This falls short of Ukraine’s wishes to join immediately, but goes beyond realizing them eventually. President Joe Biden is « open » to the plan, and he told Stoltenberg during their discussion in Washington on Tuesday. As the most important member of NATO, US support goes a long way towards waiving the MAP requirement at the alliance’s July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
« If it’s what America really, really, really wants, they usually get through it, » said one NATO country official, who, like the seven other NATO and member-state officials he spoke to POLITICO , has obtained anonymity to discuss delicate internal deliberations. « Hopefully this idea put forward by Stoltenberg is consensual within the alliance, » said another Allied official.
A NATO official further noted that « there appears to be room for landing » within the alliance for the proposal.
The momentum to grease Ukraine’s accession path started building in May, when French President Emmanuel Macron said Kiev needed security guarantees and indications that it might one day join NATO. « If we want sustainable peace and we want to be credible towards Ukraine, we need to include it in a security architecture, » he said he said during a conference in Slovakia.
His remarks made it clear that France, historically resistant to moves that frayed ties with Russia, was more open to once-controversial options.
A senior Eastern European diplomat said on Friday the proposal to remove the need for a MAP, “if suggested, is good. We would support”. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius was also optimistic. “There are growing signs that everyone will be able to agree on this,” he said he told reporters on Fridayadding, « I’d be open for it. »
A northern European diplomat, meanwhile, stressed that the removal of the MAP « could be » one of several components of a political package offered to Ukraine in Vilnius, together with « probable bilateral security guarantees », but that « the discussions they will integrate next week ».
There are hurdles, however.
Eastern European members want Ukraine to have a clear and imminent post-war path to membership. But some southern Europeans fear that removing the MAP barrier could further anger Russia, potentially escalate the war and make it more difficult to rebuild ties with Moscow after the war.
A number of Central and Eastern allies are likely to push for an even more decisive political gesture towards Ukraine before Vilnius. « It is an important step in the process, but not the only one, » a senior Central European diplomat said on Friday.
There’s also the problem of Hungary and Turkey, which are « uneasy » about Ukraine’s advance along the accession path, said the top official of a NATO country. “It won’t be that simple” in Vilnius.
However, a number of officials indicate that the alliance is generally open to the approach. A senior Western European diplomat said he « hope » the removal of the MAP will be enough for other allies. Washington, said the diplomat, is « aware of the governance challenges » and this « should reassure everyone ».
Another official from a NATO country said: « There is support for it, but it’s still being debated. »
Calling the chances of a consensus on MAP removal « likely » after Biden opens up to the plan, the same official said, « fundamentally more countries are taking a more proactive line on Ukraine than the administration perhaps initially expected. » « .
Some experts are not sure what the removal of the MAP hurdle does in practice for Ukraine.
“It is only useful if there is a commitment and a timetable for the alternative: immediate NATO membership after the fighting is over. Otherwise, it just removes a hypothetical obstacle to a future that nobody has committed to yet,” said Liana Fix of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Josh Shiffrinson of the Cato Institute also argues that it makes Ukraine’s current situation more dangerous.
« We are reducing Russia’s reasons for ending the current war, giving it strong incentives to engage in a pre-emptive war if NATO appears to be speeding up Ukraine’s accession after the current conflict, » he said.
But allied US and NATO officials say the membership conversation will only kick off once Ukraine’s war with Russia is over. At that point it is possible to take stock of Ukrainian sovereignty and the composition of the government in Kiev. The country is yet to embark on serious democratic reforms, including ridding Ukraine of the corruption that has plagued its government for decades.
Stoltenberg reiterated his position on Friday that « all allies agree that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. »
« We will not discuss an invitation to the Vilnius summit, but how we can bring Ukraine closer to NATO, » said the head of the alliance, « and I am confident we will find a good solution. »
Alexander Ward reported from Washington with input from Paul McLeary. Lili Bayer reported from Brussels.