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BULBOACA, Moldova — European leaders staged a powerful show of defiance — and support for Ukraine — as they gathered on Thursday for a historic summit in the former Soviet country of Moldova, just a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
But even as more than 40 leaders pledged their solidarity with Ukraine at the second meeting of the so-called European Political Community, the difficulty of maintaining that unity was evident. Before and during the summit, leaders protected and delimited competing positions on an increasingly contentious issue: what security guarantees the Western alliance can give Kiev to ensure that if Russia is ever expelled, it will not return.
French President Emmanuel Macron set the tone on Wednesday, imploring allies to offer Kiev « tangible and credible » security guarantees – a change in the French position. His German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, was more hesitant on Thursday, refusing to give details and indicating it could be a post-war question.
Against this backdrop, the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, joined the leaders in a surprise appearance. Under a crisp blue sky, Zelensky made two explicit demands: one, a « clear invitation » to join NATO – another issue dividing the Allies – and « guarantees of security on the road to NATO membership ».
Both, he said, « are necessary. »
The divergent positions illustrate the thorny issues that lie ahead as the West struggles to hold together against Russia and the war continues. However, for now, unity is still the predominant rhetorical theme when European leaders gather.
« Today’s summit showed us how precious the European Political Community is », said Moldovan President Maia Sandu at the end of the summit. « We have shown that we are a family, a strong and united family of European nations acting together to make the continent stronger, more united and more peaceful. »
The summit at Mimi Castle, a vineyard just 20 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, started on an exciting note with the arrival of Zelenskyy.
Sandu welcomed the Ukrainian president before the other leaders, thanking him profusely for « keeping Moldova safe ». The side-by-side image of the two leaders, both of whose countries have fought Russian aggression to varying degrees, was a powerful symbol.
But with Kiev under an intensifying Russian bomb hail, Zelenskyi moved quickly on his appeal, asking allies to give Ukraine solid security guarantees and a pledge to NATO membership at an upcoming NATO summit in Lithuania. NATO agreed in 2008 that Ukraine would eventually become a member, but has never offered a firm promise or timeline.
While Zelensky is unlikely to get everything he wants at the July rally, both issues are hotly debated at the moment.
Macron set the stage Wednesday when he turned heads with his more forthcoming remarks on security guarantees.
« I am in favor – and it will be the subject of collective discussions in the coming weeks – to give tangible and credible security guarantees for two reasons: Ukraine today protects Europe and gives security guarantees to Europe, » he said.
But Scholz, the German chancellor, was more cautious on Thursday.
« One thing is very clear: we are now doing our bit to support Ukraine, » he said. “We have always said that there must also be guarantees for a peace order after the war. Germany will make a contribution to this. »
Scholz then declined to get involved in the details of the discussion, even as she moved to center stage.
However, both Scholz and Macron confirmed that the allies are actively discussing the matter and working to coordinate their approaches ahead of the NATO summit.
Speaking in Oslo on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was equally careful when addressing the delicate subject.
« When the war ends, we have to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, that this pattern of Russian aggression against Ukraine really stops, and therefore, we have to have structures in place to provide guarantees for Ukrainian security after the end of the war, so history does not repeat itself, » he said.
The lack of clarity reflects the complexity of offering – or even defining – « security guarantees » for another country. Europe may also be waiting to take a cue from the United States. An option on the table could reflect the security model binding on the US and Israel, which prioritizes arms transfers and long-term support commitments.
However, Scholz, speaking at the conclusion of the summit, stressed that helping Ukraine to defend itself was « the task at hand ». And he ruled out NATO membership for Ukraine at this juncture.
“There are clear criteria for joining. You can’t have border conflicts, for example,” he said – an obvious reference to Ukraine.
Scholz’s remarks reflect the broad understanding that Ukraine cannot join NATO as long as it is actively at war with Russia. But Ukrainian officials want NATO leaders to offer a concrete political gesture to put Kiev at least on the path to membership.
Some NATO allies are willing to be much more forthright than Scholz on the matter, particularly those representing the Baltics, highlighting another rift separating the allies.
“The only security guarantee that works… is NATO membership,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said on Thursday, echoing Zelenskyy’s message.