Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for support Thursday in Bulgaria before landing in Prague on a tour of NATO countries as Kyiv pushes to join the alliance.
During his one-day visit to Bulgaria, a major arms maker and ally, Zelensky held talks with Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov, President Rumen Radev, and other government officials and parliamentarians.
“The main focus of our talks is, of course, the security of our countries and our entire Europe, defense support, and defense cooperation. The fundamental priority is energy. And strengthening our unity in Europe,” he said on Telegram.
Zelensky then moved on to Prague where he was welcomed with military honors by Czech counterpart Petr Pavel, a former NATO general.
The Ukrainian president said he would meet Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and the speakers of both parliament houses for “substantive negotiations” during his two-day stay in Prague.
He will travel to another NATO member, Turkey, on Friday for the first time since Russia’s invasion for talks with counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
While Zelensky was in Sofia, Bulgaria and Ukraine signed a joint declaration on the Euro-Atlantic integration of the war-torn country and a memorandum of cooperation in the field of energy.
“We are grateful for the support provided by Bulgaria… Every state has the right to defend itself, to protect its children,” Zelensky told reporters.
His visit came as Bulgaria was preparing to approve sending military aid directly to Ukraine, reversing its former practice of delivering arms to Kyiv via third countries.
The Kremlin on Thursday criticized Zelensky’s visit to Sofia, saying the Ukrainian leader was trying to “drag” other countries into the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv.
“Many countries have already plunged headlong into this conflict, both directly and indirectly. This topic will be discussed with the Bulgarians,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Bulgaria – an EU and NATO member but historically and culturally close to Moscow – has been deeply divided over the issue of sending arms to Kyiv.
Yet Bulgaria’s munitions factories have been running at full capacity since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and arms exports from Bulgaria trebled to an estimated $4.3 billion in 2022 over the previous record set in 2017.
Until now, third countries acted as intermediaries to deliver weapons to Ukraine, a solution found at the start of the war by then-prime minister Kiril Petkov.
“Almost everything we received in the early days of the conflict came from our Bulgarian partners,” Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak recently said on Bulgarian television NOVA.
Before meeting Czech officials, Zelensky said he wanted to focus on “defense support, European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, and the Vilnius NATO Summit” during the Prague talks.
Like many EU and NATO allies, the Czech Republic, a country of 10.8 million people, has provided Ukraine with hefty humanitarian and military aid since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.
The Czech Republic has sent over aircraft, tanks and armored vehicles, among other items, and welcomed nearly half a million war refugees from Ukraine.