By Pavel Polityuk and Sergiy Karazy
KYIV -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday he wants a clear “yes” or “no” from U.S. President Joe Biden on giving Ukraine a plan to join the NATO military alliance.
In a joint interview with Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Press, Zelenskiy said he received assurances that Biden would not use Ukraine as a bargaining tool in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.
He called on the United States to provide economic support to Ukraine and urged both Biden and the International Monetary Fund to be understanding of Ukraine’s problems before placing “unfair” reform demands on his presidency.
“If we are talking about NATO and the MAP, I would really like to get (from Biden) specifics – yes or no,” Zelenskiy said, referring to the Membership Action Plan given to candidate countries, a status which Ukraine has long sought. “We must get clear dates and the likelihood of this for Ukraine.”
He was speaking on the same day as NATO members met for a one-day summit in Brussels. Ukraine has expressed disappointment in not being invited to the meeting.
Zelenskiy has urged NATO members to accelerate Ukraine’s entry into the alliance after a standoff with Russia this year that saw Russia mass additional troops and military equipment near Ukraine’s borders.
Zelenskiy said most of Russia’s troops had yet to withdraw, and that Russia was dragging its feet on facilitating a meeting with Putin for no clear reason. About 11,000 troops had left and 95,000 remained, he estimated.
Biden and Zelenskiy spoke by phone last week. Zelenskiy was granted a long-sought invitation to visit the White House next month, though he said he regretted not being able to meet Biden in person before Biden met Putin this week.
“He (Biden) said ‘I will never trade … Ukraine’s interests’,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine had done everything necessary to earn a NATO membership plan, which Ukraine sees as a vital deterrent against Russia but Moscow fiercely opposes.
“Every day we prove that we are ready to be in the alliance more than most of the countries of the European Union,” he said.
He expects Ukraine to secure a much-delayed IMF tranche by the autumn though added Ukraine could still “live normally” without one.
Zelenskiy did not rule out another flare-up in the coming months in Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists, though in his assessment Russia was not looking to provoke a “full-scale war”. Kyiv says the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed 14,000 people since 2014.
“Everyone should understand and be more flexible, understand that we are at war, that we are defending democracy in Europe and defending our country, and therefore you cannot just talk to us with phrases about reforms,” he said.