Russia is amassing troops and weaponry near Ukraine’s eastern border, a move some say is a strategic show of force.
A Ukrainian diplomat has reportedly warned Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand amid spiralling tensions with neighbouring Russia.
Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, suggested to national public radio network Deutschlandfunk on Thursday that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration was weighing up all possible options as fears mount over a possible escalation of hostilities in the country’s conflict-stricken east.
“Either we are part of an alliance like NATO and also make our contribution to strengthen this Europe, or we have only one option; to rearm ourselves,” Germany’s DPA news agency quoted Melnyk as saying. “How else could we guarantee our defence?”
His comments came after intensified fighting in recent weeks in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
Meanwhile, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops as well as tanks and artillery near the shared border in the region. Moscow has also mobilised troops in the annexed Black Sea region of Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
Ukraine is currently an ally of NATO, but not a member. It has sought to launch accession talks for years but has consistently been turned down.
The issue has acquired renewed urgency of late as a result of the stand-off with Moscow.
Earlier this month, Kyiv called for its entry into the alliance to be fast-tracked, saying it was the only way to end the conflict in the Donbas region, of which Donetsk and Luhansk are a part.
Moscow opposes Kyiv’s ascension bid and has accused NATO and leading member the United States of turning Ukraine into a “powder keg” with increasing arms supplies to the country.
NATO, meanwhile, has told Ukraine to roll out domestic reforms and develop its defence capabilities in order to be considered for membership.
Zelensky said on Friday that he had again raised the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership bid while attending talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also joined the discussions in the French capital via video link.
The Ukrainian president told reporters following the meeting that he felt supported by France and Germany, both of which are NATO members, with regards to his country’s action plan for joining the alliance.
He also said he was ready to hold four-way talks that included Russian President Vladimir Putin to calm relations with its neighbour, adding that he thought a separate meeting between US President Joe Biden and Putin proposed by Washington could help solve some issues.
Kyiv earlier this week pinned the blame for the escalating tensions with Russia squarely on Moscow, with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemning the Kremlin’s “aggravation of the security situation” in the region.
Addressing a news conference on Thursday, Kuleba accused Russian pundits and officials of “openly threatening Ukraine with war and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood”.
He also warned Moscow against initiating any incursion into Ukraine, stating any intensification of the escalation in the Donbas region would have “very painful” consequences for Russia.
“The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer,” he said. “The world is on the side of Ukraine and international law.”
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied interfering in Donbas, but Ukraine and several Western countries have said separatist forces in the region have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russia.
Moscow has also said its troop movements in the region pose no threat and are merely defensive. It has also stated the military units would remain in position as long as the Kremlin saw fit.
But the buildup has alarmed Ukraine’s allies, prompting calls from NATO and several of the alliance’s member states – including the US, Germany and France – for Putin to order a pullback.
In the latest such appeal, Macron, Merkel and Zelensky on Friday jointly urged Moscow to reverse course.
“They demanded the withdrawal of these reinforcements to reach a de-escalation,” the chancellery in Berlin said in a statement following the trio’s meeting.