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NATO skirts final call on Ukraine membership, leaving unity-testing fight for later

NATO skirts final call on Ukraine membership, leaving unity-testing fight for later

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Vilnius is only the beginning.

Ukraine wants NATO to give it a clear path to membership at this week’s summit in Lithuania. And the request is tying the group’s members in knots.

Just wait until they have to make a real decision. 

When the shooting eventually stops, NATO allies will actually have to choose: Is Ukraine in or out? That’s the moment that will truly test the alliance’s unity.

Kyiv wants to join NATO as soon as hostilities are over and has advocated for the alliance to put Ukraine on a concrete path to membership in the meantime. It argues the promise would help the war effort now, leaving no room for Russia to think it can cleave Ukraine from the West. 

Allies, however, have struggled to address Kyiv’s demands. And while a compromise is in the making, the emotional lobbying and intense negotiations are merely a small preview of a much bigger political fight over Europe and Ukraine’s future once ceasefire negotiations start.

Can a country with disputed borders be granted membership? Would NATO membership only come after a peace settlement with Moscow? What about the allies who are (quietly, for the moment) not enthusiastic about integrating Ukraine? 

Then there’s the troubling example of Sweden — a non-controversial NATO addition whose bid has nonetheless stalled for over a year. Ukraine is way more complicated and will require way more politicking.

“Essentially everyone’s on board on the notion that membership for Ukraine is now a reasonable thing to achieve at some point,” said Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary-general. “Everyone recognizes that it will take some time, but what are the conditions for actual membership? What sort of situation on the frontline?”

Or, as a senior Eastern European diplomat put it: “If it was an imminent decision to take Ukraine, it would be big drama.” 

What Ukraine can (and can’t) get now

Ukrainian officials are trying to avoid a fractious future political debate by convincing NATO leaders to make a call now — even if actual membership would follow later. 

It “is essential and vital for political decisions to be taken,” said Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European integration. “It’s equally important as military support to Ukraine,” she said in an interview. 

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European integration Olha Stefanishyna | Olivier Hoslet/EFE via EPA

In Vilnius, allies are planning to establish a new NATO-Ukraine Council for talks with Kyiv and will also issue some type of symbolic gesture to Ukraine — along with more practical assistance to help Ukrainian forces transition to Western standards. 

But the air-tight signal for membership Ukrainian officials hope for is unlikely to fully materialize — it’s just too contentious for the moment.

The U.S. and Germany, in particular, have displayed the strongest hesitation when it comes to the thorny debate over Ukraine’s NATO future.

U.S. President Joe Biden has been blunt that he doesn’t want to make it “easy” for Ukraine to join NATO. 

There’s still concern about welcoming a nation that has had Russian invaders in it for nearly a decade and that still has many democratic reforms to undergo. Washington also fears that offering a concrete invitation would anger the Kremlin — that is, Vladimir Putin — to consider a more drastic option to stop Kyiv from aligning itself ever westward politically.

And in Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently urged NATO leaders to look “soberly” at Ukraine’s bid and said he is advocating “that we focus in Vilnius on what is now an absolute priority: Namely, to strengthen the real fighting 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 allies on the eastern flank have managed to garner 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.

Still, there’s a contingent of skeptics that want “conditions to be applied” to Ukraine’s membership bid, said a senior Central European diplomat. And they want to ensure no final promises are made too early, the diplomat added, avoiding a situation “where ticking off the boxes will lead to an automatic issuance of an invitation.” 

Behind the scenes, there is also a sense that even some publicly supportive governments have unspoken qualms. 

Indeed, some Western officials privately share the U.S. concerns that formally inviting Kyiv to join the defensive alliance could drive Putin to more extreme measures. Others see the terms and conditions of Ukraine’s NATO membership as a potential part of peace negotiations. 

“The most-used argument is the escalation,” said Natalia Galibarenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, describing the narratives she occasionally hears from partners, adding that some of Ukraine’s friends “from time to time” indicate they believe an invitation would “close any negotiation possibilities with Putin.” 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Head of the Mission of Ukraine to NATO, Ambassador Natalia Galibarenko | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty images

The ambassador said she disagrees with this thinking “for the very simple reason, because Putin started invasion against Ukraine on absolutely false pretexts.”

The end game

Then there’s the ongoing uncertainty about how the war will end — or how to even define “end.” Will Ukraine accept a ceasefire if Russia retains Crimea, for instance? And, if so, can it join NATO?

The questions speak to the tangled task of setting out Ukraine’s membership prospects while the frontlines are still shifting. 

“The debate will no doubt intensity or flare up again,” said a Western European diplomat. “But lines drawn by some allies are very firm,” the diplomat added. “I cannot imagine a realistic debate about membership for a country that is partly occupied, so all will depend on the state of play when hostilities end.” 

Yet to Ukraine’s advocates within NATO, pressing pause on membership plans because of these complexities is essentially letting Putin determine when and how Ukraine joins NATO. 

Grand, the former NATO assistant secretary-general, said there is a need to “move away from a veto right to Russia,” pointing out that “there are interesting precedents.” West Germany, for instance, joined in 1955 while it was still divided from East Germany. 

These are the arcane debates going around NATO right now, and membership proponents feel their points are slowly prevailing.

“Some allies think membership is risky, but they are coming around,” insisted the first senior diplomat from Eastern Europe. Allies, the diplomat added, “don’t want to give Putin [a] signal that nothing will happen if war continues.”

In the absence of imminent NATO accession, western powers like the U.S., U.K., Germany and France are working on so-called security assurances for Ukraine — bilateral agreements to keep providing assistance to Kyiv. And while it remains unclear whether these agreements will differ much from existing aid, the idea is to give a gesture of long-term commitment for Ukraine until membership is feasible. 

“The good news,” said Galibarenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, is that “part of the future security guarantees is already implemented … so for example, military aid, trainings, sanctions, financial help, pressure and isolation on the Russian Federation.” 

But Ukraine, together with a number of eastern allies, has also made it clear that while post-war assurances are helpful, they should not come instead of concrete progress on NATO membership. 

“This is not a substitution,” Galibarenko insisted, but merely “an interim provision till we will be covered by Article Five” — the vaunted NATO clause that an attack on one is an attack on all.

Kyiv’s partners are confident, but concede a long slog — and months (or years) of conversations — lies 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 reporting.

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