Zelenskyy says Ukraine 'must admit' it won't join NATO and its people must 'rely on themselves and our partners who help us'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seen in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 28, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on February 28.Presidency of Ukraine / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine "must admit" it wouldn't join NATO.

  • He added that Ukrainians "understand this and rely on themselves and our partners who help us."

  • Putin warned Ukraine against joining NATO; Zelenskyy's latest remarks could be an opening for peace talks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country "must admit" that it wouldn't join NATO.

"It is clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We understand that. We are adequate people," Zelenskyy said in a meeting with leaders of the Joint Expeditionary Force. To the surprise of US officials and many military experts, Ukraine's much smaller military has bloodied the Russian military and fought them to a standstill in many regions.

"For years, we have heard about the supposedly open door, but we have also heard that we should not enter, and this is true and we must admit it," he said of Ukraine's bid to join NATO, which was launched back in 2008.

But Zelenskyy added that security guarantees from NATO allies would be necessary to keep Ukraine safe amid Russia's invasion of the Eastern European country.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine destroyed everything that security in our region — and I am sure international security — was based on," he said, "the weight of the organizations we all hoped for, the force of international conventions. It has also called into question the world's most powerful alliance, NATO."

Zelenskyy said Ukraine's skies needed to be protected the same way that NATO allies' skies were but added that he understood there was always a "but" in these situations.

"But what will be NATO's response to allies in Eastern Europe if they are already seeking protection, if Russian missiles hit, God forbid, if Russian planes" enter their territory? he asked, adding that Russian missiles had already struck about 12 miles from NATO borders.

"I ask you: Help yourself by helping us," he said. "You know what weapons we need. You know what means of protection we need. You know we crucially need airplanes. It would be extremely difficult for us without your efforts. I am grateful to you. But understand: We need more."

Zelenskyy added: "I am glad that our people are beginning to understand this and rely on themselves and our partners who help us."

Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, launched their bids to join NATO back in 2008. Russian troops would invade Georgia later that year as part of a short, but deeply impactful war. Two territories internationally recognized as part of Georgia — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — are still occupied by Russian forces. In 2014, after a pro-Russian president was ousted in Ukraine, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. The Kremlin also began supporting rebels in a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Putin has consistently railed against Ukraine and Georgia's efforts to become part of NATO, presenting it as an existential threat to Russia. In the lead-up to Russia's full-scale, unprovoked war against Ukraine that was launched in late February, the Russian leader made demands for binding security guarantees from the West. Among other things, this included permanently banning Ukraine and Georgia from NATO. The alliance and the US repeatedly said this demand was a non-starter, underscoring that NATO's open door policy was non-negotiable.

Despite his complaints, Ukraine was not even on the formal path to join NATO when Putin announced the onset of the so-called "special military operation." Though Ukraine is not a NATO member, it has maintained a robust partnership with the alliance for years.

NATO countries, including the US, have given Ukraine an array of military assistance since 2014. This security aid, which has included weapons like Javelin anti-tank missiles, has ramped up since Russia invaded. But NATO and the US have been clear that they will not send troops into Ukraine to help it fight Russia.

NATO is a 30-member defensive alliance that includes nuclear powers like the US. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia would mean war between countries with massive nuclear arsenals. This is also why NATO and the US have rejected Ukraine's calls for a no-fly zone thus far, as it would require the alliance to shoot down Russian warplanes and effectively amount to a declaration of war.

Since the onset of the Russian military assault on Ukraine, Zelenskyy has said he's "cooled" on joining NATO, saying: "The alliance is afraid of controversial things and confrontation with Russia."

Putin's aggression toward Ukraine goes well beyond his complaints about its relationship with NATO. The Russian leader has repeatedly suggested that Ukraine is not a real country, and called Ukrainians and Russians "one people." A former KGB operative, Putin has frequently exhibited nostalgia for the Soviet era. Experts say Putin views Ukraine as "unfinished business," and believes it should be under Russian control. President Joe Biden and others have said Putin has aspirations of reestablishing the Soviet Union.

Prior to launching this war, which is viewed by many Ukrainians as an escalation of an 8-year conflict that began back in 2014, Putin also baselessly suggested that Ukraine was committing genocide against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. He justified the invasion by saying Russia was engaging in the "demilitarization and de-Nazification" of Ukraine. Zelensky is Jewish and speaks Russian, which underscores the bogus nature of Putin's assertions.

Translations by Oleksandr Vynogradov.

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