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What Ukraine did — and didn’t — get from the NATO summit

NATO got its unity moment, but it put off the big questions for Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, shakes hands with US President Joe Biden next to Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the NATO Summit on July 12, 2023, in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Paul Ellis/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is probably not going to be a member of NATO anytime soon. But Ukraine was definitely the big headliner of the NATO summit, both for what it got and for what it didn’t.

Ahead of NATO’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, the alliance sought a show of solidarity and unity as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters a precarious period. Kyiv is waging its counteroffensive to liberate Russian-occupied territory, but it is slow going. Even though that was somewhat expected, Western leaders are worrying whether Ukraine — and their own stockpiles — can sustain such a war. The summit represented a chance to recommit to Ukraine, but also to lay out NATO’s political and military future in a changed Europe and world.

All of that raised the stakes for this summit, which was full of big agenda items like spending commitments and regional defense planning. But questions around Ukraine’s status took up most of the political urgency.

What Ukraine got from the NATO summit

Ahead of the summit, Kyiv wanted a more substantial timeline for joining the alliance, rather than the vague promise of someday becoming a NATO member. It was backed by some NATO members, including some in Eastern Europe. Other countries, the United States and Germany among them, were reluctant to offer any concrete commitments while Ukraine is fighting a war with no clear end, as it would risk pulling the alliance more directly into the conflict.

That more cautious approach won out. In NATO’s official communiqué from the summit, it said allies have agreed that Ukraine can join NATO when “conditions are met.” Exactly what those conditions are was not clearly defined, though officials have indicated that it includes ongoing political and rule-of-law reforms, beyond just a stop to Russia’s war.

NATO tried to sweeten the deal by scrapping Ukraine’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) — a series of formal benchmarks prospective NATO members have to follow — a recognition that Ukraine has made progress on military and political goals. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference on Tuesday that abandoning the MAP would change Ukraine’s membership path “from a two-step process to a one-step process.”

The alliance is also now hosting a NATO-Ukraine Council, where Kyiv gets a seat at the table with all the other NATO members and partners. This council honor once belonged to Russia, so it carries additional weight that Ukraine got its own.

“This is a strong package for Ukraine, and a clear path toward its membership in NATO,” Stoltenberg said at the press conference.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, though, did not initially see it that way. At the start of the summit, his tone was sharp, and he called it “unprecedented and absurd” that no time frame was set for the invitation or Ukraine’s NATO membership.

“It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” he added.

Zelenskyy is not wrong here, at least in acknowledging that there is no readiness to invite Ukraine into the alliance. While, again, some are saying Ukraine deserves more concrete commitments, especially now that its military, thanks to Western equipment, is one of the stronger armies in Europe, other partners saw the costs of giving concrete commitments as far too high and unpredictable.

Russia may see less of an incentive to stop waging war if Ukraine has a clear pathway to NATO — after all, that is what Russia claims at least partially motivated this war. Throughout the conflict, allies have carefully weighed their involvement in Ukraine to avoid provoking or escalating with Moscow, and a more precise timeline for Ukraine, without knowing when the war might end, could not only pull the alliance into a conventional conflict, but risk a nuclear confrontation.

“In a pretend world, we could have gotten language that was stronger on Ukraine. It still would have faced problems down the line when allies had to face the music and really answer the question about Ukraine’s membership,” Rachel Rizzo, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told Vox from Vilnius.

Ukraine also got more pledges on weapons, including long-range missiles from France. The US has so far declined to send its own long-range ATACMS missiles, though last week, the Biden administration quietly and controversially approved the transfer of cluster bombs for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

On the sidelines of NATO, Group of Seven countries (the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan) pledged bilateral, long-term security commitments to Ukraine. These deals will be negotiated but are likely to include things like military and economic aid. It builds on what the US and other partners are giving to Ukraine now, but the apparent goal seems to be to make it less ad hoc and plan for the long haul. “While we are on our way to NATO membership, Ukraine needs effective security guarantees on the way to the Alliance. We now have an appropriate package of guarantees, and I ask you to support and join it,” Zelenskyy tweeted.

