BULBOACA, Moldova (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived at a sprawling summit of some 50 European leaders in Moldova on Thursday, becoming the focal point of an event that seeks to quell regional conflicts and shore up unity in the face of Russia’s war.
The meeting of the European Political Community, a pan-continental gathering of heads of state and government from 47 countries, brings together leaders from European Union nations and others to the 27-member bloc’s south and east — a region pushed to a turning point in its relationship with Moscow by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
The EU, represented at the summit by the bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, wants to use the summit to reach out to many Eastern European countries that spent decades either within the Soviet Union or under its immediate sphere of influence, and to bolster the continent’s unified response to Russian aggression.
The choice to hold the summit in Moldova, a former Soviet republic of around 2.6 million people, is seen as a message to the Kremlin both from the EU and the pro-Western Moldovan government, which received EU candidate status in June of last year at the same time as Ukraine.
Moldova, Europe’s poorest country which is cradled by Ukraine on three sides, aspires to join the EU by the end of the decade, and has consistently signaled its support for Ukraine and taken in refugees fleeing the war.
Speaking from the summit venue, a 19th-century castle and vineyard around 35 kilometers (21 miles) from the capital, Chisinau, Moldovan President Maia Sandu said a major aim of the summit was “restoring peace on the continent” and protecting democracy in Moldova and Ukraine from threats posed by Russia.
“We need to reconfirm our support for Ukraine as it resists Russian aggression,” she said. “Ukraine keeps Moldova safe today, and we are very, very grateful for that.”
Zelenskyy, the first foreign leader to arrive at Thursday’s summit, entered an expansive courtyard of the castle in his trademark olive green shirt and cargo pants before meeting with Sandu on a red carpet.
He thanked the Moldovan people for hosting Ukrainian refugees, and said both Ukraine and Moldova were destined to work “shoulder to shoulder” for EU membership.
“What is very important: our future in the EU,” he said, adding that his country is ready to enter NATO whenever the Western military alliance is ready to accept it.
“I think security guarantees are very important, not only for Ukraine, but for our neighbors, for Moldova, because of Russian aggression in Ukraine and potential aggression in other parts of Europe,” Zelenskyy said.
Other summit participants include German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Scholz and Macron will join European Council President Michel for one of the summit’s major meetings: discussions with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet Caucasian neighbor nations that have fought wars over a contested territory.
That territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, was the site of a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 that killed more than 6,000 people. The war ended in a Russia-brokered armistice under which Armenia relinquished territories surrounding the region.
Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan, but ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia had controlled the region and surrounding territories since 1994. Recent negotiations between the two nations over the territory have raised hopes that a breakthrough could come at the Moldova summit.
Another lighting rod will be the recent flareup in ethnic tensions between neighboring Serbia and Kosovo, whose leaders are also expected at the summit. NATO has announced it will send 700 more troops to northern Kosovo to help quell violent protests after clashes with ethnic Serbs there left 30 international soldiers wounded this week.
The latest violence in the region has stirred fear of a renewal of the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo that claimed more than 10,000 lives, left more than 1 million people homeless and resulted in a NATO peacekeeping mission that has lasted nearly a quarter of a century.