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Wider Europe Briefing: What Ukraine Got -- And Didn't Get -- At The NATO Summit


While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy received a rock-star reception in Vilnius, many allies weren't happy with his blunt criticism. The feeling was that he went a bit over the top and was too emotional.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy received a rock-star reception in Vilnius, many allies weren't happy with his blunt criticism. The feeling was that he went a bit over the top and was too emotional.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm looking at last week's NATO summit in Vilnius. What did Ukraine actually achieve there, and how will the West help Kyiv going forward?

Brief #1: How Did Ukraine Fare At The NATO Summit In Vilnius?

What You Need To Know: NATO summits tend to be rather drab affairs. Most announcements are known well in advance and the official summit communique that runs to several pages of technocratic prose normally just gets a cursory look by disinterested media.

Not so at the Vilnius summit on July 11-12. The document was eagerly scrutinized for words indicating if or when Ukraine could join the military alliance. Emotions were running high: from the first crushing disappointment, if not downright anger, expressed by the Ukrainian leadership about what was offered to them, to a second day of reconciliation of sorts, and smiles, albeit slightly forced.

To understand what all the fuss is about, one must go back to the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 when Ukraine (as well as Georgia) got the thumbs-up to join the alliance but were offered no concrete pathway or timeline. What Kyiv and many NATO members, notably in the east, wanted in Vilnius was to go beyond the Bucharest declaration. The phrase I heard most in the run-up to the meeting was to "avoid another Bucharest."

Comparing the Vilnius and Bucharest declarations, it is fair to say that Kyiv got a "Bucharest 2.0" or perhaps a "Bucharest+." It has inched closer to NATO, but only a little. The Bucharest text stated that "NATO welcomes Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO." It then describes the way forward, by stating that "MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership." MAP, meaning Membership Action Plan, was a NATO membership waiting room of sorts that many Central and Eastern European candidates were placed in before joining, in which they had to undertake specific political and military reforms.

Deep Background: The Vilnius declaration is linguistically more forward-leaning. It states that "Ukraine's future is in NATO." It then noted that "we reaffirm the commitment we made at the 2008 summit in Bucharest that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, and today we recognize that Ukraine's path to full Euro-Atlantic integration has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan." The MAP being removed was consistent with Finland's and Sweden's routes to joining the alliance.

This new status, in the words of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, "will change Ukraine's membership path from a two-step process to a one-step process." Yet, the process isn't entirely clear, and what has truly frustrated the Ukrainians was the final sentence of that paragraph that underlines that "we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted that it's "unprecedented and absurd when [the] timeframe is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine's membership. While at the same time vague wording about "conditions" is added even for inviting Ukraine."

Drilling Down

  • Some NATO officials -- speaking on the condition of anonymity -- say that it was a miracle that the word "invitation" was included at all. This goes further than anything before, although arguably means nothing without time frames and pathways.
  • It is also interesting to note that the conditions are not spelled out. Stoltenberg was pressed on this continuously at summit press conferences, and he vaguely mentioned issues such as the need for Kyiv to "strengthen their governance, including fighting corruption." But for Zelenskiy it was clear that Ukraine will be invited once the war is over, and he said that he "hadn't heard any other opinion in the room."
  • I was told by diplomats not authorized to speak on the record that the reason why NATO didn't spell out explicitly that Ukraine will become a member upon a successful resolution of the war is that this would invite Russia to continue the fighting indefinitely, even just by rocket strikes on Ukrainian territory in a bid to constantly keep Kyiv from joining the alliance.
  • When it comes to time frames and pathways, what Ukraine's closest friends in the alliance wanted in the text -- but didn't get -- was some signposting of the next steps -- for example, an explicit mention of a NATO ministerial meeting in the fall to discuss the issue, or even making reference to taking stock of the situation at the NATO summit in Washington in July 2024.
  • In this sense, the 2008 Bucharest declaration was actually more promising. There it was stated that "we have asked foreign ministers to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting." That assessment, though, never came, as Russia's attack on Georgia in August 2008 derailed the entire process.
  • Another phrase that didn't make it into the Vilnius declaration was "Ukraine's rightful place is in NATO" -- a sentence Stoltenberg used when he visited Kyiv earlier this year. In fact, diplomats told me the declaration text had pretty much remained the same since the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Oslo in May when the outlines of the documents were first discussed behind closed doors.
  • Those outlines became what NATO, in fact, offered Ukraine in Vilnius: no MAP needed, the creation of a NATO-Ukraine Council to upgrade formal political relations, and a multiyear assistance program worth 500 million euros ($562 million) a year.
  • What was clear was that the United States, but also Germany, didn't want to go any further. When asked why, I got two explanations from various diplomats I spoke to. One was the fear of edging closer to offering Ukraine Article 5 protection -- NATO's mutual-defense clause -- that could lead the military alliance into direct confrontation with Moscow. The other was the U.S. presidential election next year. That means that it's likely little can be expected at the NATO Washington summit next summer -- which will be taking place in the middle of an election campaign.
  • With that in mind, it was interesting to watch U.S. President Joe Biden. He didn't hold a press conference, which is rather unusual for an American president attending a NATO summit, and he skipped the dinner with other heads of state and governments. He did, however, have a long sit-down with Zelenskiy and delivered a rousing speech at Vilnius University after the summit in which he said that "we will not waver, our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken. We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes."

