By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — With NATO leaders failing to come up with a more concrete timeline for Ukraine’s bid to join the alliance, the next steps are far from clear and little concrete progress is expected this year.
On Tuesday afternoon, NATO members were surprised by a forceful tweet from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which many observers said conveyed the actual emotion, well-concealed before the summit.
With the declaration text running the risk of being closed before Zelenskyy even touched down on Lithuanian soil, it served its political purpose well.
In the end, the Vilnius declaration, which followed months of intense negotiations between NATO members, did not have a date or straightforward invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance as Kyiv had initially hoped for.
“We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met,” NATO leaders stated on Tuesday (11 July) in a carefully phrased summit communiqué, without specifying what those conditions could be.
NATO members were satisfied with the sentence, it was the lowest common denominator the 31 member states could agree on, with especially the United States and Germany keen to prevent any liability or false expectations arising from the wording.
NATO leaders, however, agreed to remove the required Membership Action Plan (MAP) – which NATO officials argued represents progress as it would reduce Ukraine’s accession process to only one step instead of two – bringing it down to a political decision.
Speaking in downtown Vilnius on Tuesday evening, Zelenskyy – greeted like a popstar by more than two thousand people wrapped in or waving blue and yellow flags – voiced disappointment that Ukraine was not invited to join NATO and asked: “Is this too big of a wish?”
“I travelled here today with belief in a decision, with belief in partners, with belief in a strong NATO, a NATO which does not doubt, which does not lose time, and does not look at any aggressor,” he told the crowd, speaking in Ukrainian, taking a swipe at the lack of what Kyiv believes should have been a clear commitment to membership.
‘Signal’ for more to come?
Zelenskyy’s strong expressions of disappointment stood in stark contrast to the amicable picturesthe following day, just before he headed into the first session of the NATO-Ukraine Council, an upgraded format where Kyiv is considered as ‘equal’ among the Western alliance members.
The Ukrainian president’s change in tone came after some of Kyiv’s closest allies signalled his public criticism might have gone an inch too far.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was the most outspoken one, telling reporters “NATO is not Amazon – whether you like it or not, people want to see gratitude.”
“This [declaration] is a strong, united message from allies on your path to NATO membership,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, speaking alongside Zelenskyy in Vilnius.
“We must ensure when this war ends there are credible arrangements in place for Ukraine’s security so that history does not repeat itself,” he added.
Swallowing his disappointment over the lack of a membership timetable, Zelenskyy said on Wednesday the results of the summit had been good overall and welcomed a flurry of announcements of new military aid from Western allies.
Asked about the declaration wording and differences in his country’s future membership, Zelenskyy said he is “confident that after the war, Ukraine will be a member of NATO.”
“We can state that the results of the summit are good, but if there was an invitation, they would be ideal,” Zelenskyy said, adding the invitation would be “a technical signal” as the country’s EU’s candidate status has been.
G7 leaders wrote in a separate joint declaration on Wednesday they are working to formalise their “enduring support to Ukraine as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity, rebuilds its economy, protects its citizens, and pursues integration into the Euro-Atlantic community”.
The security pledges to Ukraine issued by several countries within the G7 framework are meant to be part of a long-term strategy to support Kyiv.
Speaking to reporters about the G7 declaration, Zelenskyy said Kyiv would see bilateral security guarantees as a “signal” that there is more on membership to come.
“If G7 [can] agree to security guarantees, these guarantees show an important development on our way to NATO, this is very important,” he said.
But as NATO was widely seen as failing to come up with a more concrete timeline for Ukraine’s membership bid, the question after the Vilnius summit will be that of sustained follow-up.
Especially Eastern Flank NATO members want to avoid making the same mistake as after the 2008 Bucharest summit when there was little follow-up to the declaration that for the first time said Ukraine “will become [a] member of NATO”.
Some of them have suggested re-evaluating Ukraine’s progress at an informal NATO ministerial meeting in November, others were not sure there will be much to evaluate unless Russia’s war comes to an end.
The next benchmark could be NATO’s Washington summit next July, where Western alliance members would be better placed to evaluate how far Ukraine has come and be expected to include language on Ukraine into their summit communiqué.
“We have one wish – victory,” Zelenskyy told reporters in Vilnius when asked what he would expect to happen until next year’s summit.
Elephant in the room
There is also even more fear that at some point there could be back-channel negotiations with Russia and that NATO could end up as a bargaining chip on the table.
Asked by reporters in Vilnius about those fears, Stoltenberg reiterated that “negotiations to solve the conflict in Ukraine will only happen when Ukraine is ready for negotiations”.
“As I have stated again, and again – nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” he added.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on the same issue that “it is very clear that the question of NATO membership won’t be allowed to be an issue to be raised by others who are not part of this partnership”.
“Russia will not be able to have a mandate over this, and I think that is very clear,” he added.
***Aurelie Pugnet and Nick Alipour contributed to the story.