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Ukraine joining NATO came up in 2008. 15 years later it's still under discussion

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Let's start this hour by getting a view on the NATO summit from Ukraine.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance actually first came up in 2008. Fifteen years later, it's still under discussion.

MARTÍNEZ: Here to tell us more, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv, Ukraine. Greg, if Ukraine can't get membership at this NATO summit - and you heard President Biden say that it's premature, maybe, for even a vote to happen, so what does it hope it can get?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, the next best option from Ukraine's perspective would be a clear timetable toward membership. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview that aired over the weekend that Ukraine should get clear security guarantees, which President Biden seems to agree with, although we don't know exactly what those are.

And many Ukrainians just feel they've been in limbo since the possibility of joining NATO was first broached back in 2008. Ukraine wants the question resolved sooner rather than later. They say this fuzzy middle ground has encouraged Russian leader Vladimir Putin to invade. He knew it would be too late to act if he waited until Ukraine actually joined NATO.

And lastly, I just note that President George W. Bush, who raised the idea of Ukraine in NATO, faced some pushback from Europe. And now some European countries, particularly Eastern European countries, support Ukraine in NATO, while President Biden is urging caution and saying this will take time.

MARTÍNEZ: And Zelenskyy visited a few NATO countries recently, including Turkey, and then he returned home with several prominent Ukrainian military commanders. Who are they?

MYRE: Yeah. This was a real surprise. These five military commanders were key figures last year in the Azovstal steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. You may recall that they held out for more than two months before they finally surrendered to Russia. And the Russians then sent them to Turkey in September. And part of the deal was that they were supposed to remain in Turkey until the end of the war. But Turkey's President Erdogan handed the five commanders over to Zelenskyy during his visit Saturday. Russia is very angry about this - saying Turkey just reneged on the deal. Meanwhile, this was a real gift to Zelenskyy and Ukraine. The five commanders got a hero's welcome in Ukraine, and they say they will soon return to the fight.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Zelenskyy also made a highly symbolic visit to Snake Island off Ukraine's coast. Why was he even there?

MYRE: Zelenskyy took this very bold trip in a small, inflatable boat to Snake Island, which is in the Black Sea about 20 miles off Ukraine's southwest coast, and I say bold because Russia's navy controls the Black Sea. Ukraine has no warships, no real naval presence to speak of, no clear way they could have protected him.

And you may remember, this is the island where a Russian warship arrived at the beginning of the war and told the small Ukrainian force there to surrender. One Ukrainian responded with a memorable burst of profanity, which has now been memorialized on billboards, T-shirts and coffee mugs all over Ukraine. The island is now back in Ukrainian control. And while he was on the island, Zelenskyy laid flowers, took a selfie and said this showed Ukraine would reclaim all the territory.

And I'll just note finally that Russian ships keep their distance to avoid getting hit by the Ukrainian forces on the mainland. Still, it was a pretty dicey trip, even for Zelenskyy, who periodically visits the frontline areas.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv, Ukraine. Thanks for the reporting, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.