Zelenskyy is adept at pushing for the aid Ukraine needs, but NATO membership is still elusive

Jul 9, 2024, 11:06 AM | Updated: 5:44 pm

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk attend a news conf...

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk attend a news conference as they meet in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, July 8 , 2024. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proven to be an adept navigator of international relations in defense of his country, publicly cajoling and sometimes loudly complaining to get the military assistance his war-ravaged country needs to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

But, as he attends this week’s summit of NATO leaders in Washington, his most coveted prize — membership in the military alliance — remains elusive. The European and North American countries making up NATO are in no hurry to admit Ukraine, especially while it is engaged in active hostilities with Russia that could drag them into a broader war.

Zelenskyy, who was feted as a champion of democracy in Washington in the aftermath of Russia’s 2022 invasion but was forced to plead his case for aid to U.S. lawmakers just last year, will find himself once again in the American capital as bridesmaid.

At the NATO summit, he’ll be trying to navigate a tumultuous American political landscape as President Joe Biden tries to show his strength on the world stage and ability to keep leading the alliance’s most important member following a shaky debate performance against former President Donald Trump.

A NATO skeptic, Trump has criticized allies for not hitting defense spending goals and raised concerns in Europe about continued U.S. support for NATO and Ukraine. His Republican supporters in Congress were responsible for a monthslong delay in U.S. military assistance, which allowed Russia to gain ground against Ukraine’s depleted forces.

The stakes for Zelenskyy have never been higher. He arrived in Washington a day after Russia unleashed its heaviest bombardment of Kyiv in almost four months and one of the deadliest of the war, which leveled a wing of Ukraine’s biggest children’s hospital.

Against that backdrop, Zelenskyy again made an urgent appeal for additional air defenses shortly after arriving in Washington on Tuesday.

“We are fighting for more air defense systems for Ukraine, and I’m confident we will succeed,” he wrote on the social platform X. “We are also striving to secure more aircraft, including F-16s. Additionally, we are pushing for enhanced security.”

U.S. and allied officials say he can expect to receive a significant package of additional military assistance, particularly air defense systems, but an invitation to join the alliance is not in the cards even as Russia’s latest strikes have galvanized support for his country.

“We would like to see greater resolve in our partners and hear resolute responses to these attacks,” Zelenskyy said Monday in Poland before flying to the U.S.

In Washington, Zelenskyy will hear a chorus of support from countries that have poured weapons into his country, despite the recent damaging U.S. and European lags in greenlighting more aid.

“It is critical that the world continues to stand with Ukraine at this important moment and that we not ignore Russian aggression,” Biden said in a statement late Monday, saying that U.S. support for Ukraine is “unshakeable.”

“Together with our allies, we will be announcing new measures to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses to help protect their cities and civilians from Russian strikes,” Biden said. “The United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, whose country is the second-richest in NATO, also expressed solidarity with Ukraine. “Germany stands unwaveringly by the side of the Ukrainians, especially in these difficult times,” he said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week that the U.S. would be announcing an additional $2.3 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, to include anti-tank weapons, interceptors and munitions for Patriot and other air defense systems.

In a small first step as the summit kicked off Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said NATO allies would provide more than $7 million in personal protective gear, uniforms and boots specifically for female Ukrainian soldiers.

However, the allies will once again stop short of offering a guaranteed timeline for Ukraine to enter NATO.

Instead, they will present Zelenskyy with what officials are calling a “bridge to membership” that is supposed to lay out specific tasks, including governmental, economic and rule-of-law reforms, that Ukraine must fulfill to join.

But meeting those steps won’t be enough — NATO will not admit a new member until the conflict with Russia is resolved.

Many in Ukraine see NATO membership as the only way to protect themselves from future Russian aggression in the event that the war ends. But the yearslong duration of the conflict, which has cost thousands of Ukrainian lives, has left many frustrated and skeptical that their country will ever join the Western alliance.

While Zelenskyy has largely been a successful politician on the world stage, he struggles to maintain his popularity in Ukraine, which has decreased in part because of persistent questions about corruption, analysts say.

At home, Ukrainians are demanding from their leader not only an effective defense against Russia but want to see their government reformed with reliable institutions and without corruption.


AP writer Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed.

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Zelenskyy is adept at pushing for the aid Ukraine needs, but NATO membership is still elusive