Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he accepts that his country will not be admitted into the NATO alliance, but voiced hopes for “security guarantees” from individual member states. He added that Kiev will not budge on its claims to breakaway territories, however, refusing major concessions sought by Russia.
In an interview with Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne on Monday, Zelensky said a de facto partnership with the North Atlantic military bloc could be an “acceptable” compromise, noting that some members would like to form defense pacts with Ukraine even if it does not receive formal NATO membership.
“There are NATO countries that want to be security guarantors, which, unfortunately, cannot give us 100% membership in the alliance, but are ready to do everything that the alliance would have to do if we were members,” he said. “I think this is a normal compromise. It is acceptable to all.”
Zelensky argued that the proposal should satisfy Russia, “which does not want NATO to expand further,” as well as his own country’s desires for security guarantees and the West’s indecisiveness on “what to do with us [Ukraine] in the matter of NATO.”
Moscow has long opposed eastward expansion of the alliance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin cited potential Ukrainian membership as a key factor in his decision to invade in late February, saying it would mean a hostile military presence directly on Russia’s border.
It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will view Zelensky’s offer as a happy medium, as it would apparently grant Ukraine the benefits of NATO membership without the formal title.
While Zelensky did not name the countries offering security guarantees, a defense pact with any NATO state could effectively entangle Ukraine into the alliance. NATO’s Article 5 provision requires the entire bloc to come to the defense of any particular member state, potentially turning smaller wars into regional or even global conflicts.
The Ukrainian leader said a direct meeting with President Putin would be key in ending Russia’s invasion: “Without it, we will not fully understand what they are willing to do to stop the war, and what they are ready for if we are not ready for certain steps.”
Though the two sides have held high-level discussions in Turkey, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested that a presidential summit is unlikely anytime soon, telling reporters on Monday that “For us to speak of a meeting between the two presidents, homework has to be done. Talks have to be held and their results agreed upon. There has been no significant progress so far.”
Zelensky also told Suspilne that any final peace deal should be subject to a popular referendum, as “the people will have to weigh in on certain kinds of compromise.” It is unclear how such a plan could be implemented, however, as voting often proves difficult in war zones and is liable to produce contested results.
The status of disputed territories remains a major point of contention between Kiev and Moscow. Russia has demanded that Ukraine recognize its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and grant independence to two separatist republics in the Donbass region. However, while Zelensky said he is eager to discuss those issues with his Russian counterpart, he insisted that Ukraine would not compromise on its borders.
“I said when I became president that we can no longer give away any part of our land, we must do everything to get Donbass and Crimea back. It’s a matter of time,” he said. “This is a very difficult story for everyone. Both Crimea and Donbass are for everyone, and to find a way out, we need to take this first step, which I said [is] security guarantees, the end of the war.”
The president went on to say that the territorial dispute is unlikely to be resolved even by a sit-down with Putin and that it will be a “rather long process” decided by “both the Rada [parliament] and the people of Ukraine,” raising major questions about any final agreement between the two sides or when it might be reached.