Hungarian Conservative

Zelenskyy’s Eastern European and Turkey Tour — A Promising Start Followed by a Noncommittal NATO Summit

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (R)
Petr David Josek/AP/MTI
While Sofia, Prague, Bratislava and Ankara seemed to be eager to send more aid to Ukraine and support the war-torn country in its NATO bid, the NATO summit in Vilnius must have been a disappointing ending to a promising start for Zelenskyy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Bulgaria, Czechia, Slovakia and Turkey head of the Vilnius NATO summit, in the hope of garnering support for the war and for his country’s NATO bid. During his whole trip, extraordinary security measures were taken.

Zelenskyy started his pre-summit tour in Bulgaria. The one-day visit to Sofia happened as Bulgaria was preparing to approve sending military aid directly to Ukraine, changing its former practice of delivering arms to Kyiv only via third countries. During the visit, Bulgarian lawmakers also adopted a declaration of support for Ukraine, urging Ukraine’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when peace is restored on its territory.

Zelenskyy held talks with Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov, and also met with President Rumen Radev, other government officials and parliamentarians.

While the Bulgarian government and parliamentary majority is in favour of unconditional support for Kyiv, the country’s president, Rumen Radev is opposed to arming Ukraine and has adopted a position similar to that of Hungarian PM Orbán. Radev has also been accused of being pro-Moscow. During his meeting with Zelenskyy in the Presidential Palace, while the press was still in the room and the cameras were rolling,

Zelenskyy responded angrily to Radev suggesting that there was no military solution to the conflict:

‘God forbid some tragedy should befall you and you should be in my place…And if people with shared values do not help, what will you do? You would say: Putin, please grab Bulgarian territory?…No, you, as a real president, I am sure you would not allow a compromise with your independence.’ 

There was no need for such confrontation in the Czech capital, as there the political establishment is fully on Ukraine’s side. The Ukrainian leader was received by President Petr Pavel, and met with Prime Minister Petr Fiala as well as the heads of both chambers of the Parliament.

Probably for security reasons, the Prague trip happened almost in secret, since the Castle only confirmed Zelenskyy’s arrival after he himself had published it on Twitter. The Ukrainian President’s trip to Prague can be considered successful, as he received promises of further military assistance to Ukraine and support for his country’s entry into NATO and the European Union. Since the beginning of the war, Czechia has supplied Ukraine with almost 700 pieces of equipment and four million pieces of medium and large-calibre ammunition.

According to PM Petr Fiala, ‘Ukraine is fighting for us, for our security, for the security of all of Europe.’

In order to assist Kyiv, Czechia will supply Ukraine with additional attack helicopters and ammunition. Apart from this, Prague will also provide flight simulators and help train Ukrainian pilots. Fiala emphasised that supporting Ukraine is a foreign policy priority for the Czech government. He confirmed that Czech aid will continue intensively in all areas.

The Ukrainian president was warmly welcomed by his Czech counterpart Pavel at the Prague Castle. Among the topics of their conversation were the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, developments in Belarus, and the reconstruction of the attacked country. According to Pavel, it is in the interest of Czechia that Ukraine starts negotiations on joining NATO the moment the war ends. Fiala expressed hope that ‘all NATO allies will support Ukraine’s membership,’ adding that Zelenskyy ‘can count on the voice of the Czech Republic.’ Zelenskyy ended his visit to Czechia after about 16 hours, departing from the Prague airport shortly after noon.

The Ukrainian President’s next stop was in Bratislava, where he arrived on the Czech government’s aeroplane on Friday, 7 July. Just like in Prague, this is Zelenskyy’s first visit to Slovakia since the beginning of the Russian invasion. During his short stop, he met with President Zuzana Čaputová, Prime Minister Ľudovít Ódor, and the speaker of the parliament, Boris Kollár. On his meeting with Čaputová, Zelenskyy thanked Slovakia’s military and political assistance to Ukraine. He added, ‘Your country will not be in danger because we will stand up for you’.

According to the Slovak President, ‘In 2008, the leaders in Bucharest agreed that Ukraine belongs to NATO. It is not for Russia or any other country to decide on the membership of a sovereign state in some community, but it should be up to them and the countries that make up that membership’.

On the question of Ukraine’s NATO accession, the speaker of the parliament, Kollár, made a more restrained statement. According to him,

‘No country, not even Ukraine, can join NATO while there is an ongoing fight on its territory. This is clear.’

Kollár thanked Zelenskyy for fighting also for Slovakia. ‘If the annexations of the territories of other states became a society-wide rule, one day someone could take our territories or even the entire state. This is why we did not recognise Kosovo; this is why we claim that Crimea is Ukrainian,’ said Kollár.

While the Czech Republic promised Ukraine additional military aid, Slovakia has already exhausted its options. ‘To ensure the defence of Slovakia, we have to keep the equipment we have left,’ Čaputová said after negotiations with Zelenskyy. In response to a journalist’s question about the possibility of Ukraine’s NATO membership, PM Ódor’s words echoed those of the Slovak president: ‘The future of Ukraine in NATO was already discussed at the summit in 2008, when Robert Fico was in power. I want to thank him for that.’ Ódor also confirmed that Slovakia will continue to support Ukraine. He went on to state that the conditions must be created as soon as possible for Slovak companies that want to invest in Ukraine or participate in the country’s reconstruction. ‘They must know what they are getting into,’ he added.

Ukraine and Slovakia plan to deepen cooperation in producing howitzers and ammunition. Slovakia has already received a contract for the production of sixteen more howitzers. ‘Together with our companies, we will also develop a new type of howitzer, cooperate on the joint production of ammunition, and at the same time, our companies will be involved in demining the territory of Ukraine,’ Čaputová summarised.

Slovakia is currently run by a technocratic government appointed by the President without the parliament’s approval. In September, early elections will take place. Slovak opposition leader and three-time former prime minister

Robert Fico held a press conference during Zelenskyy’s visit, declaring that Ukraine does not belong to NATO.

‘It is essential to give security guarantees to Ukraine, both from the East and the West. But there must be some buffer between NATO and the Russian Federation. This buffer should be Ukraine, independent, sovereign, with everything that goes with it,’ he stated.

The Ukrainian president ended his tour in Ankara. There, President Erdoğan declared: ‘Without a doubt, Ukraine deserves to be in NATO.’ Zelensky said he was ‘happy to hear’ that Turkey supports Ukraine’s bid.

President Erdoğan confirmed during his joint press conference with the Ukrainian leader that Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expected to visit Turkey next month.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Erdoğan has emerged as a key mediator in the conflict, playing a balancing act between the two sides. He helped broker the Black Sea grain deal that unlocked millions of tonnes of Ukrainian wheat, preventing a major global food shortage.

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While Sofia, Prague, Bratislava and Ankara seemed to be eager to send more aid to Ukraine and support the war-torn country in its NATO bid, the NATO summit in Vilnius must have been a disappointing ending to a promising start for Zelenskyy.