Nato allies divided over how to signal stronger support to Ukraine

Allies want to deliver a strong statement of support to Ukraine but avoid a promise of quick accession

An apartment block hit by a missile strike in Lviv, Ukraine. Ukraine has acknowledged that it is unlikely to be able to join Nato while at war with Russia. EPA
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The 31 members of Nato have entered “frantic” last-minute discussions about how to phrase their support for Ukraine’s bid to join the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

They are trying to strike a delicate balance between signalling stronger political support to the war-torn country without being viewed as moving into direct confrontation with Russia, diplomats said.

Allies are expected to strengthen their ties with Ukraine during a two-day summit that starts on Tuesday in Vilnius.

There is broad agreement that measures will include boosting an already existing assistance package of non-lethal support to Ukraine and enabling Ukraine’s access to Nato committees and working groups.

“For 500 days, Moscow has brought death and destruction to the heart of Europe, seeking to destroy Ukraine and divide Nato,” the alliance's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said before the summit in Brussels, on Friday.

“Our summit will send a clear message. Nato stands united. And Russia’s aggression will not pay.”

Nato will also reaffirm that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance, yet, only four days before the summit starts, officials and diplomats are still negotiating how to strengthen the wording used at a 2008 summit in Bucharest, which stated the exact same position.

“Everybody agrees that language should be stronger than in Bucharest. The question is: how strong should it be?” said a European diplomat.

Eastern European and Baltic countries have been pushing for Nato to issue a formal invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance. But they have faced a strong pushback by other countries including the US.

Countries reluctant to let Ukraine join Nato too soon have argued that it needs to meet certain conditions including civilian control of the military and interoperability of weapons systems.

Being a Nato member also means that an attack against one member is viewed as an attack against the entire alliance, which is why the possibility of Ukraine joining Nato before the end of the war with Russia is close to impossible.

Discussions are currently focusing on how detailed Ukraine’s pathway towards membership should be in the summit’s final communique, said a senior Nato diplomat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has acknowledged that Kyiv is unlikely to be able to join Nato while at war with Russia.

But he said on Thursday that Ukraine needs "a clear signal, some concrete things in the direction of an invitation" at the summit.

Allies want the language to be strong enough for Mr Zelenskyy to be able to present the summit as a success.

“It’s in everybody’s interest that Zelenskyy can go back to Ukrainian people who are at war and fighting for their survival to say: I got a guarantee we’ll get into Nato,” said the senior Nato diplomat.

Mr Stoltenberg said that the “main difference” with the Bucharest summit was that “Ukraine has come much closer to Nato because Nato allies have worked closely with Ukraine for many years, especially since 2014."

A new council

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 before launching a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine last year.

Mr Stoltenberg pointed at the newly established Nato-Ukraine council that will be inaugurated in the presence of Mr Zelenskyy on Wednesday.

All members of the council, including Ukraine, will have the power to call for crisis consultations “if they feel threatened in any way,” said Mr Stoltenberg.

US President Joe Biden said last month that he wouldn’t “make it easier” for Ukraine to join Nato.

“There’s standards that the alliance sets for all members and the President had made clear that Ukraine would need to make those reforms,” said US ambassador to Nato Julianne Smith.

One compromise that has been put forward has been to remove the necessity for Ukraine to follow a Membership Action Plan or MAP, a set of military and democratic reforms that had been stated as necessary as part of Ukraine’s accession to Nato in 2008.

Mr Biden has signalled that he would be open to such a possibility, which would give allies more flexibility to decide at what point Ukraine has implemented enough reforms and can join the club.

Ultimately, the European diplomat said, the decision about enabling Ukraine’s accession path to Nato is highly political.

“This MAP was invented for applicants in central and Eastern Europe, but it’s not a rule. It’s just an instrument created later,” they said. “Nobody suggested a MAP to Sweden and Finland.”

Sweden and Finland filed a joint request to join Nato in May 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Finland became a full member in April, but Sweden’s path is still being blocked by Turkey, which has demanded a Swedish crackdown on Kurdish movements.

Discussions are set to continue during a meeting on the eve of the Vilnius summit on Monday afternoon between Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Updated: July 07, 2023, 6:13 PM