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VILNIUS – NATO leaders said on Tuesday they would invite Ukraine to join the alliance only when conditions are met and the allies agree – a move intended as a gesture of support for the Ukrainians but which was met with disappointment at Kiev.
“We will be able to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when allies agree and conditions are met,” leaders wrote at a summit communicatedreleased on Tuesday evening.
The carefully crafted phrase is the result of intense negotiations between the 31 members of the alliance.
While all allies agree that Ukraine cannot join NATO while the war against Russia is underway, many of Kiev’s partners have pushed for a strong political gesture at the summit, saying it is on the path to membership. Washington and Berlin, however, have resisted giving concrete commitments to Kiev.
In the summit statementthe allies stressed that Ukraine is developing a closer relationship with the alliance and that Tuesday’s wording represents a step forward from a 2008 NATO deal agreement in Bucharest that Ukraine will become a member. At the time, the Allies wrote that the next step towards that goal would be a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP), a process of defense and political reform.
Now, leaders said: « We reaffirm the commitment we made at the 2008 Bucharest summit for Ukraine to become a member of NATO, and today we recognize that Ukraine’s path towards full Euro-Atlantic integration has gone further than the need for the Membership Action Plan.”
Ukraine, they added, « has become increasingly interoperable and politically integrated with the Alliance, and has made substantial progress on its reform path ».
Leaders said they had agreed on a package to help bring Ukrainian forces up to Western standards and to set up a new NATO-Ukraine Council. And, the communiqué noted, the allies « will continue to support and review Ukraine’s progress on interoperability, as well as further necessary security and democratic sector reforms. »
The compromise prompted a disappointed response from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was at a mass demonstration in Vilnius before meeting with NATO leaders later Tuesday night. He tweeted who had come to Lithuania hoping the alliance would be an organization that « doesn’t falter, wastes no time and looks back on no aggressor…is it too much to expect? »
Earlier in the day, as news of the language of compromise began to emerge, the Ukrainian leader took an uncharacteristically harsh tone, tweet that “it is unprecedented and absurd when [a] the timing is not fixed either for the invitation or for the accession of Ukraine ».
The reference to conditions was a particularly sore point for the Ukrainian leadership.
“A vague wording on ‘conditions’ is also added to invite Ukraine. There seems to be no readiness either to invite Ukraine to NATO or to make it a member of the Alliance, » the president wrote.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defended the compromise text as a strong gesture in Kiev.
Removing the need for a MAP, the NATO chief said, « will change Ukraine’s accession path from a two-stage process to a one-stage process. »
« This is a strong package for Ukraine, » Stoltenberg insisted, « and a clear path to its NATO membership. »
Pressed by questions about what precise conditions Kyiv must meet for membership, the secretary general acknowledged that multiple factors were at play.
One dimension, he said, is having good governance and modern defense and security institutions. The other, Stoltenberg noted, is the ongoing war.
And, he underlined, « in the end, it must be the allies who evaluate – as we always do when we have enlargement – whether the conditions are met and then take the decision ».
Washington and Berlin made clear there would be no change from their position that Ukraine could not be given an unconditional promise to join the alliance – instead they are focusing on helping Ukraine defeat Russia. Both Germany and France promised large arms packages for Kiev during the summit.
« Look, we’ve already said that Ukraine’s place in the future will be in the alliance at some point, » US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in Washington. “They have reforms to work out. Rule of law, good governance, political reforms that need to be done, and they are at war right now… Eventually, yes, NATO will be on the front lines for them, but now is not the time for that. »
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has also been cautious about the conditions offered to Ukraine.
« Everyone has already said and stressed over the past year and a half that the future of Ukraine is in NATO, » he told a forum during the NATO meeting. « There are no doubts. It’s just a matter of how to go there. There are a few prerequisites that need to be met. There are certain circumstances that we need to take this step. »
The 90-point communiqué also included a « lasting commitment » that member countries would spend « at least » 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. « In many cases, spending more than 2% of GDP will be required to remedy existing shortfalls. »
Paul McLeary contributed to the reporting