KYIV, April 20 (Reuters) – Ukraine’s future lies in NATO, the Western military alliance’s chief Jens Stoltenberg underscored on Thursday during his first visit to the country since Russia’s invasion 14 months ago.
“Let me be clear: Ukraine’s rightful place is in the euro-Atlantic family. Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO. And over time, our support will help you to make this possible,” Stoltenberg told reporters during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv.
He pledged continued military support for Ukraine, saying that, so far, NATO allies had trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops and provided 65 billion euros ($71.31 billion) of military aid alone.
“NATO stands with you today, tomorrow and for as long as it takes,” Stoltenberg stated, before inviting Zelenskiy to the NATO summit in Vilnius in July.
Stoltenberg laid a wreathe to honour Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed fighting in the east of the country, and reviewed captured Russian armoured vehicles on the capital’s St Michael’s Square.
Ukrainian leaders and NATO officials did not immediately make any announcements about the trip. Wartime visits by foreign officials are often shrouded in secrecy but top leaders visiting Kyiv often hold talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Stoltenberg began his unannounced trip at a vital juncture in Russia’s almost 14-month-old invasion which has killed thousands, uprooted millions, destroyed cities and devastated the Ukrainian economy.
After weathering a Russian winter and spring offensive that has made only small advances in the east, Ukraine now hopes to retake land in its south and east in a counteroffensive in the coming weeks or months.
After paying his respects to Ukrainian soldiers, the NATO secretary-general got into a car and drove off after the event, a Reuters photographer said.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has supported Ukraine throughout the war, with member states sending weapons but not fighting troops. Kyiv has repeatedly called for more weapons from its allies.
Ukraine sees its future in the alliance and last September announced a bid for fast-track membership after the Kremlin said it had have annexed four Ukrainian regions that its troops have partially occupied.
Moscow regards NATO as a hostile military bloc bent on encroaching on what it sees as its sphere of influence. Ukraine gained independence from the Russia-led Soviet Union in 1991.
In Other Developments
* The European Union is preparing 100 million euros ($109.32 million) in compensation for farmers in five countries bordering Ukraine and plans to introduce restrictions on imports of Ukrainian grains.
* Inspections of ships carrying Ukrainian grain from the Black Sea resumed under a U.N.-brokered deal but Kyiv faces a struggle to secure an extension of the agreement.
* The United States announced $325 million in new military aid for Ukraine, including additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, advanced missiles and anti-tank mines.
* Ukraine’s defence minister confirmed that Kyiv had taken delivery of Patriot air defence systems, and said this made Ukrainian skies more secure.
* Ukrainian President Zelenskiy is to address Mexico’s Congress on Thursday by video, according to two people familiar with the matter, as he seeks support for Ukraine’s defence against Russia.
* Swedish Defence Minister Pal Jonson said he was hopeful his country would become a member of NATO by the time of a planned summit in July. Sweden and Finland sought membership in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
* The United States looks forward to welcoming Sweden as a NATO member and will encourage Turkey and Hungary to ratify accession, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.