VILNIUS, Lithuania — NATO had some significant successes at its summit, which ended Wednesday, as it worked hard to project unity in support of Ukraine’s bloody defense against Russia’s invasion.
Turkey has lifted its objections to Sweden’s membership. The alliance approved new spending targets and its most ambitious military plans for Europe’s defense since the Cold War. There were new commitments for long-term support for Kyiv. And all 31 member states agreed that Ukraine belongs to NATO, a significant change stemming from its courageous, resilient defense of its country and Western values.
Even so, the final of the summit communication, with its ambiguous diplomatic language, does not hide some serious tensions between allies in the bitter battle over how to describe Ukraine’s path to NATO membership. Ukraine was promised an invitation “when allies agree and conditions are met,” leaving both the timing and the conditions safely unsaid.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and his most vocal Central European supporters wanted more, and made it loud and clear.
Mr. Zelensky never pushed for Ukraine’s NATO membership while the war was raging, nor did anyone else. But he was angry because NATO was putting conditions on even inviting Ukraine to apply for membership. He posted a furious Twitter message on Tuesday when he was confronted with the draft language of the communique, which angered the Americans, a NATO country official said.
While he softened his public language on Wednesday, even on Tuesday night he threatened not to appear at the first session of the NATO-Ukraine Council, the official said.
He and his supporters were not alone in their disappointment. John Kornblum, an experienced diplomat and former American ambassador to Germany, now retired, was particularly harsh. He called the communication confusing and weak.
“It screams fear and insecurity from every word,” Mr. Kornblum said. “Ukraine’s future is with NATO, okay. But please don’t ask when or how entry into NATO will happen. Just make some (unidentified) reforms and we’ll see.”
After the summit, President Emmanuel Macron of France said that it was “read that the Ukrainian president demands with us, because he is fighting on the ground”. But he said, “We did what we needed to do, and we did it by keeping the allies united.”
The summit delivered concrete short- and long-term military aid for Ukraine, he insisted, and “made it very clear that the road to NATO is there.”
Others saw a “failed opportunity,” as Michal Baranowski, executive director of the Warsaw-based German Marshall Fund, described it. But, he said, after so many months of war and so many billions of Western dollars and euros in weapons and funding, “Ukraine has never been closer to NATO.”
When Ukraine was initially promised membership in 2008, at a summit in Bucharest, that statement was a way to cover deeper and lasting divisions, with Germany and France absolutely opposed to Ukrainian membership at the time, while Washington wanted to give Kyiv a clear path to join. .
But now every country agrees that Ukraine will join NATO, even if the path and timing remain undefined.
The result in Vilnius was “not as weak as expected, but not as good as needed,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst. Given the strong opposition from Germany and the United States to providing a detailed path for Ukraine, the statement was about all that could be achieved, he said.
However, “the conceptual and political course is set,” he said. “Ukraine is going to join NATO. This is going to happen now, and that’s a big cultural change over the last month or so.”
Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary, agreed. “I think the victory here for Ukraine is the kind of cultural acceptance that Ukraine belongs to NATO,” he said. No country disagreed with that, he said. “And the word ‘belongs’ implies that it will happen. It’s not if, it’s when.”
That acceptance came from a change in both American and French policy, with President Biden willing to let Ukraine skip the preliminary Member Action Program that every other post-Soviet country had to undergo.
Mr. Macron himself, starting with a major speech on June 1 in Bratislava, went from opposition to Ukrainian membership to strong support for it, partly in an attempt to rebuild relations with Central Europe and partly because of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Russia’s brutal attack.
Ukraine does come with important advantages, argued Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO. In addition to the clear promise of membership, more promises of weapons and the ability to bypass the MAP, Kyiv’s relationship with NATO has been significantly upgraded with the NATO-Ukraine Council, where Ukraine can sit as an equal and work to prepare for membership. .
And on Wednesday, the Group of 7 industrial nations issued joint statement pledging long-term security aid for Ukraine to bolster the besieged country’s defenses during and after its war with Russia — and also through the upcoming US presidential election.
The declaration lays the groundwork for individual nations to negotiate their own arrangements with Ukraine for military and financial support, while keeping such commitments separate from NATO, which wishes not to appear a combatant in the war and feed Russia’s narrative that it is defending itself. in Ukraine against NATO.
The commitments are aimed at “helping Ukraine build a strong, capable defense”, said President Biden, both now and after this conflict ends, to make it unlikely that Russia will try to invade it again before Ukraine can enter NATO and its guarantee of collective. defense
Despite all the friction here, he praised Mr Zelensky and Ukrainians, saying: “You set an example for the whole world when it comes to true courage. Not just all of you, but your people – your sons, your daughters, your husbands, your wives, your friends: You are incredible.”
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany said the Group of 7 arrangement allows signatories to further specify their concrete contributions to Ukraine and embed them “in a longer-term strategy that Ukraine can then rely on.”
Mr. Zelensky thanked Mr. Biden in particular and said that these new commitments were “a victory for Ukraine – for our country, for our people, for our children.”
But NATO also missed opportunities, argued Camille Grand, a former senior NATO official now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. It could be more precise about what Ukraine must do to become a member when the conflict ends, he said.
For example, he said, “it could have explained what the new NATO-Ukraine Council could do about it, and could have required it to work with Kyiv on a path to accession and report to the next NATO summit next year.”
Beneath the language is a more important discussion that NATO needs to have, he said. When “conditions permit” means when the conflict ends. But deciding how, and where, is another source of internal alliance division, even as NATO countries hope the Ukrainian counteroffensive will be a great success.
“There needs to be a more substantive conversation about what is the right moment to bring Ukraine in,” he said. “Some allies say it means total peace, some say it means a permanent ceasefire, some say it means a stable line of control,” he said. “But going there publicly is difficult, because you give Putin lines in the sand that he can manipulate.”
Mr. Heisbourg agreed. Everyone accepts that Ukraine cannot join during a war, so a certain date for joining is impossible. “But you could say what the schedule should be,” he said. “And then describe the three or four milestones that Ukraine must meet as part of the process.”
Lara Jakes contributed reporting.