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NATO’s secretary-general meets with Zelenskyy to discuss ‘ending Russia’s aggression’

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — NATO’s secretary-general met with Ukraine’s president to discuss the status of the war and needs of troops on Thursday, the day after Russia accused Ukraine’s Western allies of helping plan and conduct last week’s missile strike on the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters in the annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg agreed to make efforts to get NATO members to help provide additional air defense systems to protect Ukraine’s power plants and energy infrastructure that were badly damaged by Russian attacks last winter.

Zelensky also reminded the secretary-general of the persistent drone, missile and artillery attacks that often strike residential areas and were blamed Thursday for at least three civilian deaths in the past day.

“In the face of such intense attacks against Ukrainians, against our cities, our ports, which are crucial for global food security, we need a corresponding intensity of pressure on Russia and a strengthening of our air defense,” Zelenskyy said.

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Stoltenberg said that NATO has contracts for 2.4 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in ammunition for Ukraine, including 155 mm Howitzer shells, anti-tank guided missiles and tank ammunition.

“The stronger Ukraine becomes, the closer we come to ending Russia’s aggression,” Stoltenberg said. “Russia could lay down arms and end its war today. Ukraine doesn’t have that option. Ukraine’s surrender would not mean peace. It would mean brutal Russian occupation. Peace at any price would be no peace at all.”

Ukraine has pushed to join NATO and Stoltenberg reiterated Thursday that Ukraine’s future is in the trans-Atlantic military alliance and that it would stand with Kyiv as long as it takes.

The Kremlin views Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO as an existential threat, and Russia has said that preventing Ukraine from joining the alliance is one of the reasons for its invasion.

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On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Crimea had been coordinated with the help of U.S. and U.K. security agencies, and that NATO satellites and reconnaissance planes also played a role.

Ukraine said without providing supporting evidence that the attack had killed 34 officers and wounded 105 others. It also claimed to have killed the fleet’s commander, Adm. Viktor Sokolov, who was shown on Russian state television on Wednesday speaking with reporters in the Black Sea city of Sevastopol.

Unconfirmed news reports said Storm Shadow missiles provided to Ukraine by the U.K. and France were used in the attack on the Russian navy installation. The U.K. Ministry of Defense, which in the past has declined to discuss intelligence-related matters, didn’t comment on Zakharova’s remarks.

The meeting with Stoltenberg came on the same day that France’s defense minister met with Zelenskyy to discuss how to keep supplying weapons to the war effort. On Wednesday, the U.K. defense secretary reaffirmed the British government’s support and pledged to provide more ammunition as Ukraine’s counteroffensive plods forward toward the season when damp and cold weather could slow progress.

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu brought a delegation that included about 20 representatives from French defense contractors who manufacture drones, robots, artillery, ammunition and employ artificial intelligence and cybertechnology.

Having donated air defense systems, artillery, armored vehicles and other weaponry and support to Ukraine, France is anxious not to deplete its own defenses.

But the French government is exploring other ways to help Ukraine sustain its war effort. Lecornu said that it would transfer fewer weapons to Ukraine, but make direct acquisitions, sometimes with French subsidies, for the Ukrainian army.

“It’s also a way for us to hold on for the long term and also lastingly install France’s interests in Kyiv,” Lecornu said in comments carried by French broadcaster BFMTV.

U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps, who hosted a Ukrainian family in his home for a year, told Zelenskyy that he was personally aggrieved by what his country had endured.

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“Our support for you, for Ukraine remains absolutely undented,” Shapps said in a video posted by Zelenskyy. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with you. We feel your pain of what’s happened and we want to see a resolution, which is the resolution that you want and require.”

Zelenskyy said Thursday that Ukraine is working on a plan that will outline practical steps for it to align with the principles and standards of NATO.

“And it is very important that the allies have agreed that Ukraine does not need an action plan for NATO membership,” Zelenskyy said.

During NATO’s annual summit this summer in Lithuania, members pledged more support for Ukraine but stopped short of extending an invitation for the country to join the alliance. NATO leaders said they would allow Ukraine to join the alliance “when allies agree and conditions are met.” They also decided to remove obstacles on Ukraine’s membership path so that it can join more quickly once the war with Russia is over.

Stoltenberg was asked about the remains of drones similar to those used by Russia that have been found on several instances recently in Romania near the border with Ukraine.

He said there was no indication they were the result of an intentional attack by Russia against a NATO member, but that strikes by Moscow “close to the Romanian borders are reckless and are destabilizing.”

Stoltenberg said that NATO was adding troops, air policing and surveillance to monitor its eastern borders, including Romania.

“There should be no doubt that NATO is there to defend all allies,” he said.

Meanwhile, officials in Moldova, which lies between Romania and Ukraine, said that authorities were trying to determine where a “crashed rocket” found in Harbovat Lake had originated. The remains were detonated Thursday in Anenii Noi district near Ukraine’s border, Moldova’s interior ministry said.

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John Leicester in Paris, Stephen McGrath in Sighisoara, Romania, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Brian Melley in London, contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine