BULBOACA — President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pressed his case for Ukraine to be part of the NATO military alliance as he joined European leaders on Thursday in Moldova close to his nation’s border ahead of an expected counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion.
Meeting Moldovan President Maia Sandu, Zelenskiy reiterated calls for Western fighter jets and said his government was preparing a future meeting to discuss Ukrainian peace proposals.
The summit of the EU’s 27 member states and 20 other European countries at a castle deep in Moldovan wine country was taking place just 20 km (12 miles) from Ukrainian territory and near the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transdniestria.
It posed a security and organizational challenge for the country of 2.5 million people which is seeking a path to EU accession while being wary of Russia.
“We support Moldova and its people who are integrating into the EU,” said Zelenskiy. “You supported our people, our refugees who fled in the first days of the war, and we will never forget it. Our future is in the EU. Ukraine is ready to join NATO.”
Sandu said she supported Ukraine’s peace efforts and also wanted talks for Moldova’s EU entry to move as fast as possible.
At a separate meeting of NATO ministers in Oslo, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia could not veto Ukraine’s membership, though Germany said it would not be possible while Ukraine was at war.
NATO Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) surveillance aircraft watched the skies over the Moldova summit venue. Missile debris from the war in Ukraine has been found in Moldova several times since Russia invaded 15 months ago.
The head of Russia’s FSB security service said the West was pushing Moldova to participate in the Ukraine conflict.
With Kyiv promising a counter-offensive using recently acquired Western weapons to try to drive out Russian occupiers, much of the summit’s focus will be on Ukraine.
“The presence of these leaders in our country is a clear message that Moldova is not alone and neither is our neighbor Ukraine, which for a year and three months has been standing against the barbaric invasion of Russia,” Sandu said earlier.
The EU also aims to use the summit to tackle tensions in northern Kosovo between the ruling ethnic Albanian majority and minority Serbs, which have flared into violence in recent days, prompting NATO to deploy 700 more peacekeepers there.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he had urged Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Slovakia on Wednesday to play his part in defusing the crisis and hoped to convey the same message to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Moldova.
The summit will also touch on a range of strategic issues, ranging from energy to cybersecurity and migration.
It also provides an opportunity to address other frictions in Europe, including between Azerbaijan and Armenia, whose leaders will hold talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU officials.
Moldova, like Ukraine, applied to join the EU last year shortly after the Russian invasion, and Chisinau is planning to use the summit to showcase reforms and convince leaders to open accession talks.
Moldova has taken in more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other country just as food and energy prices soared as a result of the conflict.
The government has accused Russia of trying to destabilize the mainly Romanian-speaking country through its influence over the separatist movement in its mainly Russian-speaking, breakaway Transdniestria region. (Reporting by John Irish, Andrew Gray, Olena Harmash and Alexander Tanas; writing by John Irish and Matthias Williams; editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Cawthorne)