KYIV -- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has demanded that Russia end its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and called on it to withdraw all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory.
Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv on October 31 after talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Stoltenberg also said Moscow must return three Ukrainian Navy vessels that its forces seized in the Kerch Strait off the coast of the Crimean Peninsula last November.
"NATO supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and does not recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia," Stoltenberg said. "Russia must end supporting separatists in east Ukraine."
"Russia should remove its troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory," Stoltenberg told the press conference.
Standing beside Zelenskiy following a meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Commission on October 31, Stoltenberg said NATO plans to increase its support for Ukraine in the Black Sea by staging military exercises in the region.
Russia maintains that the Ukrainian Navy ships its forces seized in the Kerch Strait were in Russian territorial waters at the time. But that claim has been rejected by the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of The Sea
Earlier on October 31, Stoltenberg met with the Ukrainian president in Kyiv for talks that, according to Zelenskiy's office, involved "a narrow circle" of NATO and Ukrainian officials.
Stoltenberg said that peace agreements aimed at resolving the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces must be implemented by all sides.
He said that NATO supported Zelenskiy's efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict, adding that NATO was assisting Ukraine in order to strengthen its defense institutions and its armed forces.
But he said Ukraine needs to continue implementing reforms to secure the country's security and to ensure its future membership in NATO.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine was "ready for shifting to a new level," and joining NATO's Enhanced Opportunity Program.
The Ukrainian president also expressed hope that cooperation between NATO and Kyiv "will deepen to strengthen our defense capabilities."
Stoltenberg was scheduled to speak at the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, later on October 31.
The NATO chief's visit to Ukraine comes just a few days after Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists began withdrawing weaponry from frontline areas in eastern Ukraine.
The disengagement is seen as a crucial step before long-awaited peace talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany aimed at bringing an end to the 5 1/2-year-old war in eastern Ukraine.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine plans to begin its next stage of withdrawing troops from the front lines in eastern Ukraine on November 4 near the town of Petrivske.