NATO leaders pledged Thursday to boost aid to Ukraine in its battle against Russia’s invasion but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused them of cowering from the threat of confrontation with Vladimir Putin, and of naivete in thinking that Russia’s aggression would not continue against their own countries.
“We are determined to do all we can to support Ukraine,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared following a summit of the alliance’s leaders in Brussels, which Zelenskyy addressed via video link. But in response to questions about Zelenskyy’s specific pleas for help — including the closing of Ukrainian airspace to Russian military aircraft, and donations of tanks, fighter jets and other weapons — Stoltenberg made clear that “all we can” did not include much of what the Ukrainian president had requested.
Asked about Zelenskyy’s speech in which the Ukrainian president appealed to allied leaders to provide Ukraine with just “one percent” of NATO’s tanks and planes — and also complained that he had not received clear answers — Stoltenberg quickly retreated to vague generalities.
“We listened carefully,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO allies provide significant support to Ukraine. And we provide also lethal weapons, advanced systems, and also systems that help them to shoot down planes and attack battle tanks with anti-tank weapons, and many other types of systems including drones. I will not go into the details of the exact type of systems we are deploying.”
He added, “I can say is that allies do what they can to support Ukraine with weapons so Ukraine can defend themselves. At the same time, we have a responsibility to prevent this conflict from becoming a full-fledged war in Europe, involving not only Ukraine and Russia, but NATO allies and Russia. That will be more dangerous and more devastating.”
Zelenskyy expressed gratitude for the help Ukraine has received so far, but he was unsparing in his criticism of the alliance as a whole. And after a month of Ukrainian forces holding their own against an invasion by one of the world’s most powerful armed forces, Zelenskyy said he did not ever want to hear Western leaders suggest that Ukraine’s military was not up to NATO standards.
“Yes, we receive help from individual members of the alliance; I am very grateful,” he said. “But what about the alliance?”
“I just want you to know what we think about it,” he continued. “And I sincerely wish … that we are wrong in our assessments and in our doubts. I sincerely wish that you actually have a very strong alliance. Because if we are wrong, the world is safe. But if we are at least one percent right, I ask you to reconsider your attitude. Your own estimates. And really take care of security, security in Europe and, consequently, in the world.”
Zelenskyy said Ukrainians had never imagined that NATO “may be afraid of Russia’s actions” and also issued a warning to the alliance: “I am sure you already understand that Russia does not intend to stop in Ukraine. Does not intend and will not. It wants to go further.”
He said Putin would attack their own territories next, and said that their refusal to intervene directly to stop Russia had raised doubts about the alliance’s collective defense clause, known as Article 5.
He predicted Russia would move against “the eastern members of NATO, the Baltic states, Poland — that’s for sure.”
“Will NATO then stop thinking about it, worrying about how Russia will react? Who can be sure of that? And do you have confidence that Article 5 can work?” he asked.
In a sign of how unsettled allied leaders are by the return of full-scale war to Europe, they unanimously backed a proposal by U.S. President Joe Biden to extend Stoltenberg’s term as NATO’s top civilian official, opting for a steady hand rather than conducting a search for a successor.
Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, had been due to end his term on September 30 and had agreed to become the head of his country’s central bank. Allies had been expected to pick his successor by the end of June.
But while Stoltenberg has won broad praise for maintaining unity at the alliance, including during the tumultuous years when Donald Trump was U.S. president, his assertion that NATO would not risk a direct conflict with Russia offered little solace in Ukraine, where millions have been displaced from their homes, cities are being bombed to rubble and already more than 1,000 civilians have been killed.
In their formal statement, the allied leaders delivered a scathing rebuke of Putin and his aggression.
“We call on President Putin to immediately stop this war and withdraw military forces from Ukraine, and call on Belarus to end its complicity,” they said, adding: “Russia’s attack on Ukraine threatens global security. Its assault on international norms makes the world less safe. President Putin’s escalatory rhetoric is irresponsible and destabilizing.”
They also warned darkly of the potential use of unconventional weapons by Russia. Stoltenberg said NATO’s top military commander has activated the alliance’s “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense elements.”
A senior Western official said that allies were particularly concerned about Russia’s repeated assertions that the West would use banned weapons of mass destruction.
“Putin tends to do what he says,” the senior official said. “And also Putin tends to do what he says other people are about to do.” The official said the “defense elements” meant preparing for a potential attack.
In his address to the leaders, Zelenskyy complained that he had never received a clear answer to his plea for NATO to impose a no-fly zone, though he said he was open to any strategy that would close the skies and halt Russia’s aerial bombardments.
“On February 24, I addressed you with a perfectly clear, logical request to help close our skies — in any format,” he said. “Protect our people from Russian bombs and missiles. We did not hear a clear answer.”
Zelenskky added: “You see the consequences today — how many people were killed, how many peaceful cities were destroyed.”
Some NATO diplomats and officials said Zelenskyy’s request was impractical and unrealistic because a no-fly zone would require NATO to shoot down Russian planes, drawing the alliance into the war, and that in the end simply grounding Russia’s air force would not help much because many of the rockets and missiles are being launched at Ukraine from Russia or Belarus.
1 percent plea
In a message that seemed to pivot off of NATO’s well-known target of allies spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, Zelenskyy said his country was asking for half of that — 1 percent of NATO’s hard military assets, such as tanks and planes.
“You can give us one percent of all your aircraft,” he said. “One percent of all your tanks. One percent! We can’t just buy it. Such a supply directly depends only on NATO’s decisions, on political decisions.” He said, “When it’s finally available, it will give us, and you as well, 100 percent security.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, cited practical difficulties in rebuffing Zelenskyy’s demands, while insisting Western allies were working to “ramp up lethal aid” to Ukraine in both quality and quantity.
“Logistically it looks very difficult, both with armor and with jets,” he said. “We are very conscious of what he is asking for. The equipment we think is most valuable at the moment are missiles, which they can use to defend themselves.”
The NATO leaders reiterated their commitment to placing severe economic and political pressure on Russia and supporting Ukraine.
They also formalized the establishment of four multinational battle groups — in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia — to defend NATO’s eastern flank.
And while decisions on the alliance’s longer-term plans are set to be decided at a summit in June, the leaders agreed to accelerate a strategic transformation of the alliance to “significantly strengthen” its long-term deterrence and defense posture and hasten efforts to boost military investments.
Zelenskyy, however, pleaded with them to act now. “NATO has yet to show what the alliance can do to save people — to show that this is truly the most powerful defense union in the world,” he said. “And the world is waiting.”
Christopher Cadelago and Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.