Ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is on a diplomatic tour of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Turkey. Two of those countries, Bulgaria and Turkey, may prove to be particularly important for Ukraine's future.
MOSCOW — Ahead of the upcoming crucial NATO summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky embarked on a special foreign tour, with visits to Bulgaria, Slovakia the Czech Republic, and Turkey.
The reasons behind this choice of countries may not be apparent at first glance.
Since Feb. 24, 2022, the Ukrainian leader has mostly traveled abroad to persuade allies to provide additional weapons to Kyiv, including air defense systems, armored vehicles, more ammunition, long-range missiles and combat aircraft. Initially, Ukraine's allies were reluctant and declined these requests. But with persistent persuasion, often alongside a personal visit by the Ukrainian leader, they eventually agreed.
No let down
Zelensky aimed to secure a technical agreement from NATO members allowing Ukraine to join the alliance immediately after the war concludes. While Kyiv does not expect to join the alliance amid hostilities, the government has invariably stressed – and even insisted – that obtaining formal consent from NATO to accept Ukraine into its ranks immediately after the end of the conflict was necessary. The visit to Sofia proved successful in this regard.
The decision to visit Bulgaria may not have appeared immediately evident, considering the country's recent governmental crises, and because it hasn't been among the key supporters or advocates of Ukrainian interests.
Nevertheless, the new cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mykola Denkov, expressed an interest in becoming more involved in helping Kyiv – and it did not let Zelensky down.
President Biden knows that it depends on him, and it will be his decision.
Firstly, the country still has considerable stocks of Soviet-type ammunition from the old days, which will now be sent to Ukraine in unknown quantities. Second, the sides signed a declaration on Ukraine's membership in NATO, according to which Bulgaria would support Kyiv's accession to the alliance "as soon as conditions allow," acknowledging that Ukraine's membership was the only way to ensure a sufficient level of security for it and for its allies. Bulgaria became the 22nd member of NATO to endorse such a move.
"This is very important. A clear majority in Europe is in favor of common security," Zelensky had said.
It seems that the Ukrainian president highlighted the support from the European continent for a specific reason. Taking Bulgaria into account, Kyiv asserts that the country's Euro-Atlantic aspirations have received formal support from 22 out of 31 NATO members (although the full list of supporters was not disclosed). When considering European countries alone, this amounts to 21 out of 29. In other words, the Ukrainian leader aimed to underscore the contrast between the support from Europe and the perceived uncertainty from the U.S., which appears to be the main obstacle to Ukraine's NATO invitation.
Just one day prior, the White House once again stated that: "Ukraine must reform and meet the same NATO standards as other countries before it can be accepted into the alliance."
Nevertheless, Zelensky was straightforward during an interview with CNN: "Most NATO countries support the invitation of Ukraine to the alliance," he said. "Those who doubt look only at President Biden. And President Biden knows that it depends on him, and it will be his decision."
Remarkably, in this bid to exert pressure on Washington, Zelensky's statement aligned with the perspective of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who asserted back in 2016 that the United States holds the decision-making power within NATO, while Europe takes the backseat.
Either way, Volodymyr Zelensky's is confident that a thumbs-up from Biden would be a huge motivator for the Ukrainian army, which has been conducting a counteroffensive for a month without much of a breakthrough.
"The invitation is a technical thing. It's just wording. It is important as it will encourage our soldiers to quickly de-occupy through the mobilization of people," Zelensky said.
Kyiv admits that its progress in the counteroffensive has been "slower than desired," but, according to Zelensky, the fault also lies with the United States and its allies.
“I’m grateful to the US as the leaders of our support,” he told CNN. “But I told them, as well as the European leaders, that we would like to start our counteroffensive earlier, and we need all the weapons and material for that. Why? Simply because if we start later, it will go slower.”
In other words, the Ukrainian president implied that just as Washington was slow to supply arms which resulted in a stalled counteroffensive, it is slow to invite Ukraine to NATO – and there is no telling what this could lead to.
Meanwhile, Zelensky's tour was not limited to Bulgaria. On Thursday evening, the president of Ukraine flew from Sofia to Prague. On Friday, he held talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul.
In Istanbul, NATO was on the agenda. Securing official and public endorsement for Ukraine's NATO aspirations from Ankara would have represented a triumph for Zelensky ahead of the summit in Lithuania. Turkey has recently played a pivotal role as arbiter of the alliance's expansion, evidenced by how it has managed to impede the accession of Sweden to the bloc.
Erdoğan also values his role as a relatively successful mediator between Russia and Ukraine, which may have deterred him from taking a public and adversarial stance against Moscow.
But this was not the only pressing matter awaiting Zelensky in Istanbul. On July 17, the Turkey-brokered Black Sea grain deal – which guarantees the continued export of Ukrainian grain through Russian-controlled waters – will expire. Russia has threatened not to renew the deal, but an extension of the agreement is important to Kyiv for economic reasons, while for Ankara, it carries political and PR weight.