The Vilnius NATO summit came at a crucial time for Ukraine, as it continued a complex and treacherous counteroffensive against Russia. President Zelenskyy summarized the summit as ‘good, but not ideal’. So what went wrong and what went right?
The gathering of NATO heads of state was dominated by Ukraine. Vilnius was coloured in yellow and blue, with 33,000 Ukrainian flags around the city – an allusion to NATO soon having 33 members if Ukraine were to join after Sweden.
A flag from war-torn Bakhmut was raised in the city’s central square and large crowds welcomed President Zelenskyy. Summit shuttles had stickers on them saying, ‘while you are waiting for the bus – Ukraine waits for NATO membership’.
But despite the extensive diplomatic effort and strong public push, a clear path to NATO membership was not delivered. This disappointed Kyiv but did not discourage it.
US and German reluctance
The key obstacles are the US and Germany. Their reluctance is driven by fear of escalation to a direct, possibly nuclear, conflict with Russia.
This prevents crucial decisions. Washington repeated its mantra about the impossibility of ‘letting Ukraine join now’, while Ukraine’s government and civil society had only asked for a clear assurance of its future accession once the war is over.
Washington hit the brakes, which came as little surprise given that President Biden clearly voiced a hesitant position over membership on the eve of the summit. The sides talked past each other, all on public display.
Furthermore, NATO’s communique re-affirmed its current state of relations with Ukraine, where an Annual National Programme (ANP), in place since 2009, monitors reforms in Ukraine’s democratic and security sectors.
There is disappointment at NATO’s perceived inability to show courage and strategic foresight, where a realistic and robust pathway to membership could have become part of a war-ending strategy.
This was an opportunity to bury the memory of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, when an absence of clarity encouraged Russia’s militarism. But the Vilnius summit has once again failed to send a clear message to the Kremlin that Ukraine’s membership is not a hypothetical possibility but a new tangible reality.
The good news
On the other hand, the longer-than-planned and ‘powerful’ (according to Kyiv’s account) bilateral meeting between President Biden and President Zelenskyy seemed to soften tensions.
Kyiv emerged reassured that the US will sustain Ukraine with the military supplies required to defeat the Russian army, and develop long-term defence cooperation.
Specific new pledges of military assistance from Europe were also significant. President Macron committed to supply long-range SCALPS missiles with a range of 250 km. (Britain has been supplying them since May of this year).
Meanwhile a €700 million military package from Germany includes artillery munitions, armoured vehicles and two Patriot launchers.
The joint G7 Declarations of Support for Ukraine also commit to security and military assistance, while Kyiv pledges to continue domestic reform. This is a transitional security measure, while Ukraine pursues a pathway toward future membership in NATO and the EU.
Vilnius also updated the Ukraine–NATO dialogue to the level of a Council (as Russia itself once had), allowing Kyiv to sit as an equal among NATO members and call in consultations for specific crises.
This joint body could become an effective tool to advance Ukraine’s membership at the highest level. With a regular meeting at head of state level, the Council could enable the necessary ‘conditions for the invitation’ to membership.
Kyiv understands these conditions as mainly ‘end of war’ circumstances. NATO will also require internal reforms, mainly in advancing democracy.
A solid foundation
Since the Madrid summit in 2022, NATO as an institution provided a meagre €500 million to Ukraine – roughly the size of what Lithuania alone provided in military assistance since the start of Russian invasion.
The new communique declares that the existing Comprehensive Assistance Package will transform into a multi-year programme to support Ukraine’s defence and deterrence – although no figures were announced.