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Zelensky Blasts ‘Absurd’ Ukraine NATO Membership Delays. Here’s What to Know

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One of the dominating topics of this year’s annual NATO summit, which convened on Tuesday in Vilnius, Lithuania, is what role Ukraine will have in the military alliance’s future. Ukraine has long harbored ambitions of joining NATO and saw this gathering as the ideal opportunity for its place within the alliance to be made official—if not through membership, then at least in the form of an invitation.

While the two-day summit has only just begun, Kyiv’s hopes already appear to be dampened. “It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a tweet on Tuesday, in apparent reference to the language of a draft summit communiqué, which has yet to be made public.

The Ukrainian leader criticized in particular that no time frame has been set for extending NATO membership to Kyiv, the absence of which he called “unprecedented and absurd.” He also warned that such ambiguity risks making the question of Ukraine’s membership subject to negotiations with Russia, thus giving Moscow undue leverage.

“Uncertainty is weakness,” Zelensky added.

NATO, a defense alliance of 31 countries—soon to be 32, after Turkey dropped its opposition to Sweden’s accession to NATO on the eve of the summit—that has agreed to support each other militarily should any member be attacked, was created in 1949 at the beginning of the Cold War to combat what U.S. leadership perceived as a growing Soviet threat. In order for NATO to accept a new member, it must receive approval from every member state.

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Ukraine’s latest bid was always going to face challenges, not least because the country is still in the midst of an active war. It is for this reason that President Joe Biden described the calls for admitting Ukraine into the alliance “premature” in a recent interview with CNN, noting that accession could only take place after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ends. If Ukraine were to join before then, NATO’s much vaunted Article 5 clause would make the rest of alliance treaty-bound to come to Ukraine’s defense. “If the war is going on, then we’re all in war,” Biden said.

This hesitation can also be explained at least in part by wariness to provoke Russia further. The expansion of NATO over the years on Russia’s western border and Ukraine’s previous attempt to join NATO in 2008 are both believed to be major reasons for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

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But as the Ukrainian leadership sees it, NATO runs the risk of repeating its past mistakes. Kyiv believes that had Ukraine successfully joined NATO in 2008, Russia would have been significantly less likely to invade. Thus, joining NATO has become a top priority.

“All NATO allies have agreed that Ukraine will become a member,” Jen Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, said at a press conference in April. “President Zelensky has a very clear expectation, we discussed this.”

But while NATO countries may have agreed that Ukraine will eventually become a member, what comes between now and then is matter of major disagreement among Western allies.

“NATO can’t be in a situation where they offer a firm prospect of membership to a country which is in the state of war, which has nearly 20% of its territory under occupation by a hostile foreign power,” says Martin Smith, a senior lecturer at the Department of Defense and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England.

But it is possible that member states could secure compromise language at the Vilnius summit that suggests Ukraine is getting closer to membership.

Ahead of the NATO summit, Stoltenberg said in a press conference on Friday that he expects the defense alliance to reaffirm that Ukraine will become a member.

Those plans, however, could also be complicated if the end of the war comes down to negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, according to Trevor McCrisken, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the University of Warwick.

“​​One condition for ending the war might be that Ukraine doesn’t become a member of NATO. That might be a condition that will be set by Russia before it agrees to bring the conflict to a close,” McCrisken says.

Either way, the summit is expected to lead to further military pledges for Ukraine. “The members may well agree on a package of transitional security measures,” Smith says.

Read More: Why the New NATO-Ukraine Defense Council Falls Short

During Stoltenberg’s press conference on Friday, he said that he expects NATO to agree to a new, multi-year program of assistance for Ukraine. Political ties between Ukraine and NATO are also expected to be upgraded through a new NATO-Ukraine Council, or NUC. It is understood that the NUC will facilitate closer ties between Kyiv and NATO focused on making Ukrainian forces “fully interoperable” with the alliance, in addition to modernizing Ukraine’s armed forces.

Various NATO member states are also in ongoing talks about bilateral military and economic assistance.

Last week, the U.S. announced a further $500 million in military assistance to Ukraine. According to the Pentagon, the U.S. has provided more than $15 billion in weapons and equipment since the war began.

The 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid saw the U.S. commit another $800 million in military assistance to Ukraine, with President Biden declaring that the defense alliance would stick with Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”


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