NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg shies away from directly endorsing Ukraine’s bid, but stresses alliance is open to new members.

Ukraine formally requested an “accelerated accession” to join NATO | John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images


SEPTEMBER 30, 2022 5:13 PM


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Ukraine on Friday formally requested an “accelerated accession” to join NATO, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced — a response to Russia formally annexing four Ukrainian regions.

“We trust each other, we help each other and we protect each other. This is what the Alliance is. De facto. Today, Ukraine is applying to make it de jure,” Zelenskyy said during a video address

The move was intended to draw attention away from Vladimir Putin’s elaborately staged speech earlier in the day, in which he announced the annexations to an audience seated under gilded chandeliers. 

But there wasn’t any indication that Ukraine’s request would advance its membership hopes, which have been in limbo for years. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has long fueled frustration for Moscow, which regularly rails against the military alliance’s eastward expansion in recent decades. 

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday evening reiterated the alliance’s unchanging position that it is open to new members but shied away from directly endorsing Ukraine’s bid. 

“Every democracy in Europe has the right to apply for NATO membership and NATO allies respect that right, and we have stated again and again that NATO’s door remains open,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. 

He added that NATO members recently affirmed at a summit in Madrid that they “support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path, to decide what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of.”

Stoltenberg was direct, however, that the alliance’s immediate focus is on the war.

“A decision on membership, of course, has to be taken by all 30 allies and we take these decisions by consensus,” he said. “Our focus now,” he added, “is on providing immediate support to Ukraine, to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian brutal invasion.” 

NATO allies in 2008 pledged that Ukraine would eventually become an alliance member. But as that process stalled over the years, it seemed increasingly unlikely that Ukraine’s bid would become a reality. 

But Russia’s war has upended the geopolitical landscape, reopening the question of Ukraine’s possible membership. In recent months, NATO has also welcomed the application of two other new members in Europe — Finland and Sweden.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Moscow requested binding guarantees from Kyiv not to join the U.S.-led security alliance, and used this as a pretext for launching the invasion.

Zelenskyy’s announcement came mere hours after Putin, in his speech, vowed to use all the powers at his disposal to defend the four Ukrainian he annexed following hastily organized sham referendums in each. European countries condemned the votes as a pretext to further “violate” Ukraine’s sovereignty.

During his address, Putin called upon Kyiv to cease military action and said Moscow was open to negotiations, although Ukraine has long insisted that it will not stop fighting until Russian forces entirely leave the country.

Zelenskyy responded in his own address, saying that while Ukraine was open to negotiations, such talks were “impossible” with Putin, and would have to be with another Russian president.

In his comments on Friday, NATO’s Stoltenberg warned that Putin’s mobilization of fresh troops, his “nuclear saber-rattling” and illegal annexation represent “the most serious escalation since the start of the war.” 

But, the NATO chief said, “none of this shows strength — it shows weakness.”

“It is an admission,” Stoltenberg said, “that the war is not going to plan and that Putin has utterly failed in his strategic objectives.”

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