Ukraine’s near-term NATO aspirations were dashed this weekend ahead of the alliance’s annual summit, which is being held this year in Vilnius, Lithuania. “I don’t think [Ukraine] is ready for membership in NATO,” President Joe Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in an interview that aired Sunday. “I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war.”
But Ukraine will not walk away from the July 11-12 gathering empty-handed. One of the major outcomes of the summit will be the formation of the inaugural NATO-Ukraine Council, which will convene for the first time on Wednesday. The council will function as a platform for Kyiv and the alliance’s 31 members “to consult and make decisions together,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the press on Monday. It is understood that the council will also serve as a means by which Kyiv can call crisis meetings, as well as deepen the scope of its cooperation with the alliance.
Observers within and beyond Vilnius tell TIME that the creation of such a council marks an important step in Ukraine’s accession ambitions, though not an unprecedented one. In 2002, NATO established the NATO-Russia Council, which was similarly formed as a mechanism for consultation and decision making. Although NATO suspended all cooperation with Moscow in the aftermath of its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, it committed to keeping a channel of communication open through the council. Its last meeting took place prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion in January 2022.
The formation of the NATO-Ukraine Council “does give Ukraine a bit more of a seat at the table,” says Emily Ferris, a research fellow who leads the Russia program at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London. What remains to be seen, however, is what Ukraine stands to gain from this new access. Should the council’s creation come with additional perks—such as waiving the requirement for an extensive “membership action plan,” as NATO did for Finland and Sweden—Kyiv could see the move as a major win. (On Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that NATO countries had reached a consensus to remove the MAP requirement.) Absent similar measures that demonstrate Ukraine’s future in NATO, Ferris says, “it also has the potential to be seen in Kyiv as a foot-dragging exercise.”
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So far, Kyiv has responded positively to the formation of the council, the first meeting of which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to attend. “The Ukraine-NATO Council is considered by us as an element of the process of joining the Alliance,” Yehor Cherniev, a Ukrainian lawmaker and head of the Ukrainian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, tells TIME from Vilnius. “Through participation in this Council, we expect to receive more specific recommendations on defense and security sector reform, as well as the necessary practical assistance and advice for our future membership.”
Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, tells TIME that although the formation of the council marks an “important step,” he is also of the view—shared by other former generals and officials—that it is not enough on its own. “It’s more than cosmetic, but it’s not much more,” Hodges says. When it comes to Ukraine and Europe’s long-term security, “Nothing short of NATO membership is going to suffice.”
Even if Kyiv won’t be offered a seat at the alliance’s table anytime soon, some members are resolved to demonstrate its place within the alliance in other ways—including, for example, by establishing long-term security assurances modeled after the U.S.’s existing relationship with Israel, to which Washington provides $3.8 billion in annual military aid. Biden said that the U.S. would be open to creating this sort of arrangement, contingent on there being a ceasefire and peace agreement; the U.K., France, and Germany are reportedly considering similar assurances.
But what works for Israel may not necessarily work for Ukraine. “The Israeli model works because the Israelis have nuclear weapons or their potential adversaries think they have nuclear weapons,” says Hodges. While long-term funding commitments are helpful, he adds, they fall short of genuine security guarantees. “There’s no guarantee without a treaty,” Hodges says, referring to NATO’s Article 5 clause that considers an attack on one alliance member as an attack on all.
On this, Kyiv agrees. “It will be unacceptable to replace full-fledged NATO membership with any assurances,” says Cherniev.
History will weigh heavily on this summit. In 2008, NATO leaders failed to reach consensus on whether to grant membership to Ukraine and Georgia. A Russian invasion of both countries followed, prompting many to remember the Bucharest summit as a moment of weakness in which Putin ultimately took advantage. Kyiv has urged NATO not to repeat the same mistakes in Vilnius by leaving Kyiv in limbo.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the alliance in the coming days is determining under what circumstances it will be willing to let Ukraine in—something that will be dependent not just on when the war ends, but how.
So far, Ferris says that NATO has spoken about the end of the war as a neat and clear-cut moment, which is hardly guaranteed. Should the war’s end more closely resemble that of a “frozen conflict” of the kind that exists between Moldova and the Russian-backed separatist eastern region of Transnistria—one that Moscow can dial up and down as it likes—it could potentially hinder Ukraine’s membership ambitions for years, if not decades.
“You can understand why NATO doesn’t want to be dragged into an active war,” says Ferris. “But it is difficult to see when that would actually end in a satisfactory way and what the conditions for it ending would have to look like for NATO to be assured that membership now would be wise.”
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