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Ukraine vies for NATO membership ahead of the group's meeting in Washington, D.C.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukraine has been battling Russian forces for more than two years and is struggling to hold on. NATO holds a summit next week, and Ukrainian leaders say they have been fighting to uphold NATO's ideals and deserve membership in the security alliance. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Exactly six months before Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine celebrated 30 years of independence with a NATO-themed parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Soldiers from some NATO countries marched on a central street in Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: And flying overhead were U.S.-designed F-16 fighter jets...

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS FLYING OVERHEAD)

KAKISSIS: ...The type of warplane Ukraine says it now desperately needs to defend itself against constant Russian attacks.

MUSTAFA NAYYEM: It was last parade before war. And, of course, now it looks even more symbolic.

KAKISSIS: Mustafa Nayyem, then deputy minister of infrastructure, was at that parade. Also in attendance was lawmaker Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, who describes how that symbolism made Ukrainians feel.

IVANNA KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE: That we are finally not alone, that we have a backing of the free world, and we are on the path that would lead us to that dream coming true.

KAKISSIS: Klympush-Tsintsadze has long pushed for Ukraine's NATO membership.

KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE: The major thing that has to come out from the summit has to be total unambiguity of the future of Ukraine in NATO. And that is important not exclusively for Ukraine. That is important for NATO itself.

KAKISSIS: The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO first came up in 2008, but Ukraine's Western allies feared Russia's reaction and offered no clear path forward. She says the mixed signals from the West prompted skepticism in Ukrainians, who elected a pro-Kremlin president in 2010. Mustafa Nayyem helped lead protests that eventually drove out that president over his corruption and anti-West policies. And then Russia invaded eastern and southern Ukraine in 2014.

NAYYEM: And again, we didn't have straight and open signal that we will be part of NATO.

KAKISSIS: The West had offered security assurances in the past in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal.

NAYYEM: But when war started, starting from 2014, we couldn't even ask for gun because everyone told that we shouldn't escalate.

KAKISSIS: Since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022, the U.S. and other NATO countries have stepped in, contributing billions of dollars in military aid. A senior U.S. official told NPR that the U.S. is set to give more air defense systems to Ukraine at this week's summit and provide a longer-term commitment to military needs. But Nayyem points out that U.S. officials also say Ukraine should not join NATO until it wins the war.

NAYYEM: We understand that without support of NATO, we will not be able to win this war, so it's quite a dilemma and paradox.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATORS RUNNING)

KAKISSIS: Back on the street where the NATO-themed parade was held, there's the grinding sound of generators running constantly due to power outages. Russian strikes have destroyed much of Ukraine's energy system. Ukrainians walking home from work don't sound optimistic about the NATO summit.

YAROSLAV MELEZHYK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Yaroslav Melezhyk, a 20-year-old sales manager, says NATO must choose between helping Ukraine and placating Russia.

HENNADIY MENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Hennadiy Menko, a 27-year-old veterinarian, sees pro-Russia member states in NATO blocking and delaying assistance for Ukraine.

KATERYNA KHITAYLOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: And Kateryna Khitaylova, a 21-year-old manicurist, says Russia has built its economy around this war, and Ukraine is running out of time to defend itself.

KHITAYLOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: She says, "it feels like NATO delivers just enough weapons and in just enough time for Ukraine to survive but never to win."

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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