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Ukraine got the best it could out of NATO’s Vilnius summit, say experts

Zelenskyi was disappointed by the lack of a formal invitation to join NATO – but offers to Ukraine were significant

Kateryna Farbar
14 July 2023, 12.50pm
President Zelenskyi at the NATO summit in Vilnius

Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ukraine may not have been invited to become a member of NATO at this week’s summit of the alliance in Vilnius as it had hoped – but commentators say the assurances it received were significant and will make a material difference in its war with Russia.

Ukraine received a package of decisions at Vilnius: an agreement to remove certain requirements that Ukraine meet NATO standards in the form of the ‘Membership Action Plan’; security guarantees from G7 countries; more military and financial aid; and a reaffirmation of support for Ukraine’s eventual membership of NATO.

The country’s officials had taken a critical stance towards Western allies for not making a clear commitment to Ukraine’s future NATO membership until the last moment of the conference. But president Volodymyr Zelenskyi appears satisfied with the plans drawn up in the Lithuanian capital, committing Ukraine’s allies to guarantee its security.

“On this foundation, we will build a new, legally binding architecture of bilateral security treaties with the most powerful countries,” said Zelenskyi of the G7 security guarantees. “We have put to rest any doubts and ambiguities about whether Ukraine will be in NATO.”

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Wolfgang Sporrer, a Berlin professor who previously headed up part of a Kyiv monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), believes “political will” is still the main obstacle to Ukraine’s NATO membership. Western countries don’t want to get drawn into a war with Russia – meaning talks largely focused on security after the war, says Sporrer. NATO’s primary security concern, representatives have stated, is to avoid its own war with Russia.

What came out of the Vilnius summit

Ukraine’s position on NATO has toughened in recent months. Ahead of Vilnius, it demanded that it should receive either immediate membership at the summit, or a clear invitation to join the alliance within a fixed time frame.

On 11 July, as NATO members were set to publish a joint communique, the Ukrainian president released a public statement expressing discontent that work on the document had been conducted without Ukraine’s involvement, and that it contained neither of his demands.

“It seems there is no readiness either to invite Ukraine to NATO, nor to make it a member of the alliance,” Zelenskyi wrote.

But Sporrer believes Ukraine received the maximum possible within existing political will in the West: “All that the countries actually could do, without doing what they thought might endanger their own countries or governments, was actually done.”

The primary support offered to Ukraine is a declaration signed by G7 members saying allies will support Ukraine over the coming years to end the war, and deter and respond to any future attacks. The document is not legally binding, although it sets out plans for Ukraine to sign binding security agreements with each of the G7 states. The countries agreed on continued provision of military aid, development of Ukraine’s own defence industry, training, and cooperation between intelligence agencies in the signatory states.

Still, the lack of commitment on NATO membership for Ukraine in Vilnius is reminiscent of the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest: back then, Ukraine received the now-infamous promise that it would eventually become a member of NATO, with no time frame attached. And while Sporrer believes that the commitments Ukraine received this week will help the country win against Russia, the Vilnius summit, he said, did not change Ukraine’s situation in terms of long-term commitments to NATO.

For Zelenskyi, this ambiguity over the West’s security commitments could signal a “window of opportunity” for the West to “bargain over Ukraine’s membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia”. Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has called the new security guarantees “an encroachment on the security of Russia”.

Escalation fear

Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO is surrounded by fears over Russia’s reaction, and how that could influence its military posturing.

On the other hand, “it's hard to imagine any worse threats from Russia than we [have] already experienced,” says Serhiy Kudelia, a Ukrainian political science professor who teaches in the US. “Aggression [has] happened even though we have not received any guarantees from NATO, or any timeline.”

One camp of experts and observers believes that giving Ukraine a “clear timeline” or pledge that it could join NATO after the war is over “will only incentivise Russia to keep fighting,” he added.

But others say that taking Ukraine’s NATO membership off the table gives Russia reasons to keep fighting as it achieves its goal of controlling its neighbour’s foreign policy.

“I think that we have unfortunately reached a stage where Russia is going to continue fighting this war until there is either some kind of political agreement or some significant development in the field,” said Sporrer who led the ‘Human Dimension Department’ at the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

In any case, it has become clear that Russia is at least capable of postponing Ukraine's NATO membership, says Kudelia.

The next NATO summit is in 2024 in Washington – and Ukraine has already signalled that it is pinning its hopes on being able to join the alliance at that meeting.

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