BULBOACA, Moldova (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pressed his case on Thursday for Ukraine to be part of the NATO military alliance and urged the alliance to provide security guarantees if membership was not possible for now.
Joining a meeting of European leaders in Moldova, the Ukrainian leader was seeking to bolster Western support ahead of his country's expected counter-offensive against Russia's invasion.
France and Germany both expressed support for the concept of security guarantees.
Addressing leaders at the start of the gathering, Zelenskiy asked NATO members to take a clear decision on whether to admit Ukraine and also reiterated calls for Western fighter jets to protect Ukrainian skies after another deadly strike on Kyiv, as well as providing Patriot missile-defence systems.
Noting that the F-16 fighter jets he is seeking are supplied by the U.S., Zelenskiy said after the meeting he had "heard powerful support from many countries", adding: "With help of the United States we will create this coalition."
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden endorsed training programmes for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, although such programmes will take months to complete and Western countries have not yet said they will supply the jets.
Until Ukraine had fighter jets, Russia would continue to have air supremacy, Zelenskiy said, highlighting the importance of having more Patriot air defences in the immediate term.
At the start of the summit - grouping the EU's 27 member states and 20 other European states - Zelenskiy said he would seek a clear invitation from NATO for Ukraine to join at the alliance's summit in Vilnius in mid-July.
He said later that Ukraine sought future security guarantees if NATO membership was not possible for now, while insisting that the best security guarantee was membership.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Ukraine needed to be given clear and strong security guarantees at the NATO summit in July. Macron said he was working closely with Germany on the issue with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz next week.
"We have to give a long-term perspective to Ukraine. It is imperative that the Vilnius summit gives these immediate guarantees," he said.
Scholz said such guarantees must "be designed in such a way that they give Ukraine the security it needs against the danger of being attacked, that they also stabilise Ukraine at the same time, which of course also means a commitment with regard to the establishment of defence capability on the part of Ukraine".
There have been divisions between NATO members over the speed of Ukraine's accession, with some fearing that a hasty move could bring the alliance closer to direct confrontation with Russia.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu hosted the summit at a castle just 20 km (12 miles) from Ukrainian territory and near the Russian-backed, breakaway Transdniestria region of Moldova.
"We told President Zelenskiy that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes," she told a news conference closing the gathering.
Zelenskiy also said Ukraine was working towards holding a summit to discuss parameters for ending the war but had not set a date yet, as Kyiv wanted to bring more countries to the table.
Leaders used Thursday's meeting as a symbolic show of support for Ukraine and Moldova while also tackling other issues, including a rise in ethnic tensions in Kosovo and efforts towards lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The summit was a security and organisational challenge for Moldova, an ex-Soviet republic of 2.5 million people that is seeking a path to EU accession while being wary of Russia.
Sandu, a pro-Western leader whose relations with Moscow became severely strained after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, was using the summit to push for talks to make Moldova's EU entry as fast as possible.
Like Ukraine, it applied to join the EU last year shortly after the Russian invasion.
Diplomatic sources said a speech from Macron in Bratislava on Wednesday in which he called for EU enlargement "as quickly as possible" was a signal that Paris, once hesitant, would back EU membership talks for Ukraine and Moldova to start at the end of the year.
The EU also sought to use the gathering to tackle tensions in northern Kosovo between the ruling ethnic Albanian majority and minority Serbs, which have flared into violence in recent days, prompting NATO to deploy 700 more peacekeepers there.
Macron said France and Germany urged the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia to organise new elections as soon as possible in regions affected by civil unrest.
Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said her country was ready to hold new local elections in the crisis-hit north as long as they were triggered by a legal process.
Osmani made the comments to reporters after meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the sidelines of the summit.
The summit was the second meeting of the European Political Community, a brainchild of Macron. It provided an opportunity to address other regional frictions, including between Azerbaijan and Armenia, whose leaders were expected to hold talks with Macron, Scholz and EU officials, and reinforce cooperation between EU members and non-EU members on cybersecurity, misinformation and connectivity.
(Reporting by John Irish, Andrew Gray, Olena Harmash, Benoit Van Overstraeten and Alexander Tanas; Writing by Matthias Williams, John Irish and Frances Kerry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Mark Heinrich, Ros Russell, Nick Macfie and Daniel Wallis)