Ukraine's president said he is ready to negotiate with Russia to end the war in eastern Ukraine, but he also reaffirmed his country’s course toward NATO membership -- a move strongly opposed by Moscow.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy made the comments on June 4 during a visit to Brussels, where he met with top European Union and NATO officials as part of his first foreign trip as president.
Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has killed some 13,000 people since April 2014, shortly after Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords in September 2014 and February 2015 have contributed to a decrease in fighting in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk but have failed to hold.
"We are ready to hold negotiations with Russia [and] to implement the Minsk agreements. But first we must be capable to protect ourselves and get stronger economically, politically, and militarily," Zelenskiy said at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance's headquarters.
Zelenskiy also said that Ukraine's "strategic course to achieve full-fledged membership in the EU and NATO" remained unchanged.
Moscow has made explicit its opposition to NATO’s further expansion, especially as regards to Ukraine and Georgia. Tbilisi is also seeking to become a member of the Western military alliance.
Calling Ukraine a "highly valued partner," Stoltenberg expressed NATO's support for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, saying: "Allies do not, and will not, recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea."
The NATO chief also called on Ukraine to implement reforms on fighting corruption and strengthening the rule of law.
"These reforms are essential to ensure security and prosperity for all Ukrainians and to bring Ukraine closer to NATO," he said.
Zelenskiy is scheduled to attend a session of the NATO-Ukraine Commission later in the day. The commission is the key format for cooperation between Kyiv and NATO.
A comedian-actor with no political experience, Zelenskiy was inaugurated on May 20 after defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a large margin.
In addition to the conflict in the east and Russia's occupation of Crimea, Ukraine faces entrenched corruption and major economic hurdles.