The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

E.U. membership and fighter jets for Ukraine remain elusive as Zelensky says ‘prove you are with us’

An interpreter for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's speech to the European Parliament on March 1 broke down during the address. (Video: The Washington Post)

BRUSSELS — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a desperate plea to the European Parliament on Tuesday, begging the bloc to “prove you are with us” as Russia encircles major cities.

But the European Union may not offer him all the help he wants at the speed he is demanding, whether on E.U. membership or military supplies.

Zelensky described dire scenes playing out around him, including the deadly shelling of Kharkiv and the killing of children. “Now we are fighting for survival,” he said in a virtual address. “But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe.”

He concluded: “We have proven our strength. We have proven that at a minimum, we are exactly the same as you are. So, prove that you are with us. Prove that you will not let us go. Prove that you indeed are Europeans. And then life will win over. And light will win over darkness.”

The speech was met with a standing ovation from lawmakers, a show of emotion from the English-language interpreter, and expressions of goodwill from various European leaders.

Lawmakers passed a resolution on Tuesday calling for the E.U. “to work toward granting the country EU candidate status.” And European Council President Charles Michel said the day before that E.U. heads of government — the ones who control membership — would “seriously look” at the request from Ukraine.

But countries are divided about their readiness to open the door.

At the same time, the E.U.'s historic weekend announcement that it would fund and facilitate the sending of weapons and equipment to Ukraine — a move without precedent for the 27-nation trade bloc — appeared to be somewhat deflated on Tuesday, after it turned out the E.U. foreign policy chief had gone off script when he promised fighter jets.

Both developments underscored Ukraine’s vulnerability, as the world pledges support but leaves Ukrainians to do the fighting.

On Tuesday, Zelensky spoke movingly of that isolation: “We are fighting, just for our land,” he said. “Despite the fact that all of our cities are blocked, that nobody is going to enter and intervene.”

The fate of the jets

E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced at a news conference on Sunday that military aircraft would be among the lethal aid paid for by a $555 million E.U. military and humanitarian fund approved by foreign ministers that day. The idea is that countries will be reimbursed for the equipment they provide.

“We are going to supply arms and even fighter jets,” Borrell said. “We are not talking about just ammunition. We are providing the most important arms to go to war.”

But on Tuesday, it became clear that E.U. countries are probably not about to send fighter jets to Ukraine.

The idea of jets was discussed among E.U. foreign ministers on Sunday, according to officials familiar with the exchanges, and Borrell floated that Bulgaria, Slovakia and Poland might contribute, since they have Russian-made MiG-29s that are more compatible than Western planes with the Ukrainian military.

But nothing was finalized, according to an E.U. diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private meetings. And Borrell’s announcement — which came in response to a question about how the materiel was going to get into Ukraine, not in his prepared remarks — was a surprise.

Bulgarian and Slovakian leaders have since said they do not plan to send fighter jets to Ukraine right now. And Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Tuesday that his country also did not intend to send jets to Ukraine, though he appeared to leave a touch of ambiguity about the possibility.

“We are not sending any jets to Ukraine because that would open a military interference in the Ukrainian conflict. We are not joining that conflict,” Duda told reporters. “We are not going to send any jets to the Ukrainian airspace.”

It was not clear if he was intentionally leaving open the possibility that the Ukrainians could pick jets up in Poland or that aircraft could be transported overland to the Ukrainian border. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made the rejection more definitive later in the day.

Possibly playing into the reticence: The countries that border Ukraine, while wanting to be supportive, are also concerned about more direct confrontation with Russia.

Most countries in Europe are sending lethal aid. Germany promised 1,000 antitank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Lithuania sent antiaircraft missiles. Belgium will send 2,000 machine guns and 200 antitank weapons. The Netherlands is sending 200 Stinger missiles, antitank weapons and radar systems. Tiny Luxembourg is sending 100 antitank weapons and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. Poland sent grenade launchers, helmets, mortars and ammunition and also has promised Javelin missile systems and assault rifles.

But Hungary said this week it would not allow the transfer of lethal weapons through its territory on the way to Ukraine.

“Such deliveries might become targets of hostile military action,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Monday during a visit to Kosovo. “We have to ensure the security of Hungary … that we are not getting involved in that war.”

The push for E.U. membership

For years, Ukraine has aspired to E.U. membership. And on Monday, Zelensky submitted a formal application, while asking for “immediate accession under a new special procedure.”

There is some momentum for the idea of admitting Ukraine. The presidents of eight central and eastern European nations signed a joint letter voicing their support on Monday.

“We, the Presidents of the EU member states: the Republic of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Estonia, the Republic of Latvia, the Republic of Lithuania, the Republic of Poland, the Slovak Republic, and the Republic of Slovenia strongly believe that Ukraine deserves receiving an immediate EU accession perspective,” the letter said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.”

But while upbeat about the prospects, European officials have been noncommittal.

E.U. membership talks typically drag on for years. The sides haggle over benchmarks and the potential entrant brings its laws and regulations into sync with existing E.U. rules. The newest member, Croatia, joined in 2013 after a decade of talks. Other Western Balkan nations have negotiated for years, with little obvious progress. Fast-tracking Ukraine by slicing through some of the red tape could upset North Macedonia, Albania and the others.

More substantively, Ukraine has struggled with corruption to an extent that many E.U. countries have been wary of admitting it. Its size and poverty make it an awkward match. At 44 million people, it would be the bloc’s fifth-biggest country. But even the poorest current E.U. member, Bulgaria, is three times as wealthy per capita — leading to a yawning economic need that, under E.U. funding rules, would pull cash from every other country.

Some E.U. diplomats fear the push for membership talks is a distraction from Ukraine’s immediate needs, especially since not every country is on board.

“Membership is a long-standing request from Ukraine,” Michel said. “But there are different opinions and sensitivities within the E.U. on enlargement.”