Following a bi-lateral meeting between Jens Stoltenberg and Volodymyr Zelensky, the two leaders held a press conference just prior to the inaugural meeting of the new NATO-Ukraine council. 

In his opening remarks Stoltenberg said that President Putin had badly underestimated the bravery of the Ukrainian people, the courage of its armed forces and the determination of the country's leadership. He also said that Moscow had misjudged the unity and strength of NATO's members in the face of his invasion. 

He asserted that the Alliance will stand with Ukraine as long as it takes, adding NATO has already provided tens of billions of dollars in support over the last year.

Ukraine closer than ever to NATO

He went on to outline the three-part, multi-year package that will bring “Ukraine closer to NATO than ever”. The plan established the new NATO-Ukraine council, reaffirmed that Ukraine will become a member of NATO and removed the requirement for a membership action plan.

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Stoltenberg said that the NATO-Ukraine Council will be a decision-making forum where all participants will “meet as equals”. 

“Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before,” he added saying the decisions made in Vilnius mark a new beginning in the relationship between the two.

Important steps toward NATO membership

Speaking confidently but with a far more conciliatory tone than in his previous pronouncements only a few hours before, Zelensky said that Ukraine will play its part in [Europe’s] common security, and referred to the NATO plan as “positive news.”

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He thanked those leaders who had helped with packages of military aid and the promises he had received in Vilnius for further support. He praised the progress made at summit for the "important steps" taken to simplify the process for Ukrainian accession to NATO.

While he had hoped to have received a formal invitation to join the Alliance, he understood the problems NATO members faced because of the ongoing war but said what had been achieved would be a boost to the morale of the Ukrainian people and its armed forces in the continuing war. 

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Press Questions

Stoltenberg and Zelensky then took questions from reporters.

In terms of the development of the relationship with NATO both agreed that there had been positive steps in bringing Ukraine closer to the Alliance.

 Zelensky understood that Ukraine’s partners had made sacrifices to support Ukraine but they should remember this is about the “survival” of his country and his people. The new path to NATO membership sent a signal to Russia which Zelensky likened to Ukraine's candidacy for EU membership telling the Kremlin that Ukraine was and will remain an independent state.

Stoltenberg added, in response to a question from Sky News, that Moscow does not get to decide who is in NATO. Asked if the decisions taken at the summit have brought NATO closer to a war with Russia, he said that there's already a fully-fledged war in Europe which meant there was “no risk-free option” for NATO and its members.

“The biggest risk is if President Putin wins, because then the message is if you use military force, when he violates international law, when he invades a neighbor, then he gets what he wants,” the Secretary general added.

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“We can never allow that Moscow starts to decide who can and cannot be a member of NATO. Russia has been against every enlargement of NATO.

“It's for NATO allies and Ukraine to decide when to become a member, Moscow doesn't have a veto on that.” 

Asked by a US reporter what he would speak to President Biden about in their forthcoming bi-lateral meeting Zelensky said “Ukraine needs long-range weapons; this deficit is still there” and that he would raise the issue in talks with the US president.

He then went on to defend the US decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions. He thanked President Biden and Congress for agreeing to deliver them and said he understood that people have different views on the use of the munitions, but asked people to view the move “from a position of fairness and righteousness.”

He said that Moscow has “constantly” used the weapon on Ukraine's territory since the full-scale invasion. Unlike Russia Ukraine will only use any weapons supplied by partners, whether long range missiles or cluster munitions against military targets in the occupied territories.

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