What Zelensky wanted from NATO – and what he got.

At the NATO summit in Madrid last year, the alliance formally invited Sweden and Finland to join its ranks. At this year’s summit in Vilnius, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hoped the Alliance would do his country the same favor.

But it was not like that. In its final statement, issued Tuesday night, NATO claimed that “Ukraine’s future lies in NATO” but did not say when that future might begin.

Throughout the Russian invasion, the Western allies debated whether or not to approve the next thing Kyiv called for First artillery, then Leopard tanks, then F-16 fighters, then cluster munitions. Each time, what at first seemed out of place has come to be seen by some members as sensible and fair.

But NATO membership is far more important than military weaponry, and it may be some time before Kyiv’s last wish is fulfilled. What exactly did Zelensky want from this summit? Were his requests realistic? And what did he get in the end?

What did Zelensky want?

Zelensky’s ambitions were clear: he would demand nothing less than Ukraine’s full NATO membership.

At the July 2022 summit, their requests were less explicit. Zelensky did not launch his request for rapid entry into the alliance until September after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would recognize four Ukrainian regions – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – as Russian territory.

Immediately after Putin’s remarks, Zelensky declared that Ukraine was applying for NATO membership “under an accelerated procedure,” meaning that the Vilnius summit is the first time the issue has been on the agenda of The Alliance.

Under NATO’s open-door policy, any European country is free to apply, which is why its number has grown from 12 founding members to the current 31, soon to be 32, with Sweden’s accession.

Zelensky performed before an adoring crowd on Monday in Vilnius’ Lukiskes Square on a stage festooned with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag and a huge banner reading “#UkraineNATO33.”

What Zelensky wanted from NATO – and what he got.
Zelensky spoke to thousands of people gathered in Vilnius on Tuesday.

Was full adherence realistic?

But while #UkraineNATO33 might have won cheers in the Lithuanian capital, the prospect has been more chilling for the alliance’s leaders.

Let’s be clear about what NATO membership means. Article 5 of the Treaty enshrines the principle of collective defense, which means that an attack against one member is an attack against all.

Article 5 has only been invoked once in NATO history, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. If Ukraine were to accede today, with the Russian invasion raging, the Article would be invoked immediately, effectively dragging 31 countries into war against Russia.

US President Joe Biden made it clear before the start of the Vilnius summit that full membership was not yet realistic. In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, Biden said there is “no unanimity in NATO on whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, right now, in the middle of a war.”

“We are determined to compromise every inch of NATO territory. It is a commitment that we have all acquired, no matter what. If the war continues, then we are all at war. If that were the case, Biden said we are at war with Russia.

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace echoed the US position, stating, “we cannot have a new member in the middle of a conflict. That would only mean war for the alliance.

However, speaking to CNN from Vilnius on Monday, Wallace said, “when this conflict is over, we must be ready as soon as possible to bring Ukraine into NATO.”

What would Zelensky settle for?

In fact, Zelensky and his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, had admitted months before the NATO summit that Ukraine could not become a member of the alliance while it is still at war. At a February press conference in Kyiv, Zelensky stated that although Ukraine “is not looking for a replacement for NATO,” he understood that “we will not be a member of NATO as long as there is a war. Not because we don’t want (that), but because it’s impossible.”

Heading into the summit, their sights were set on a clear path to the alliance, with no obstacles once the conflict ended and a clear timetable for Ukraine’s membership. On Tuesday, Zelensky issued a harsh statement in which he criticized NATO’s “absurd” refusal to offer a timetable.

“This means that a window of opportunity to negotiate Ukraine’s NATO membership is being left in the negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror,” she said on Twitter.

But NATO’s refusal, or inability, to provide a timetable is understandable. Indeed, the answer to “When will Ukraine join NATO?” is the same as “When will Ukraine win the war?” NATO has made it clear that the former cannot happen before the latter.

“The most urgent task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails because unless Ukraine prevails, there will be no accession issue to discuss,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference Tuesday night.

What did Zelensky get?

The final communiqué was not released until 6:40 pm in Vilnius, an unusually late hour for the capstone document of a summit.

The delay in publication reflected disagreements between NATO members who hoped to give in to Zelensky’s demands for a clear timetable, and those who urged ambiguity, led by the United States and Germany. Biden had previously said that members were working to “agree on language” around Ukraine’s future membership; Those negotiations took longer than expected.

“Ukraine’s future lies in NATO,” the statement read. “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when the allies agree and the conditions are met.”

However, the alliance made an important concession to Ukraine, removing a key hurdle in the application process.

“We have agreed to remove the requirement for an Accession Action Plan. This will take Ukraine’s accession process from two steps to one,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday.

The Membership Action Plan (MAP) is a program of economic, defense and security reforms that other recently admitted countries had to go through before joining NATO. Eliminating this lengthy process will significantly expedite Ukraine’s accession process once it is formally invited to apply.

However, the abolition of the MAP – which has been criticized as outdated and excessively onerous – does not mean that the need for reforms disappears. In a separate statement issued by the G7 on Wednesday, the allies announced that Ukraine’s accession would remain conditional on the implementation of a reform program “underscoring its commitments to democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and media freedoms, and put your economy on a sustainable path.”

Biden acknowledged that the alliance had not invited Ukraine to join NATO during the summit while he works on “necessary reforms” but said that “we are not waiting for that process to finish” to boost the country’s security and that members of the G7 wanted to provide support ‘in the meantime.’

The leaders of the G7 countries also unveiled a new declaration of support for Ukraine at the summit on Wednesday aimed at bolstering the war-torn country’s military capabilities.

What Zelensky wanted from NATO – and what he got.
G7 leaders announced new security measures to support Ukraine.

That declaration, Biden said, “starts a process whereby each of our nations, and any others that wish to participate, will negotiate long-term bilateral security commitments with and for Ukraine.”

Zelensky thanked the G7 leaders for the new commitment. “The Ukrainian delegation is bringing home significant security, a victory for Ukraine, our country, our people, and our children. It opens up completely new security opportunities for us, and I thank everyone who made it possible,” he declared.

Some allies also announced new military aid packages for Ukraine, including “Storm Shadow” missiles from France and a $770 million package from Germany. However, the ultimate goal of joining NATO looks set to elude Zelensky for some time.

But do not underestimate the importance of the statement. Wallace reminded reporters on Wednesday that before the summit, the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership remained an “if.” Now, it is a “when.”

Christian Edwards