Ukraine’s new president vows pro-Western trajectory in Brussels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) give a press conference after a meeting at NATO headquarter in Brussels, Belgium, 04 June 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Ukraine’s strategy of seeking full-fledged NATO membership remains unchanged, new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Tuesday (5 June), during his first trip to Brussels.

Although still somewhat of a political blank slate, Zelenskiy aimed to use his visit to set the foreign policy tone for his five-year term and show wary Western partners that Ukraine is serious about European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

A former comedian and political novice, he was elected the sixth president of Ukraine by an overwhelming majority over predecessor Petro Poroshenko in April.

Ukraine enters uncharted waters after Zelenskiy wins presidency

Ukraine entered uncharted political waters on Monday (22 April) after near final results showed a comedian with no political experience and few detailed policies had dramatically upended the status quo and won the country’s presidential election by a landslide.

After taking office, he dissolved the parliament, asked the chamber to sack the foreign and defence ministers and the head of the Ukrainian security service SBU, and scheduled snap elections for 21 July.

The programme of his symbolic first two-day visit included talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, where he called for more pressure to be exerted on Russia, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday.

A meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk is scheduled for Wednesday.

Speaking at NATO headquarters, Zelenskiy said he would keep Ukraine “on the path of European and Euro-Atlantic integration”, affirming that, during his term of office, the pro-Western course taken by Poroshenko will continue.

He also confirmed the country’s goal of one day joining the EU and the NATO alliance, after his election raised doubts on the future direction of the country.

“The strategic course of Ukraine to achieve fully-fledged membership in the EU and NATO, it is evidenced in the Constitution, and remains unchanged,” Zelenskiy told reporters, alongside NATO chief Stoltenberg. “This is the priority of our foreign policy.”

Taking office, Zelenskiy has taken over a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia, following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and a Kremlin-backed separatist conflict that has killed 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

“We are ready to negotiate with Russia. We are ready to implement the Minsk agreements. However, we first must be able to protect ourselves,” Ukraine’s new president said. He also announced that his new military Chief of the General Staff would hold peace talks “within the Minsk format” later on Wednesday.

The Minsk agreement, brokered by France and Germany between Ukraine and Russia, ended major combat in eastern Ukraine in 2015, although deadly clashes still regularly occur. Ukraine and pro-Moscow separatists accuse each other of violating the truce.

Speaking after the meeting with Ukraine’s president, Stoltenberg pledged further support to Ukraine and noted that NATO intends to continue working closely with Kyiv in the Black Sea region.

“In July, we will hold further manoeuvres in the Black Sea together with Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

The Alliance increased its presence in the region after Moscow forcibly detained three Ukrainian vessels that were sailing from the Black Sea into the Sea of ​​Azov. The Russian border police arrested 24 Ukrainian crew members in front of the 2014 annexed Crimea peninsula.

US and NATO step up presence in increasingly tense Black Sea region

To counter the growing Russian threat, there is a need for increased military presence across Europe and beyond, a top NATO commander in Europe told US lawmakers on Tuesday (5 March).

Last month, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg demanded Russia release the sailors and surrender the ships. Moscow does not recognise the verdict.

An agreement between Ukraine and Russia from the 1990s considers the Azov Sea an internal sea, outside international jurisdiction.

Stoltenberg also emphasised Ukraine’s role as an aspirant country and a “very valuable partner” for NATO, making contributions to the missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, “even if you have issues at home”.

“We also discussed the situation in the east of Ukraine, including the attempts of Russia to provide the Russian passports to the Ukrainian citizens. It is the recent example of the attempt of Russia to destabilise eastern Ukraine and it is a step in the wrong direction,” Stoltenberg added.

On his arrival in Brussels, Zelenskiy wrote via his Facebook page that appeals to Moscow alone were not enough to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which is “why my meetings with European leaders will begin with a question: how can we put pressure together on the aggressor? How can we force him to work for peace?”

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Sam Morgan]

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