Ukraine’s path to NATO membership has become shorter, but not faster

The NATO summit in Vilnius was neither a victory nor a failure. Ukraine didn’t get an invitation for the alliance nor real security guarantees. But if Ukraine is ready to face the demands and fulfill the conditions of the West, the road to NATO-membership will be achievable. The task is difficult, argues former high-ranking diplomat Kostiantyn Yelisieiev in an analysis after the summit, but possible and not too tough for the experienced Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv.

 NATO summit in Vilnius. British prime minister Sunak and German chancellor Scholz. Picture Flickr.

by Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, former permanent Ukrainian representative to the EU

Success is always achieved by honest conclusions, recognition of mistakes and their corrections. Unfortunately, this is precisely what we are lacking today in approaches to the results of the NATO Summit in Vilnius and its consequences for Ukraine. Moreover, the lack of objectivity is felt both on the part of the government and non-governmental associations and experts. The summit was neither a victory nor a failure. And that is why both those who try to indulge in wishful thinking and prove its success and historicity for Ukraine, and those who claim the defeat of our diplomacy in Vilnius, are wrong.

For Ukraine, the Vilnius summit was important not only from the point of view of understanding the evolution of the North Atlantic Alliance in the conditions of ongoing Russian aggression, but also in the context of solving the strategic issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. In its communications regarding the results of the summit, the Ukrainian authorities from the very beginning reduced Vilnius exclusively to the issue of ‘inviting/non-inviting Ukraine to membership,’ overrated the event in the perspective of Ukrainian society (the authorities themselves believed in this) and turned on the maximum mode of psychological and diplomatic pressure. Meanwhile, the NATO Summit in Vilnius was not only about Ukraine (it is enough to look at the final document of the meeting, the geography, and topics of which are global).

Let’s go deeper into this topic.

Strategic fiasco for Moscow

Vilnius was an unequivocal success for the Alliance. By starting an armed adventure against Ukraine, Putin expected to get ‘less NATO’ on his borders, instead he got ‘more Alliance.’ Finland’s (and soon Sweden’s) accession to NATO marked a strategic fiasco for Moscow, which by its actions made the unthinkable a fait accompli. Today’s Alliance demonstrates to Russia and the whole world its strength and determination to confront the aggressor and strengthen democracy and world order on a global scale. Instead of the pre-war contingent of 40,000, Russia receives 300,000 NATO forces along its border. NATO’s border with the Russian Federation was extended by 1,300 km, and the Baltic Sea finally became a NATO sea. Putin’s blackmail regarding non-expansion of the Alliance and its return to the borders of 1997 completely failed.

In 500 days, the allies experienced a serious, and most importantly, a lightning-fast evolution by Western bureaucratic standards, in order to finally recognize what Ukraine has been talking about since 2014: the most acute security problem for the region and the world is Russian revanchism. Defeating it is a matter of honor for NATO and all allies. After all, this is the only way to achieve the victory of freedom and democracy for decades. And this is good for Ukraine.

Military aid instead of membership

In Ukraine, the main beneficiary of the Vilnius summit was the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Complex diplomatic battles surrounding the summit’s wording regarding the prospects of Ukraine’s membership in NATO contributed to a significant increase in military and defense aid from the partners, who in this way tried to compensate for the lack of ambition in the text. As a result, we have long-range missiles from France, new aid packages from the USA and Germany, the F-16 coalition, which significantly increases the combat capability and potential of the Ukrainian army. And further successes of the Armed Forces, in turn, will strengthen the position of Ukrainian diplomacy on the way to NATO membership.

Vilnius became a small, but a step forward towards the Alliance. And it even pointed to the door, even though ‘Sweden and Finland’ was not written on it. The main task of Ukrainian diplomacy was to get a positive response from the leaders of NATO countries to Ukraine’s application for membership in the Alliance, if possible, in the form of an invitation to join the Washington Treaty in accordance with its article 10. The task is difficult, but possible, not too tough for the experienced and ambitious diplomat team of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with our partners.

Bull in a china shop

Did Ukrainian diplomacy manage to fulfill it? Objectively, it was partially successful. In fact, Ukraine’s applications were not rejected, and therefore they were accepted. We got not the actual invitation, but the prospect of receiving an invitation if two complex prerequisites are met are recorded in the documents of the summit. Although small, it is a significant step forward. Someone could say: ‘Victory!’ But both in Kyiv and in the NATO capitals there are fears that this victory is pyrrhic.

Those who remember Vilnius–2013 will understand the atmosphere of Vilnius–2023. Instead of relief and joy from the difficult but constructive diplomatic compromise reached, the Euro-Atlantic elite will remember Zelenskyy’s ‘emotional swing’ for a long time, the blackmail of ‘I will, or I won’t come’, coming to Vilnius in the style of ‘bull in a china shop’, psychological destructive pressure on partners. And just as in 2013, when all the EU leaders, one by one and all together, convinced Yanukovych of the feasibility of signing the Association Agreement with the EU, in 2023, Western partners similarly reassured Zelenskyy with statements regarding NATO. Whether such experience encourages further invitations of the Ukrainian leadership to world summits, be it the G7 or the G20 ones, is a rhetorical question.

Vilnius Stoltenberg pictureNATO
Secretary general Stoltenberg. Picture NATO.

