NEW YORK - The leaders of nine European Nato members signed a joint statement on Sunday supporting Ukraine's bid for membership, an application that is likely to face hurdles.
The statement signed by the leaders of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania and Slovakia also condemned Russia's claims that it was annexing four regions of Ukraine after widely discredited referendums conducted by occupation governments.
Ukraine has long sought to become a member of the mutual-defence alliance. In 2008, Nato promised Ukraine and Georgia that they could some day become members without detailing a timeline. But the alliance has done little to act on that promise.
"We firmly stand behind the 2008 Bucharest Nato Summit decision concerning Ukraine's future membership," the leaders said in their statement.
They also declared that the nine nations "will never recognise Russian attempts to annex any Ukrainian territory" and pressed other member states to "immediately increase their military aid to Ukraine".
In his nightly address on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he welcomed the support and was optimistic that Ukraine's bid would move forward.
On Saturday, Zelensky announced that Ukraine had submitted an application to join Nato, although experts have warned that there are significant hurdles ahead, because admitting a country requires unanimous consent from all of the alliance's 30 members.
As an alliance predicated on the doctrine of mutual defence, it would be highly unlikely for Nato to admit a country ensnared in war.
Although Zelensky said that Ukraine's application could be fast-tracked in the same way as applications by Sweden and Finland have been, some expect that the process could take months, if not years.
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Friday that he thinks Ukraine's application "should be taken up at a different time".
And Nato's secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has been circumspect in his statements about Ukraine's application.
On Sunday, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press", Stoltenberg cautioned that although "Nato has an open-door policy" and Ukraine is welcome to apply, "all 30 allies have to agree to make such a decision".
Ukraine's desire to join the alliance has long been a source of conflict with Russia, which sees the eastward expansion of Nato as an existential threat.
Stoltenberg said that Russian President Vladimir Putin - who has long groused over Ukraine's desire to join the alliance - is trying to coax Nato into the war in Ukraine.
"Nato is not party to this conflict," Stoltenberg said. "What we do is provide support to Ukraine, an independent nation that has a right to defend itself." NYTIMES