BRUSSELS -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has promised to hold a referendum on NATO membership -- a move strongly opposed by Moscow -- as the country embarks on a path of European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Speaking in an interview on June 5 with RFE/RL that also ran on Ukraine's 1+1 channel, the recently elected Zelenskiy said Ukraine and its people had the right as a sovereign nation to choose the alliances they desire, regardless of outside opinions.
"I said that we need to inform each Ukrainian about what NATO is like, which is not so terrible, and when Ukrainians are ready, we will definitely bring this issue to a referendum, and Ukraine will definitely be in NATO," said the former comic actor with no prior political experience who took over as president two weeks ago.
Zelenskiy made the comments on the second and last day of his visit to Brussels -- his first foreign trip since being elected -- where he held talks with top European Union and NATO officials.
A day earlier, Zelenskiy said that Ukraine's "strategic course to achieve full-fledged membership in the EU and NATO" remained unchanged from the goal of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.
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.
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.
NATO and the European Union have invested heavily in Ukraine and its 44 million people, who in addition to the conflict and Russia's occupation of Crimea face entrenched corruption and major economic hurdles.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has called Ukraine a "highly valued partner" that does not "recognize Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea."
But Zelenskiy, who conducted the June 5 interview while riding a stationary bike in a gym at a Brussels hotel, acknowledged that Brussels had signaled disappointment with Ukraine's democratic failures and the slow pace of reforms.
"I don't want to be one of those perceived by European countries as someone who promises reforms and then fails to perform the task," he said. "I know the conditions that come with the support and we are ready."
Zelenskiy, who was inaugurated on May 20 after defeating incumbent Poroshenko by a large margin, also took aim at those spreading rumors of a possible default on the country's debt, noting it was still cooperating with the International Monetary Fund and meeting its obligations.
The two sides have agreed to work on a new aid program after snap parliamentary elections in July, and Zelenskiy said his team was pushing for a law criminalizing illicit enrichment by officials, which is a condition for more International Monetary Fund money.
"Unless we adopt such a law, I don't think we have the right to speak about any anticorruption activity in Ukraine," he said.