Ukraine has become a de facto member of the NATO alliance, Ukraine’s defense minister says, as Western countries, once concerned that military aid could be seen as escalation by Russia, have changed their “mindset.”
In an interview with the BBC, Oleksiy Reznikov said he was confident Ukraine would receive long-awaited weapons, including tanks and fighter jets, as both Ukraine and Russia appear to be preparing for new offensives in the spring.
“This concern about the next level of escalation is a certain protocol for me,” said Mr. Reznikov.
“Ukraine as a country and the armed forces of Ukraine became a member of NATO. De facto, not de jure (by law). Because we have weapons and an understanding of how to use them.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called his invasion of Ukraine an existential battle against Western countries that want to weaken Russia.
Russian officials have claimed they are fighting NATO in Ukraine because the West has supplied the country with weapons in what they call a war of aggression.
For years, Ukraine has sought to join the military alliance between the United States, Canada and 28 European countries, which President Vladimir Putin has called a threat to Russia’s security.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pushed for quick accession, but it is unclear whether members of the alliance will seriously consider full membership even after the war ends, despite pledges of support.
Article 5 of the NATO Treaty states that an armed attack on any member must be considered an attack on all.
Mr. Reznikov, however, denied that his comments would be seen as controversial not only by Russia, but perhaps by NATO itself, as the alliance has taken steps not to be seen as a party to the conflict.
“Why [це буде] controversial? It’s true. This is a fact,” said Mr. Reznikov. “I am sure that in the near future we will become a de jure NATO member.”
The defense minister spoke in the capital, Kyiv, as Ukrainian and Russian forces continued to battle for the small town of Soledar, in eastern Donetsk region, in some of the fiercest fighting of the nearly 11-month war.
The Russian offensive is led by Wagner’s mercenary group, whose founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime associate of Putin, has become a sharp critic of the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine.
The situation in Soledar was “very difficult”, said Mr. Reznikov, but “under control”. He said Wagner fighters had been used in “wave after wave after wave” of attacks, resulting in many deaths, and that Mr Prigozhin was interested in the possible economic benefits of capturing the city, home to Europe’s largest salt mines.
“Blood will make money,” he said.
Soledar is about 10 km (six miles) from Bakhmut, a strategic town where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been fighting a months-long war of attrition that has caused widespread destruction and heavy casualties on both sides. Large numbers of Wagner’s mercenaries were also involved there, and it is believed that Mr. Prigozhin made the capture of Bakhmut a personal goal.
Mr. Reznikov said the group “needs to provide some evidence to claim that they are better than the regular armed forces of the Russian Federation.” If captured, Bakhmut could pave the way for a Russian offensive on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, two Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk, a region that has been a key target for President Putin.
Mr. Reznikov was speaking before Russia announced on Friday that it had taken control of Soledar. Ukraine denied this and accused Russia of “information noise”.
Any gains would have, more than anything else, an extraordinary symbolic value for Russia. They come after a series of humiliating setbacks, including a chaotic retreat from the northeastern region of Kharkiv and an exit from the southern city of Kherson, the only regional capital Russian forces captured during the war.
Mr. Reznikov claimed that “around 500 or 600” Russian fighters are being killed every day across the country, while Ukraine is losing a tenth of them, figures that cannot be independently verified. He believes that Russia may be trying to gather “forces, ammunition and weapons” for an offensive from areas it has already occupied in the south and east.
Meanwhile, Ukraine needed time to regroup and rearm while it waited for Western arms to arrive. “Spring is the best time to renew the movement for all parties,” he said. “We understand that they will be ready to go, and of course we have to be ready to go.”
However, he did not repeat the claim that Russia could be preparing another invasion from Belarus, a warning denied by the head of Ukrainian military intelligence. Moving from the north, Mr. Reznikov said, “will take a long time, and they [росія] have no resources.”
Mr. Reznikov spoke a day after the Russian Defense Ministry changed the commander of its forces in Ukraine, a surprise announcement that was seen as a sign of a power struggle. General Valery Gerasimov, one of the architects of last year’s invasion, will return to the post held by General Serhiy Surovikin, who was appointed in October.
This change, according to Mr. Reznikov, was the result of “a conflict between Mr. Prigozhin and the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” General Surovikin led the recent brutal attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, which Mr. Reznikov said “have reduced supplies to no avail [російських ракет]”, repeating the Ukrainian statement that “they are running out of missiles”.
When Poland and Britain first announced plans to supply battle tanks, Mr. Reznikov said he was confident Ukraine would get “tanks, fighter jets or jets and long-range weapons to hit targets 300 km (186 miles) away.” because “everything was changing” in Western countries.
He dismissed fears that the announcements could provoke a response from Russia, despite the now-familiar threats from Moscow. “There is a war in my country,” he said. “They attack my cities, my hospitals, my kindergartens, my schools. They killed many civilians, many civilians. This is an army of rapists, murderers and marauders. What is the next level of escalation?”