KYIV, Ukraine — For Ukraine, joining the NATO security alliance is an aspiration enshrined in its constitution. And although Western leaders say membership is at best a distant prospect at best, Russia regards even the possibility as an existential threat.
That dispute is at the core of Russia’s menacing military buildup surrounding Ukraine. The United States and NATO have said that the decision to seek membership should be up to individual countries, and in public Ukrainian officials have insisted that there is no change in their position.
But on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine did not rule out the possibility of dropping his country’s bid to join NATO, saying: “Maybe the question of open doors is for us like a dream.”
While emphasizing that NATO membership “is for our security and it is in the constitution,” Mr. Zelensky, speaking at a news conference alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, acknowledged the difficult place the country finds itself in, nearly completely encircled by Russian or Russian-backed forces, and with partners like the United States insisting it will not send troops into Ukraine to repel a Russian invasion.
“How much should Ukraine go on that path?” Mr. Zelensky said of NATO membership. “Who will support us?”
Mr. Zelensky was responding to a question about comments made by Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, who told BBC radio on Sunday that his government was “flexible in trying to find the best way out” and was considering dropping the country’s NATO ambitions.
Since December, the Ukrainian government has been quietly pursuing negotiations that could lead to acceptance of some form of neutrality, or another solution more narrowly focused on Russian demands in a cease-fire agreement in the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In public, officials including the current foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, have rejected concessions as counterproductive and likely only to encourage further Russian aggression.
Mr. Prystaiko, a former foreign minister who served under President Zelensky, was asked in the BBC interview: “If it averts war, will your country contemplate not joining NATO, dropping that as a goal?”
He replied: “We might, especially being threatened like that, blackmailed like that, and pushed to it.”
While emphasizing that even commenting on the possibility could be seen as violating Ukrainian laws, he went on: “What I’m saying here, is we are flexible in trying to find the best way out. If we have to go through some serious concessions, that’s something we might do, that is for sure.”
His comments caused a stir, and the Ukrainian government quickly sought to clarify the matter. The spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, Oleh Nikolenko, tweeted that Mr. Prystaiko’s comments had been reported out of context. “Ukraine’s position remains unchanged,” he said. “The goal of NATO membership is enshrined in the constitution.”
Mr. Prystaiko later emphaisized in an interview with Yevropaiska Pravda, a Ukrainian news outlet, that “there are no changes now” to the country’s stance. But because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, he said, in the current standoff with Russia “we cannot count on NATO because we are not a member of the family.”
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, welcomed the ambassador’s comments while acknowledging the response from the Ukrainian foreign ministry.
“Clearly, Ukraine’s confirmed rejection of the idea of joining NATO would be a step that would significantly facilitate the formulation of a better response to Russia’s concerns,” Mr. Peskov said on Monday. But given the confusion around the comments, he added: “We cannot interpret it as a fact that Kyiv’s conceptual worldview has changed.”