Turkey supports Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but he also urged for a “return to peace efforts” to end the conflict that has now raged for 500 days since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
“There is no doubt that Ukraine deserves membership of NATO,” Erdogan told a joint press conference with the Ukrainian president in Istanbul early on Saturday, adding that the two sides should go back to peace talks.
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“A fair peace creates no losers,” the Turkish leader said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Zelenskyy thanked Erdogan for his support, which comes ahead of a key NATO summit that is set to start on Tuesday in Vilnius, Lithuania.
“I am grateful for the support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Peace formula. Protection of our countries, our people and our interests,” the Ukrainian leader wrote in a tweet regarding his talks with Erdogan.
Meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan @RTErdogan. Very important negotiations.
Security – both in our Black Sea region and Europe in general. I am grateful for the support of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Peace Formula. Protection of our… pic.twitter.com/FfsniYKZ7q
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 7, 2023
The Ukrainian leader has lobbied intensively for his embattled country to be invited to join the Western military alliance, arguing that Ukraine has become Europe’s last line of defence against Russia’s aggression.
This week, Zelenskyy visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria to drum up support for Ukraine’s NATO membership bid ahead of the military alliance’s July 11-12 summit.
In Prague, he won a pledge of support for Ukraine to join NATO “as soon as the war is over”, and in Sofia, he secured backing for membership “as soon as conditions allow”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also reaffirmed his view that Ukraine would become a member.
However, the timeline for Ukraine’s membership remains unclear.
On Friday, the United States dampened Ukraine’s hopes of any rapid accession to the alliance, saying this week’s summit would not result in a NATO membership invitation.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Vilnius summit “will be an important moment on that pathway towards membership”, but that Ukraine has “further steps it needs to take before membership in NATO”.
NATO countries have debated when and how Ukraine can become a member and under what circumstances. Member countries such as Germany insist that certain conditions must be met, including the military being under civilian and democratic control.
It remains unclear what exactly Ukraine will be offered at the summit in the Lithuanian capital, and Zelenskyy has acknowledged that Kyiv is unlikely to be able to join NATO while at war with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened unspecified action if Ukraine joins NATO.
Kremlin watching closely
Zelenskyy’s talks in Turkey were being watched closely by the Kremlin, which has tried to break its international isolation by cultivating strong relations with the Turkish leader Erdogan.
Erdogan has tried to portray himself as a neutral mediator between Kyiv and Moscow, substantially boosting wartime trade with Russia while also supplying Ukraine with drones and other weapons that helped keep Kremlin forces from seizing Kyiv in the first weeks of the war.
Though the Turkish leader reaffirmed his longstanding call for the two sides to enter peace negotiations, Erdogan risked drawing the ire of Putin by delivering unequivocal support for Ukraine’s NATO aspiration.
Erdogan said Putin will visit Turkey next month and that he and the Russian president would discuss possible prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine, which Erdogan has helped to arrange in the past.
Erdogan also said that he would push Putin to extend a deal that Turkey and the United Nations had brokered last year under which Ukraine was able to ship grain to the global market from ports on the Black Sea.
The deal will expire on July 17 unless Russia agrees to its renewal.