Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Western Balkan countries on Wednesday (Feb. 28 Feb) to start producing military equipment to help his country fight Russia, as the EU and US continue to grapple with providing military and financial aid.

Zelensky was present at the Ukraine-Southeastern Europe Summit in Tirana, hosted by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, together with 10 other leaders or high-level representatives, including Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani and Serbian President Aleksander Vučić.

Like at Monday’s summit of Western leaders in Paris, Zelensky was keen to talk about defense, telling a press conference that despite partnerships with some 500 defense companies, this is not enough to win over Vladimir Putin’s army.


“We see a problem in the supply of ammunition and it affects the battlefield, which is why we are interested in co-producing ammunition with you and our partners,” the Ukrainian president said.

“I propose a joint forum for the defense industry between Ukraine and the Balkans.”

Such an event would carve out ways to cooperate on matters of defense production with regional partners, bolstering deliveries of much-needed ammunition to Ukraine at a time when the EU is struggling to meet its own pledges.

Serbia, the biggest Western Balkan country, has the largest defense sector in the region and in 2021, it exported some $1.2 billion in weapons and military equipment while also being home to several military equipment engineering educational institutions.

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But while Serbia has condemned Russia’s war and Vučić greeted Zelensky warmly in Tirana, Belgrade continues to refuse to align its foreign policy on Russia with the European Union. It has not joined EU-imposed sanctions and continues to nurture trade and political ties with Moscow.

Vučić is yet to comment on Zelensky’s request.

A classified Pentagon document, leaked last April, suggested that Serbia had agreed to supply arms to Kyiv or has sent them already while keeping its distance publicly, something denied by Vučić.


Stop the excuses

In an interview the day before the summit, Rama told Euractiv the Western Balkans is crucial to the EU as it will ensure its security, while also saying it is time for the region to step up amid “excuses” and “constraints” from “bigger, richer guys.”

His comment was in response to a question referring to the EU’s issues with vetoes, repeated failures to agree on funding, and a haphazard and slow approach to providing military assistance, in addition to the blockade of funds in the US Congress.

Rama echoed his previous statements on Wednesday, stating that the existence of the European Union and its member states is at risk as the Ukraine war enters its third year.

“The rules-based order is being challenged because power relations have turned into power struggles. The old appetites for dominance are spreading and this instills fear…We must not let Russia win and Ukraine lose as the entire existence of the EU would be at stake,” Rama said.

“The joint statement we signed today in support of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration will further strengthen our relations and determination to stand by Ukraine,” said Rama, dispelling notions that the six EU hopefuls in his region felt threatened that the EU’s focus on Ukraine could further hamper their own progress.


‘We deserve to be members’

Zelensky also expressed his gratitude for the organization of the event in Tirana, nodding to enlargement and stating that “I greatly appreciate the hospitality and the opportunity to discuss how we can strengthen our countries because we all know that the path Europe will follow for generations is now being determined.”

Speaking of Putin, he said it was “important for our free states that the Putin regime loses. Our vision for Europe is based on the principle of dignity.”

He added that all European countries that maintain the principles of Europe and want to become a member of its community deserve full membership.

“We all deserve to be part of the European and Euro-Atlantic communities,” he added.


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