Ukraine's hopes to join NATO fly in the face of Russia's long-declared boundaries, the head of the influential Munich Security Conference has said, amid concerns from officials in Moscow that the bloc is edging further eastwards.
Speaking as part of an interview with German daily Handelsblatt on Saturday, Wolfgang Ischinger claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin "has long been haunted by the fear" that America still wanted to make Ukraine and Georgia members of the organization.
The chair of the overwhelmingly pro-NATO event acknowledged this was a "red line" for Moscow, and suggested it would be better in the long term for Kiev to adopt a strategy whereby it modeled itself on Finland, which is a member of the EU but not of the US-led military bloc. However, he caveated, "We definitely cannot declare that Ukraine and Georgia will never become members."
Ischinger's comments come amid escalating tensions between NATO and Moscow. Last Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said "promises" given by the bloc at the end of the Cold War that it would not move "an inch eastwards" had been largely ignored.
Speaking the day before, Putin announced that he would "insist on guarantees being set out" to stop NATO coming ever closer to his country's borders and "deploying threatening weapons" nearby.
However, ahead of the talks between the two leaders that are due to take place on Tuesday, his American counterpart, Joe Biden, rejected Russia's "red lines." "We've been aware of Russia's actions [concerning Ukraine] for a long time and my expectation is we're going to have a long discussion with Putin," he said, amid Western-led accusations that Moscow was planning to invade its neighbor, which the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
In a recent interview with CNN, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said the bloc had tripled the size of its forces and upped its presence in both the Black Sea and Baltic Sea to counter Russia's presence there.
Putin has previously stressed that his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been given reassurances by Western leaders that the bloc would not push into the space left after the collapse of the USSR. A tranche of documents declassified in 2017, has been widely interpreted as depicting that American, British, and German officials gave assurances to Moscow in the 1990s that NATO would not expand to include Eastern European nations. However, states including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were subsequently admitted.