VILNIUS – NATO has not given Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy what he was looking for, but on Wednesday he eased his public anger over the alliance’s cautious stance on Kiev’s accession.
« Nobody is willing to have a world war, which is logical and understandable, » Zelenskyy told reporters gathered at the NATO leaders’ summit in Vilnius, speaking through an interpreter.
The Ukrainian leader’s subdued tone contrasted sharply with his message a day earlier, when he blasted a NATO leader communicated as « absurd » for failing to provide Kiev with a timeline and a concrete path towards membership.
Rather than fixating on the terms on which the alliance would accept Ukraine once the war is over, the Ukrainian president on Wednesday praised Western capitals for offering Kiev security guarantees, insisting that the ultimate goal NATO membership remains for Ukraine.
Insurance « will definitely become a very important and specific success, » he said. « We can say that the results of the summit are good, » she said, but an invitation would be « great. »
Several Western capitals are offering Ukraine assurances that they will continue to support the country with weapons, equipment and money. The move, a G7 statement to be released on Wednesday afternoon, is designed as a long-term gesture of support for Kiev, the details of which will be revealed later.
That level of support was enough to anger Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the “misleading and potentially dangerous” guarantees.
« By providing guarantees for Ukraine’s security, they are encroaching on Russia’s security, » he said.
Opening the door
Kyiv has been lobbying for months for NATO to issue Ukraine a political invitation, or at least a strong gesture pledging to admit the country once the war is over, showing ordinary Ukrainians and Russian President Vladimir Putin that the future of Ukraine is in NATO.
Ukraine wanted an “invitation as a signal to Putin [the] the matter is closed, » said a Ukrainian official familiar with the negotiations.
At a 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO gave Ukraine a vague promise that it would become a member of the alliance and said the next step would be a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) to work on political and defense reforms.
Despite requests from Kiev, the United States and Germany have resisted giving Ukraine a concrete path to automatic membership after the war ends. Some Western officials have stressed the need for further reforms, arguing that it is necessary to focus now on practical support for Ukraine and leave important decisions until after the war.
“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.
In Vilnius, leaders also agreed to remove the requirement for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) and create a multi-year program to help Ukrainian forces move up to Western standards, as well as establish a new discussion forum with Kiev, nicknamed NATO- Council of Ukraine.
Zelenskyy said he was grateful for the guarantees but wanted concrete details.
“I would also like to draw your attention to the wording regarding the ‘conditions’ we must fulfill in order to receive an invitation to NATO. The absolute majority of our people expect details about these conditions, » he said tweeted.
NATO officials have argued that the moves represent progress and that eliminating the need for a MAP transforms Kyiv’s path to membership from a two-stage process to a one-stage process.
But Ukrainian officials were not happy with the release, both for the lack of timeline and for what they interpreted as vague language.
The conditions « are not clear » and the annual plans described in the document « are not related to membership, » said the Ukrainian official.
And there are now fears among Ukrainian decision-makers that Germany and others want to use potential NATO membership as a bargaining chip in any future peace talks with Russia, the Ukrainian official said, adding that there is a « feeling that there is something else we don’t ‘don’t know’ behind the discussions.
On Wednesday, however, Zelenskyy presented a positive interpretation of NATO’s decision to abandon the MAP.
Standing next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Zelenskyy said: « I would like to extend words of gratitude to you, Jens, for this important step. »
Words of caution
The change of tone came after officials from some of Ukraine’s closest partners signaled that its public criticism may have gone too far.
« There is a small word of caution here, » said British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. « Whether you like it or not, people want to see gratitude. »
Kiev, the British politician insisted, has made progress on Vilnius.
« Winning here for Ukraine is the kind of cultural acceptance that Ukraine belongs to NATO, » Wallace said. “The word ‘belongs’ implies destiny, it implies that it will happen. It’s not an if, it’s a when. »
Senior politicians in Vilnius have admitted that Ukraine hasn’t gotten exactly what it wants, but argued that Kiev is still coming home with significant support.
« It’s a big step, » Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told POLITICO on Wednesday. « But I can also understand that – having gone to Kiev and seen what’s going on – I can very well understand that they are impatient. »
Zelenskyy faces domestic political and economic pressure over the offer he brings back from Vilnius.
Some Ukrainian economists fear that only NATO membership will provide the security needed to attract investment to rebuild the country.
“Only a clear signal of Ukraine joining NATO could be a real guarantee of security for large investments in the country. Unfortunately, Ukraine was told yesterday that NATO is afraid to give such a signal,” said Hlib Vyshlinsky, executive director of the Center for Economic Strategy, a think tank based in Kiev. “This poses a real threat to turn Ukraine into a weak underdeveloped gray area and a constant threat to the security of Europe ».
But there is also realism about what the Western allies could offer as Ukraine battles Russian troops.
“NATO states have agreed to cancel the MAP for Ukraine. This will greatly simplify Ukraine’s joining NATO after the war. And that’s a plus. This is the best we could get at this point. Simply if you proceed from reality, and not from wishes and magical thinking,” Sergey Fursa, Deputy Director of the Kiev-based Dragon Capital Investment Company, he wrote in a Facebook post.
Laura Kayali, Cristina Gallardo and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting from Vilnius, Veronika Melkozerova contributed from Kiev.
This article has been updated.