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Vilnius is just the beginning.
Ukraine wants NATO to give it a clear path to membership at this week’s summit in Lithuania. And the request is knotting the members of the group.
Just wait until they have to make a real decision.
When the shooting finally stops, NATO allies will effectively have to choose: is Ukraine in or out? This is the moment that will truly test the unity of the alliance.
Kiev wants to join NATO as soon as hostilities are over and has argued that the alliance in the meantime puts Ukraine on a concrete path to membership. He argues the pledge would help the war effort now, leaving no room for Russia to think it can separate Ukraine from the West.
The allies, however, struggled to meet Kiev’s demands. And while a compromise is brewing, the emotional pressures and intense negotiations are just a small preview of a much larger political struggle over Europe and Ukraine’s future once ceasefire negotiations begin.
Is it possible to grant accession to a country with disputed borders? Will NATO membership come only after a peace deal with Moscow? What about the allies who (quietly, for the moment) are not enthusiastic about Ukraine’s integration?
Then there’s the troubling example of Sweden, an uncontroversial addition to NATO whose bid has nonetheless stalled for over a year. Ukraine is much more complicated and will require much more politics.
« Essentially everyone agrees that Ukraine’s accession is now a reasonable thing to achieve at some point, » said Camille Grand, former assistant secretary general of NATO. “Everyone recognizes that it will take time, but what are the conditions for effective membership? What kind of frontline situation?
Or, as one senior Eastern European diplomat put it: « If it were an imminent decision to take Ukraine, it would be a big drama. »
What Ukraine can (and cannot) achieve now
Ukrainian officials are trying to avoid a future fractious political debate by persuading NATO leaders to call for a rollout now, even if actual membership will follow later.
“It is essential and vital that political decisions are made,” said Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European integration. « It’s just as important as military support to Ukraine, » she said in an interview.
In Vilnius, the allies are planning to set up a new NATO-Ukraine Council for talks with Kiev and will also issue some kind of symbolic gesture to Ukraine, along with more practical assistance to help Ukrainian forces transition to Western standards.
But the clear signal for membership that Ukrainian officials are hoping for is unlikely to fully materialize: it’s simply too controversial for the moment.
The United States and Germany, in particular, have shown the strongest hesitation when it comes to the thorny debate over Ukraine’s NATO future.
US President Joe Biden has been outspoken that he does not want to make Ukraine joining NATO « easy ».
There is still concern about the reception of a nation that has had Russian invaders for nearly a decade and has yet to undergo many democratic reforms. Washington also fears that offering a concrete invitation would anger the Kremlin – that is, Vladimir Putin – into considering a more drastic option to prevent Kiev from aligning politically with the West.
And in Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently urged NATO leaders to look « soberly » at Ukraine’s offer and said he supported « that we focus in Vilnius on what is now a top priority: namely , strengthen the real combat power of Ukraine ».
Diplomats working on NATO issues point out that both the American and German positions have softened somewhat in the weeks leading up to the summit, and that the allies on the eastern flank have managed to win concessions on the issue. The expectation is that NATO allies at the summit will go beyond the alliance’s vague 2008 promise that Ukraine will « become » a member at some point.
However, there is a contingent of skeptics who want « conditions to apply » to Ukraine’s membership bid, a senior Central European diplomat said. And they want to ensure that no final promises are made too soon, the diplomat added, avoiding a situation « where ticking boxes will lead to an invitation being automatically issued. »
Behind the scenes, there is also a sense that even some publicly supportive governments have unspoken qualms.
Indeed, some Western officials privately share US concerns that formally inviting Kiev to join the defensive alliance could push Putin to more extreme measures. Others see the terms and conditions of Ukraine’s NATO membership as a potential part of the peace negotiations.
« The most used argument is escalation, » said Natalia Galibarenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, describing the narratives she hears from time to time from partners, adding that some of Ukraine’s friends « occasionally » indicate that they believe that an invitation « would close any possibility of negotiation with Putin ».
The ambassador said he did not agree with this thought « for the very simple reason, because Putin started the invasion against Ukraine under absolutely false pretexts ».
The final game
Then there’s the continuing uncertainty about how the war will end – or even how to define « end ». Will Ukraine agree to a ceasefire if, say, Russia keeps Crimea? And if so, can you join NATO?
The questions discuss the intricate task of defining Ukraine’s accession prospects while the front lines are still shifting.
« The debate will no doubt escalate or flare up again, » said a Western European diplomat. “But the lines drawn by some allies are very firm,” added the diplomat. « I can’t imagine a realistic debate about joining a partially occupied country, so everything will depend on the state of play when hostilities end. »
However, for defenders of Ukraine within NATO, the pressing pause on membership plans due to these complexities is essentially letting Putin determine when and how Ukraine joins NATO.
Grand, the former assistant to the NATO secretary general, said it was necessary to « move away from Russia’s veto right », underlining that « there are interesting precedents ». West Germany, for example, joined in 1955 while still divided from East Germany.
These are the arcane debates going on around NATO right now, and supporters of membership feel their points are slowly winning the day.
« Some allies think membership is risky, but they are coming, » insisted the first senior diplomat from Eastern Europe. The allies, added the diplomat, “do not want to cede Putin [a] signal that nothing will happen if the war continues.
In the absence of imminent NATO membership, Western powers such as the US, UK, Germany and France are working on so-called security guarantees for Ukraine – bilateral agreements to continue providing assistance to Kiev. And while it’s unclear whether these deals will differ much from existing aid, the idea is to give a gesture of long-term commitment to Ukraine until membership is feasible.
« The good news, » said Galibarenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, is that « part of future security guarantees are already implemented… so, for example, military aid, training, sanctions, financial aid, pressure and isolation on the Russian Federation ».
But Ukraine, along with a number of its Eastern allies, has also made it clear that while postwar assurances are helpful, they should not replace concrete progress on NATO membership.
“This is not a replacement,” Galibarenko insisted, but simply “an interim provision until we are covered by Article Five” – NATO’s vaunted clause that an attack on one is an attack on all.
The Kiev partners are confident, but admit that a lot of work and months (or years) of conversations lie ahead.
« The debate on how to do this is ongoing and will continue, » said a senior diplomat from northern Europe. “This cannot and will not wait until after the war. Ukraine will not be abandoned. »
Alexander Ward contributed to the reporting.