Zelensky to rally for support, weapons at Balkan security meet

AFP , Wednesday 28 Feb 2024

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to meet with Balkan leaders in Albania on Wednesday, seeking to keep support and weapons flowing to Kyiv as Russia makes gains on the battlefield two years after invading its neighbour.

Ukraine s President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) shakes hands with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama ahead of Ukraine-Western Balkans Summit, in Tirana on February 28, 2024. AFP


Zelensky has been crisscrossing the globe in recent weeks to rally support for his beleaguered country, as Ukraine's armed forces face a critical shortage of ammunition and struggle to hold back Russia's military advances on the ground.

He arrived in Albania late Tuesday and on Wednesday was set to meet in Tirana with several leaders from across the region during the "Ukraine-Southeast Europe Summit" -- his first visit to the Balkan nation since Russia's invasion in February 2022.

"Today I am working in Tirana. I will meet Ukraine's unwavering friend, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, and attend the Ukraine-South-East Europe summit," Zelensky wrote on X, saying he would also hold bilateral talks with the summit's participants.

Zelensky's visit is "a pivotal moment for fostering bilateral ties, and standing in solidarity with Ukraine in its heroic fight against Russia's aggression", Albania's Foreign Minister Igli Hasani said late Tuesday after the Ukrainian president arrived in Tirana.

Albania, a NATO member since 2009, has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine but has stayed largely quiet in public about supplying Kyiv with arms.

During a visit to Albania earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised Tirana's backing of Ukraine.

"It was one of the first countries to send military aid to Ukraine in the wake of the Russian aggression -- guns, ammunition, mine resistant vehicles -- and it's currently one of the top ten per capita in terms of its support for Ukraine and security assistance," Blinken said.

Leaders from across the Balkans -- including Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, and Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani, were set to be in attendance during the summit in Tirana, according to organisers.

Serbia remains a rare outlier in the region for refusing to sanction Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine.

Seeking aid 

Zelensky has repeatedly pleaded with allies for more aid, warning that Ukrainian victory "depends" on the West boosting support.

Already massively outgunned, his country is fending off a renewed Russian offensive with dwindling ammunition that has had to be rationed.

EU allies are rallying to address that shortfall with a Czech-led plan to buy artillery from outside the bloc.

More than two years after Russia's invasion, the EU is facing the prospect of having to shoulder more of the aid burden as funds from the United States dry up.

Political infighting in the US Congress has stalled a vital $60 billion aid package, with the Republican right-wing, led by 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump, dramatically souring against Ukraine's cause.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, an ally of former president Donald Trump and head of a razor-thin Republican majority, has refused to allow a vote on the package.

French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile provoked backlash from fellow allies and a warning from the Kremlin this week when he raised the possibility of sending Western troops into Ukraine.

Before arriving in Tirana, Zelensky stopped in Saudi Arabia, where he sought to promote his peace plan and discuss potential prisoner of war exchanges.

Saudi Arabia maintains relations with both Russia and Ukraine and has mediated between the warring parties before, including a deal struck in September 2022 that saw the release of more than 200 captive Ukrainians.

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