Despite the extraordinary attention, Ukraine could not find a place at the Summit in Vilnius. Our country is undoubtedly an important topic, however, Kyiv’s heroic struggle against the aggressor in itself is not a ticket to NATO membership. It’s not indulgence regarding reforms too. Therefore, we’ve seen the cold shower from President Biden and other allies regarding the compliance of the criteria and the need for Ukraine’s qualification for future membership in the Alliance.

Fearing or opposing interoperability requirements is the wrong way to go. However, we saw exactly this reaction in the infamous tweet of the head of state on his way to Vilnius. We will not guess who suggested such a tactic, but it is quite obvious that its application to friends and allies was at least inappropriate. Or, using the wording of the president himself, it was ‘unprecedented and absurd.’ As evidenced by diplomatic leaks to the press and behind-the-scenes conversations within the framework of the NATO Summit, this demarche almost cost Ukraine unpleasant consequences for the results and will definitely affect attitudes in the future.

Not an easy road ahead

Ukraine’s path to NATO membership has become, so to say, shorter, but not faster. It’s an extremely accurate assessment of Minister Kuleba, who, like no one else, did a lot to avoid the worst development scenarios. The requirements of the implementation of the Action Plan on membership were lifted for Ukraine, but this will not make the road to the Alliance any easier. Instead of a paved and legally verified path, we will have to go through unknown thickets. And so that this road does not turn into an endless test, it would be necessary to get a compass of movement towards NATO with an extremely clear list of requirements already today – in cooperation with our allies, primarily with Poland and the Baltic countries. Ukrainian diplomacy remembers, knows and is able to do this since the obtaining a visa-free regime with the European Union.

Meanwhile, one should not indulge in wishful thinking and believe that the only condition for receiving an invitation, apart from the consensus of the allies, is the end of the war against Russia. The draft conditions have already been laid out in the Declaration of the G7 regarding support for Ukraine, namely reforms in the field of democracy, the rule of law, the judiciary, corporate governance, the economy and security sector, public administration, respect for human rights, and media freedom. And here a lot coincides with our movement to achieve the criteria for membership in the European Union. Therefore, we should not wait, but formulate the task and properly perform it. Accomplishing these goals before NATO Jubilee Summit in Washington is a very achievable prospect.

More intentions than guarantees

Ironically, the biggest disappointment of the Summit in Vilnius was not the prospects of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, but the so-called security guarantees for our country. It is in vain for the authorities to try to indulge in wishful thinking, because what is proposed by the G7 are not real guarantees. In Ukraine, people expected some guarantees of protection, guarantees of peace – and there is no answer to this request. The joint position of the G7 in support of Ukraine is an encouraging declaration of intentions, not an actual security commitment. That is why the word ‘guarantees’ is missing in the text, and in terms of content it resembles Budapest–1994 with a ‘plus’ mark.

In addition to the immediate consultations, we have got obligations to provide to Ukraine weapons, military training (almost Ramstein undertakings), economic and financial support, as well as the work on imposing sanctions. Beside this, the statement about a clear connection between the so-called security obligations and Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a deliberate manipulation, because there is no such logical connection in the official text. So, it turns out that the so-called guarantees are not about the security and protection of Ukraine by the entire Free World, but about preparing for a new war and strengthening our state’s ability to defend itself in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter. Not a very nice perspective.

Parallel tracks to NATO

Moreover, even these so-called guarantees will be used after the end of the war and formalized, perhaps at the next Washington NATO summit in 2024. The problem is that the main goal of Ukraine at the Washington Summit of the Alliance should be to receive an invitation to join the Washington Treaty, and all the energy of Ukrainian diplomacy, civil society, and partners should be directed to this. Instead, before the Washington summit, the authorities plan to employ most of their resources into working on bilateral agreements with each individual country, which will require a long procedure of conclusion and ratification.

In other words, such agreements are the creation of a parallel track to the NATO membership. This is a false track that gives trump cards to skeptics of our membership in the Alliance and hope to the Putin regime regarding the willingness of the authorities to trade on the NATO issue. Anyone who thinks about peace and victory is working on NATO membership. Anyone who thinks about preparing for a new war is working on the so-called guarantees.

Bite the bullet

As a result, Vilnius is over – Washington is ahead. Under any scenario, our position and strategy must remain unchanged: Ukraine’s membership in NATO is the only effective long-term security guarantee for our state. If the door to the Alliance is open for Ukraine, then we should finally enter it. We have to draw correct, restrained conclusions from the results of the Vilnius summit. Indeed, in a certain way it was possible to develop the language of Bucharest and get some specific deliverables. We have formulations focused on movement, action, and result, and not just a statement of a so-called open-door policy. Our goal is to receive an invitation to join NATO in accordance with Article 10 of the Washington Treaty.

Our task is to obtain the consent of all partners (which means that there is currently no such consensus) and to fulfill certain conditions. The priority is to get such a comprehensive list of conditions as soon as possible, bite the bullet, tense up, and work for the result. We all must be consolidated and united: the government, the opposition, and the civil society.

Let’s make the impossible possible.

About the author
Kostiantyn Yelisieiev is head of the Centre for New Solutions. Between 2010 and 2015, partly during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovich, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev was permanent representative of Ukraine to the European Union. In 2013 he was interviewed by the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. Since 2018 Yelisieiev is sanctioned by Russia.

This article was originally published by the Ukrainian weekly Dzerkalo Tizhnya / Zerkalo Nedeli.


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