This is exactly what these countries want: to provide support and equipment to Ukraine so it can defend itself, but to do it in a way that avoids assurances or guarantees that the United States or another country will need to fight. In some ways, it is a recognition that, no matter the course of the war, Ukraine requires continued assistance and investment. But it is also a more subtle sign that these countries are looking for ways to back Ukraine that do not involve NATO itself.

Zelenskyy, though did change his tone on day two of the summit — perhaps a recognition that lots of NATO countries have given a lot of money and political capital to back Kyiv, and Zelenskyy can’t afford any tensions there. He offered much more effusive thanks to leaders, and said that Ukraine had left Vilnius with “support from the leaders and an unambiguous statement that Ukraine will be in NATO.”

“Will be in NATO,” for Zelenskyy, means “the moment the war is over.” It’s not clear the rest of the NATO allies feel that way. But it’s a decision they purposely designed to put off for another day.

NATO gets its moment of unity. But the summit showed its limits, too.

“He was betting NATO would break apart,” President Joe Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech at the close of the NATO summit in Vilnius. “He was betting NATO would break. He thought our unity would shatter at our first testing. He thought democratic leaders would be weak. But he thought wrong.”

Biden added that, faced with the threat to peace and stability, the US and its partners — in Europe and beyond — responded. “All across the world, they stepped up,” Biden said. “We were ready. We were ready because we stood together.”

Biden’s speech addressed threats far beyond Russia, but his underlying message was of the US and its allies’ “unwavering” support for Ukraine. It was also a promise of more to come.

In lots of ways, it was a fitting coda to a summit where, despite many challenges, NATO largely achieved what it wanted: solidarity and cohesion at a pivotal moment. Still, that these goals were not so easy to achieve is a reminder that NATO has its divisions, ones that may grow deeper and knottier if Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on.

A lot of that unity came at the expense of Ukraine, which very much wants to be in the NATO club but got only a little bit better than the military alliance equivalent of a suggestion to grab coffee someday. Zelenskyy’s disappointment — and the disappointment of Ukraine’s supporters — is not surprising, but the fact that Kyiv thought something more might be on the table hints at a split within NATO itself.

Some did want to give Kyiv a clearer timeline, but the alliance ultimately chose to riffle through the diplomacy drawer to see what concessions it could give without dramatically changing the stakes. ”The fact that some allies wanted more and were being held back by countries like the US and Germany shows that there are still disagreements, and we need to make sure that those don’t deepen and cause greater issues within the alliance,” Rizzo said.

NATO could get away with it at this summit, with Ukraine very actively being at war a fair enough justification. But at some point, NATO must confront the how and when of Kyiv’s membership and what it actually means when it says “conditions are met.” Ukraine may believe it’s when the war stops, but it’s not clear that’s how all NATO allies see it: Does that mean a peace agreement or truce? What happens if Russia still occupies Ukrainian territory? The alliance may not want to give Ukraine public commitments, but it does have to seriously deliberate internally. Otherwise, it risks undermining the alliance’s own credibility, some of which it has regained and strengthened because of its response to the war in Ukraine.

The other drama of the NATO summit shows exactly why this matters. Turkey agreed to drop its objections to Sweden’s membership at the summit, but it’s not a done deal yet and Erdogan has suggested he may take his sweet time putting Sweden’s NATO ratification before Turkey’s parliament.

But Sweden’s (and Finland’s) NATO membership should have been easy; it’s a stable democracy whose military already cooperates closely with NATO. The conventional wisdom had long been that if Sweden or Finland ever wanted to join NATO, their accession would be welcome and swift. Turkey spoiled that with Sweden, putting domestic political interests ahead of the political and military interests of the alliance. Even as Sweden joins, the dispute showed that as NATO expands it also becomes messier and much more difficult to find political consensus.

Turkey’s eventual acquiescence, the many pledges to Ukraine, and the broader commitments to NATO’s defense helped everyone leave Vilnius with the sense that solidarity and unity were intact but maybe not unshakable. As Biden noted, NATO did not break apart. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave NATO a renewed sense of purpose. But the alliance is still figuring out exactly how it will fulfill it.

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