A standing ovation greeted Volodymyr Zelenskyy as he took the stage Saturday at the Munich Security Council, even as his embattled country braced for a potentially imminent Russian invasion. But the Ukrainian president had come not for plaudits but with demands that NATO and the European Union do more to help.
In a fiery speech and interview, Zelenskyy called for immediate sanctions against Moscow, criticizing the Biden administration for merely threatening to implement the measures should Russia invade. “You are telling me that the war will start 100% in the next days?,” he said, citing U.S. President Joe Biden’s warning on Friday. “Then what are you waiting for?”
Zelenskyy thanked allies for the military and financial contributions to Ukraine and pleaded for more—and added that he shouldn’t have to plead.
“We equally appreciate the support but everyone needs to understand that this is not some kind of donation Ukraine should be…begging for,” he said. “This is your contribution to the European and international security for which Ukraine has been serving as a shield for eight years now.”
Beyond material support, the Ukrainian president asked both NATO and the European Union for straight answers about when ihis country might join as a member. He said neither body has been honest with his country, despite years of discussion and incremental steps.
“Why are we avoiding this question?” he demanded of the EU, speaking through an interpreter. “Doesn’t Ukraine deserve to have direct and frank answers?”
Zelenskyy asked the same of NATO. “Be honest about it. Open doors are good, but we need open answers,” he said.
He also shot down one of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s longtime talking points: the notion that if Ukraine joins NATO, it might immediately draw the alliance into war by claiming that the Russian occupation of Crimea constitutes an attack requiring collective action.
On February 11, for example, Putin said, “You will find yourself drawn into this conflict against your will. You will be fulfilling Article V in a heartbeat, even before you know it.”
Not so, Zelenskyy said on Saturday. “They didn’t read carefully Article V of the NATO charter. The collective actions are for protection from attack. The Crimea and the occupied lands of Donbas will come back to Ukraine but only through peaceful process,” he said.
In 2014, the EU signed an agreement to eventually allow Ukraine to apply for membership; Kyiv has said it wants to do so in 2024. Ukraine’s NATO ambitions go back even further, to the 2008 NATO Summit in Budapest, Hungary, when several former USSR states lobbied for immediate membership. While both the European Union and NATO have remained publicly steadfast on the right of nations like Ukraine to attempt to join, the underlying reality is more complicated.
“Those lofty goals have been brought down to earth by recognition that the geopolitical realities and the need for a security balance in Europe effectively makes Ukrainian membership impossible as long as Putin sits in the Kremlin,” Washington Post columnist Anthony Faiola wrote this week.
The Biden administration had urged Zelenskyy to skip the summit, citing concerns. In Munich, he assured the audience that he would be back in Kiev in time for dinner.
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