Ukraine's Zelenskiy seeks support from Southeast Europe at Tirana summit

Ukraine's Zelenskiy seeks support from Southeast Europe at Tirana summit
By bne IntelliNews February 28, 2024

A summit in Tirana co-hosted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama aimed to bolster support for Ukraine from nations in the region at a time when the Ukrainian army is struggling to hold back Russian forces. 

Top officials from Southeast European countries backed a declaration condemning Russia's aggression and expressing unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The declaration stated that “Russia’s unprovoked military aggression against Ukraine remains the greatest threat to the European security and international peace. This act of aggression is unacceptable; it is a flagrant violation of international law, including the UN Charter, and a crime against the Ukrainian people”.

It also reiterated the Southeast European countries’ “unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders as of 1991”. 

As well as Zelenskiy and Rama, present at the summit were the presidents of Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, and the prime ministers of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria Croatia and Romania. 

More support needed

Addressing a press conference alongside Rama, Zelenskiy spoke of the pressing need for additional support amid ongoing challenges in countering Russian forces. He stressed the importance of collaborative efforts in arms manufacturing and defence capabilities. 

He also sought support for the 10-point plan put forward by Kyiv as a potential path to peace. “Ukraine, as well as the entire region of Southeast Europe, must continue to work together to move forward, participate in the global peace summit. Of course, support us in our peace formula, the 10-point plan,” Zelenskiy told the press conference. 

Rama told the Ukrainian president that not only the Albanian leadership but “the whole nation, all the people of our country … stand by Ukraine and support Ukraine steadfastly”.

He urged nations to maintain their assistance to Ukraine, arguing that the provision of aid to Ukraine should not be entangled in domestic political agendas. Acknowledging that small countries like Albania cannot fully meet Ukraine's defence requirements, Rama appealed to larger and wealthier nations to lend support to Kyiv.

He criticised claims that ceasing arms supply to Ukraine would bring about peace as not only “cynical, but also absurd”. 

The summit in the Albanian capital Tirana coincides with Kyiv's efforts to boost its defensive capabilities against Russian forces amid dwindling US support over two years into Russia's full-scale invasion.

Securing additional support remains paramount for Ukraine's leadership. Zelenskiy disclosed on February 25 that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in action since Russia's invasion, in the first official acknowledgment of the country's losses. Zelenskiy also acknowledged the challenges with ammunition supply affecting the battlefield dynamics.

Ukraine has been advocating for Western leaders to increase joint production of weapons and ammunition, bolster Ukrainian air defences, and exert additional pressure on Russia through expanded sanctions. In Tirana, Zelenskiy proposed a Ukrainian-Balkans defence forum either in Kyiv or a Balkan capital, with the aim of fostering arms cooperation with the region. 

Threat to Southeast Europe 

Both Zelenskiy and Rama talked of the threat posed by Russia to Southeast Europe as well as to Ukraine. 

“Today's summit is about unity and I think that the Balkan countries should be together today. I think that Russia will do everything to destabilise the situation,” Zelenskiy said, according to an Albanian government statement.

“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] will use other tactics, he will try to exert influence in those places where he can get immediate success, which are small places. Thus, I believe that the Baltic countries are under threat, such as Moldova, the Balkan countries, wherever the Soviet Union was present,” he added. 

Rama echoed concerns about the threat of Russian aggression to the Balkans. “[Y]es, there is a clear and real danger to the Western Balkans due to Russian aggression,” he said. 

Divided over sanctions 

Most of the Southeast European countries, including both EU members and aspiring members, have imposed sanctions on Russia. The exception is Serbia, which has declined to do so despite pressure from Brussels and other Western powers. 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told journalists that the agreement reached during the summit does not address the subject of sanctions against Russia or Russia's malign influence, at Serbia's request.

"The participants agreed to omit any references to sanctions and Russia's negative influence ... We have been informed that this request has been accommodated. There is no mention of sanctions, nor any discussion regarding Russia's negative influence," said Vucic, reported Serbian news agency Tanjug.

Although Serbia has refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia amid its aggression against Ukraine, it has lent support to UN resolutions denouncing Russian occupation.