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Zelensky says World War III fear ‘logical’ as NATO holds off on admitting Ukraine

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday that it was “logical” that some NATO leaders fear sparking World War III by admitting his country while it’s at war with Russia — striking a conciliatory tone one day after he blasted the alliance for not offering Ukraine membership.

Zelensky, however, did argue at a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that an invitation to join still was appropriate immediately because of the “signals” it would send.

“We understand that someone is afraid of talking about our membership now because nobody is willing to have a world war, which is logical and understandable,” Zelensky said through a translator hours before a scheduled sit-down with President Biden at NATO’s annual conference.

“I want everyone to understand that we are a civilized and adequate people. Ukraine is fighting and it truly understands that Ukraine cannot be a member nation of NATO as long as the war continues on our territory.”

But the Ukrainian leader added that “signals are important” and likened a potential NATO membership offer to his country’s European Union candidacy status, which the EU extended shortly after Russia’s invasion in February of last year.

“EU candidacy was just this, a signal,” he said. “The candidacy means no membership, but it brings a significant mobilization for Ukraine and a powerful signal for Russia.”

Zelensky and Stoltenberg spoke shortly before a meeting of a new NATO-Ukraine Council, which Stoltenberg described as an important step toward integrating Ukraine into the Western alliance while stopping short of actual membership.

Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty commits all member states to collective defense.

That provision has only been invoked once — after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which preceded the NATO-backed US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

The alliance is expected to announce new “security guarantees” for Ukraine Wednesday afternoon that build upon member countries’ actions to arm and finance Kyiv’s more than 16-month defense against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion.

“We are moving Ukraine closer to membership,” Stoltenberg said.

“If President Zelensky wants to convene a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, he can do so. It cannot be blocked… this is something new, it’s something different, it’s a strong political tool for further political integration.”

Zelensky struck a less diplomatic tone Tuesday when he blasted the NATO position toward his country’s possible membership as “unprecedented and absurd” as the alliance drafted new language specifying that Ukraine must meet additional “democratic and security sector reforms.”

“If President Zelensky wants to convene a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, he can do so. It cannot be blocked… this is something new, it’s something different, it’s a strong political tool for further political integration.”

“It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” Zelensky fumed on Twitter as he traveled to Vilnius.

“This means that a window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine’s membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means the motivation to continue its terror. Uncertainty is a weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.”

On Tuesday, NATO leaders issued a joint statement vaguely assuring Ukraine that it would be granted membership “when Allies agree and conditions are met.”

Biden said in a CNN interview that aired Sunday that he believes Ukraine is not “ready” for membership.

“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war.”

“We’re determined to commit every inch of territory that is NATO territory,” Biden noted. “If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.”

Zelensky has successfully pressured Biden into offering an ever-broader range of military equipment to his armed forces, most recently including controversial cluster bombs, which are banned by more than 100 countries because they can cause serious injury or death to civilians long after wars end.

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