
“The aim of President Putin is to stop us from supporting Ukraine,” he added. “But he will not succeed in that.”
Ukraine has long sought NATO membership, but Zelensky conceded in March that Ukraine had to accept that it was not going to be accepted into the Western military alliance, despite receiving security assistance from countries in it.
“De facto, we have already made our way to NATO,” Zelensky said in a Telegram statement Friday. “De facto, we have already proven compatibility with Alliance standards. They are real for Ukraine — real on the battlefield and in all aspects of our interaction. We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other.”
What to know about Russia’s plans to annex territory in Ukraine
In practice, the chances of Ukraine joining NATO have only grown slimmer in the course of the Russian invasion. Member countries, including the United States, have drawn clear lines: They arm Ukraine, but they don’t have their own troops on the ground out of concern for triggering a World War.
Just an hour before Zelensky’s announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Moscow’s illegal annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, which Russian forces have partially occupied. At the time of Putin’s speech, Zelensky was meeting with his National Security Council.
“There will be no negotiations with Russia while Putin is the president,” Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, said on Telegram. “We are moving forward. To victory.”
Stoltenberg on Friday blasted Russia’s illegal annexation of four regions in Ukraine, calling it the most serious escalation of the war and a pivotal moment in the conflict.
Stoltenberg said Putin’s latest move was the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War and amounted to “an area roughly the size of Portugal, illegally seized at gunpoint.”
“This land grab is illegal and illegitimate. NATO allies do not and will not recognize any of this territory as part of Russia,” he added. “We call on all states to reject Russia’s blatant attempts at territorial conquest.”
Ukraine is expected to at least have some support for its NATO bid. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote on Twitter that, “Ukraine’s Baltic friends fully support welcoming Ukraine into NATO as soon as possible. Ukraine’s inspirational bravery can only strengthen our alliance.”