NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Thursday — his first since the Russian invasion, Ukrainian media and a NATO official said.
The Kyiv Independent newspaper published images of Stoltenberg in central Kyiv, in front of a memorial for fallen soldiers.
The photographs showed Stoltenberg with his head down in front of the memorial.
Many Western officials travelling to Kyiv do not announce their trips in advance for security reasons.
“The NATO Secretary General is in Ukraine. We will release more information as soon as possible,” a NATO official said.
Stoltenberg’s visit comes 14 months into Russia’s invasion and ahead of an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive.
NATO has pledged to stand by Ukraine as it fights Russia.
Earlier this month, Stoltenberg invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a NATO summit in July.
He also said Russian President Vladimir Putin had “wanted to slam NATO’s door shut” but
Ukraine wants to join the NATO alliance
Russia regards NATO as a hostile military bloc
Zelenskiy made his comments at a joint news conference after talks with Stoltenberg, who offered NATO’s solidarity with Ukraine on his first trip to Kyiv since Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly 14 months ago.
The NATO secretary-general’s visit was likely to irk the Kremlin, which said earlier on Thursday that one of the main goals of its “special military operation” in Ukraine was to prevent it joining what Moscow regards as a hostile bloc.
Zelenskiy said he believed a NATO Summit in Vilnius in July could become “historic” and that he had been invited to attend.
“I am grateful for the invitation to visit the summit, but it is also important for Ukraine to receive the corresponding invitation,” Zelenskiy said.
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“There is no objective barrier to the political decision to invite Ukraine into the alliance and now, when most people in NATO countries and the majority of Ukrainians support NATO accession, is the time for the corresponding decisions.”
NATO has supported Ukraine throughout the war, with member states supplying it with weapons, but Zelenskiy said more were needed. All delays in receiving more weapons caused deaths in Ukraine, he said.
Stoltenberg said Ukraine’s rightful place was in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and that membership and security guarantees for Ukraine would be high on the agenda of the alliance’s July summit.
“Mr President, I am here today with a simple message: NATO stands with Ukraine,” he said. “NATO stands with you today, tomorrow and for as long as it takes.”
Ukraine announced a bid for fast-track membership of NATO last September after the Kremlin said it had annexed four Ukrainian regions that its troops have partially occupied.
The Kremlin reiterated to reporters on a conference call that Moscow opposed NATO admitting Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.
“…otherwise it will present a serious, significant danger to the security of our country,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Stoltenberg’s visit to Kyiv comes 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.
Stoltenberg also began his trip a day before NATO defence officials discuss new military supplies for Ukraine at their latest meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Denmark and the Netherlands announced on Thursday they would jointly donate 14 Leopard 2 tanks.
On Wednesday, Washington announced $325 million in new military aid, including ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), advanced missiles and anti-tank mines.