By Tom Balmforth
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine wants to receive an invitation to begin the process of joining NATO at the military alliance’s summit next month, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will not attend if leaders do not show “courage”, a presidential aide said on Thursday.
Chief diplomatic adviser Ihor Zhovkva told Reuters that Kyiv wanted the July 11-12 NATO summit in Vilnius to deliver a response to the application for NATO membership that Ukraine filed on Sept. 30 last year.
“This application is now on the tables of the leaders of NATO allies. The Vilnius summit would be a very good start to respond to this application. And by respond, we mean invitation for membership, which is only the first stage,” he said.
Kyiv’s allies are divided over how fast Ukraine should join NATO and some Western governments are wary of any move that might take the alliance closer to war with Russia.
In an interview in the heavily guarded president’s office in the Ukrainian capital, the Zelenskiy aide said Kyiv recognised it cannot join the 31-member bloc while Russia is waging war on Ukraine.
“What we are asking for is to start the procedure,” he said, banging the table at one point to drive his point home.
Ukraine has been working overtime behind the scenes to lobby for a breakthrough. It believes its fight against Russia’s invasion demonstrates it is worthy of NATO admission and has also shown it is already a key part of transatlantic security.
One of the subplots in the summit’s run-up is whether Zelenskiy will attend.
The Ukrainian leader has said he sees “no point” in going to the summit if Kyiv is not given a “signal” at the meeting. His chief of staff said this week that Zelenskiy would decide on the eve of the summit whether or not to go.
His absence would overshadow any show of Western unity at the summit. The West has poured in vast amounts of military and financial assistance to help Ukraine hold its own against Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion.
But not turning up would also deprive Kyiv’s leadership of valuable face time with the leaders of Ukraine’s staunchest backers.
The final outcomes of major summits are typically the product of long-running negotiations and are often finalised shortly before the summit formally begins.
“If there is no result at the Vilnius summit, he doesn’t have reason and time to go,” said Zhovkva.
Asked what the threshold was for Zelenskiy to attend, Zhovkva cited a speech to parliament in which the Ukrainian leader spoke of the importance of courage in today’s world.
“The president will not travel … to the summit if the leaders will tend to or will show a deficit of courage, while Ukraine with all its courage, will and strength and high morale is fighting against Russian aggression,” he said.
Zhovkva pointed to the cases of Finland and Sweden who applied for membership last year. Finland has already since become a member.
“When Finland and Sweden submitted an application for membership last year, immediately in June last year the allies responded to the application … inviting them to membership with NATO,” he said.
Asked how close Ukraine was to receiving an invitation now, he said: “We are closer than we were half a year ago. And still some time is left; much time is left in reality…”
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Conor Humphries)
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