KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that Kyiv is requesting fast-track NATO membership after Russia formally annexed four Moscow-held regions of Ukraine, and the head of the military alliance threatened “severe consequences” if Moscow uses nuclear weapons to defend the Ukrainian territories.
“We are taking a decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” Zelensky said in taped remarks.
The Ukrainian president cited Western support for his country’s battles against Russia as proof that Kyiv should be accepted into the alliance.
“De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards. They are real for Ukraine — real on the battlefield and in all aspects of our interaction,” Zelensky said. “We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other. This is the alliance.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what the accelerated application would mean, since accession requires the unanimous support of the alliance’s members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear that any prospect of Ukraine joining the world’s largest military alliance is one of his red lines and it was among the justifications he has cited for his invasion.
Zelensky’s remarks came after Putin signed treaties to annex four Moscow-occupied Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia — at a grand ceremony in the Kremlin.
Putin’s land grab and Zelensky’s surprise NATO application sent the two leaders speeding even faster on a collision course that is cranking up fears of a full-blown conflict between Russia and the West.
With Ukraine vowing to take back all occupied territory and Russia pledging to defend its gains, threatening nuclear-weapon use and mobilizing an additional 300,000 troops despite protests, the two nations are on an increasingly escalatory collision course.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Moscow of “severe consequences” if it uses nuclear weapons in its war against Kyiv, but was non-committal on the Ukrainian application for membership.
He told reporters Friday that NATO leaders “support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path, to decide what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of” but that a decision on membership has to be taken by all 30 members.
Stoltenberg insisted that NATO would continue to support Ukraine “in their efforts to liberate” the Moscow-held regions as Kyiv vows to press an offensive.
Asked whether Ukrainian troops should refrain from attacking the annexed regions Stoltenberg said: “They can defend themselves, they can also continue to liberate territory.”
Stepping back, he said, would be to “accept nuclear blackmailing.”
Stoltenberg said NATO had not seen any “changes in nuclear posture” of Russia after threats from Putin.
“We are vigilant, we are sharing information, and we have conveyed very clearly to Russia that there will be severe consequences if they use nuclear forces against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.
He also condemned Russia’s annexation move. “This land grab is illegal and illegitimate. NATO allies do not and will not recognize any of this territory as part of Russia,” Stoltenberg said.
Zelensky also said that Kyiv would not negotiate with Russia — which sent troops into Ukraine on February 24 — as long as Putin was in power.
“Ukraine will not hold any negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is the president of the Russian Federation. We will negotiate with the new president,” Zelensky said.
In a speech before signing the treaties, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks but immediately insisted he won’t discuss handing back occupied regions — keeping him on a collision course with the Ukrainian government and its Western backers that have rejected his land-grab.
The pro-Kremlin leaders of the annexed territories claimed the regions voted in favor of becoming part of Russia in referendums that Western capitals and international organizations did not recognize.