Ukraine’s Zelenskiy seeks Balkan arms, support at summit in Albania

By Thomson Reuters Feb 28, 2024 | 7:35 AM

By Fatos Bytyci

TIRANA (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tried to drum up Balkan support for his vision of peace in Ukraine and promoted the idea of joint arms production at a two-day summit of southeastern European countries on Wednesday.

The summit in the Albanian capital Tirana comes as Kyiv is trying to improve its defensive capabilities to beat back Russian forces at a time of faltering U.S. support more than two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“We are interested in co-production with you and all our partners,” Zelenskiy told top delegations from Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia and Moldova in his opening remarks at the summit.

“There are about 500 defence companies operating in Ukraine, each of them adds strength but it is not enough to win (against Russian President Vladimir) Putin. We see the problems with the supply of ammunition, which affects the situation on the battlefield.”

Zelenskiy proposed organising a Ukrainian-Balkans defence forum in Kyiv or a Balkan capital to nurture arms cooperation, repeating similar initiatives conducted last year with British and U.S. weapons companies.

Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro are NATO members, have joined Western sanctions against Russia and sent arms and equipment to Ukraine. There are significant arms industries in parts of the Balkans, especially Serbia and Croatia, a legacy of former federal Yugoslavia.

Longtime Moscow ally Serbia has not imposed sanctions, and neither Belgrade nor Kyiv recognise the independence of Kosovo, Serbia’s former predominantly Albanian southern province which backs Ukraine and is seeking European Union and NATO membership.

Zelenskiy said he had invited all Balkan region leaders to take part in a summit of partners and allies in Switzerland this spring that would discuss his vision of peace, which entails a Russian military withdrawal from all of Ukrainian territory.

That diplomatic initiative – based on what is known as Zelenskiy’s “peace formula” – does not involve Russia and has been dismissed by Moscow as a non-starter.

Zelenskiy said he met Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama for talks and that the two leaders had signed an Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation between Ukraine and Albania.

“This document will contribute to the development of cooperation and strengthening of Ukraine’s position in the Balkan region,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram messenger.

His chief of staff Andriy Yermak said: “They also spoke about Ukraine’s defence needs and the possibility of joint weapons production.”

Zelenskiy told a news conference later that every time weapons supplies to Ukraine were delayed it was a “gift” to Russia’s Putin, an apparent allusion to the months-long impasse in U.S. Congress over providing more assistance for Kyiv.

Zelenskiy, who was in Saudi Arabia for talks on Tuesday, is due to meet the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro at the summit.

“A pivotal moment for fostering bilateral ties, and standing in solidarity with Ukraine in its heroic fight against Russia’s aggression,” Albanian Foreign Minister Igli Hasani wrote on X shortly after Zelenskiy’s arrival.

(Reporting by Dan Peleshchuk and Olena Harmash in Kyiv, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Mark Heinrich)