Brief #2: How The G7 Countries Might Help Ukraine

What You Need To Know: What did lighten the mood on the second and final day of the NATO summit was the security commitments -- both political and military -- offered to Ukraine while it waits to become a full member. Just as with the summit declaration and Ukraine's membership quest, much of this is about semantics. What most NATO officials think (but don't say out loud) is that NATO can, in fact, only offer one such security guarantee -- and that is membership. And that was not on the table.

At the same time, Kyiv doesn't like the word "assurances." That was offered to Ukraine in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 by the United Kingdom, the United States, and notably Russia, in exchange for giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. These assurances ultimately meant nothing as Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and later that same year fueled a war in the eastern parts of Ukraine that eventually led to the Russian full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022.

What instead happened was that the G7 leaders, who were all gathered in Vilnius, agreed on a "joint declaration of support to Ukraine" on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Biden described it as "a powerful statement of our commitment to Ukraine as it defends its freedom today and as it rebuilds its future." And Zelenskiy, standing alongside the U.S. leader, noted that "the Ukrainian delegation is bringing home significant security victories for Ukraine, for our country, for our people, for our children."

Deep Background: Many questions still remain. What exactly is being offered by the West's leading democracies from the G7? From when does it apply? And will it be ironclad guarantees or something weaker? Looking at the G7 declaration, it is stated that "today we are launching negotiations with Ukraine to formalize -- through bilateral security commitments and arrangements aligned with this multilateral framework, in accordance with our respective legal and constitutional requirements -- our enduring support to Ukraine as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity, rebuilds its economy, protects its citizens, and pursues integration into the Euro-Atlantic community."

Two things stand out immediately. The wording "commitments and arrangements" are clearly weaker than "guarantees." On the other hand, the fact that these future bilateral deals with G7 members need to be formalized "in accordance with our respective legal and constitutional requirements" means that national parliaments in the respective G7 countries must back them. And this gives them political weight. Ultimately this will be a question about how fast these deals can be negotiated -- and how much money or arms will be sent Kyiv's way.

Drilling Down

  • Notably, the G7 statement talks about discussions starting "immediately" and that the commitments will include "ensuring sustainable force capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring Russian aggression in the future" before outlining a number of areas of support, such as air defense, artillery and long-range missiles, armored vehicles, as well as training of Ukrainian forces and boosting cybersecurity and intelligence sharing.
  • To me, the most interesting paragraph is the following: "In the event of future Russian armed attack, we intend to immediately consult with Ukraine to determine appropriate next steps. We intend, in accordance with our respective legal and constitutional requirements, to provide Ukraine with swift and sustained security assistance, modern military equipment across land, sea, and air domains, and economic assistance, to impose economic and other costs on Russia."
  • Although I didn't manage to get any real clarification from officials or analysts on what a "future Russian armed attack" means in the context of what has been an ongoing war, my reading of the text is that this sentence implies longer-term arrangements, especially in the case that a negotiated cease-fire was broken by Russia further down the road.
  • Ultimately, for now, Ukraine must rely on Western arms deliveries. In the run-up to the summit, France announced that it would supply Kyiv with long-range cruise missiles and the United States said that it would provide cluster munitions -- a move that horrified several European partners who have banned the use of them but that Zelenskiy described as "fair," noting that Russian forces have been pounding Ukraine with cluster munitions for a long time already.
  • The next question is whether the United States will send its long-range artillery weapons -- Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) -- to Ukraine. When asked, Zelenskiy said with a dry smile, "I don't know," and added, "There are conversations, but not everything at once."
  • A lot will now depend on how Ukraine is faring on the battlefield with what it has received so far. Diplomats I have spoken to concede that some sort of Ukrainian military success must arrive this year as the European Union and crucially the United States will shift focus to big elections in 2024.
  • A lot will now depend on Zelenskiy's power of persuasion. While he was getting a rock-star reception by adoring crowds wherever he went in Vilnius, many allies of Ukraine weren't particularly keen on his forthright criticism of them on Twitter. From speaking to officials from some of Ukraine's closest allies, who weren't authorized to speak on the record, the feeling was that the Ukrainian president went a bit over the top and was too emotional.
  • Perhaps the most memorable statement from the entire summit was that of British Defense Minister Ben Wallace, who is much-admired in Ukraine. He told British journalists at the summit that the U.K. was not the online retailer Amazon when it came to supplying arms and that Western countries would like to see some more gratitude for what they are doing for Kyiv. Shortly after the summit, Wallace announced that he will step down from his role at the next U.K. cabinet reshuffle, which sources told the BBC is expected in September.
  • Hanging over all of this discussion and diplomacy have been reports about U.S. back-channel negotiations with Russian officials on some sort of settlement of the war. If such talks did take place, the Biden administration has said they were not sanctioned or supported by the White House. I spoke to a few well-placed European officials who said that the United States is still considering a future status of Ukraine as a neutral, non-NATO country to be a useful bargaining chip with the Kremlin in future talks.

Looking Ahead

On July 17-18, there will be a summit between the EU and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Brussels. It's the first such meeting since 2015, and the talk in the run-up to this one has centered around the final summit declaration and the EU being supposedly upset that the CELAC countries have insisted on scrubbing the draft text of any references to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Later this week, on July 20, EU foreign ministers will gather in Brussels for their monthly meeting. Ukraine will, of course, feature prominently, but look out for their lunch discussion on Turkey and the state of play in EU-Ankara relations. Just before the NATO Vilnius summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implored the EU to revive Turkey's stalled membership bid as a precondition for Sweden joining NATO, so it's possible the ministers could discuss a potential visa deal with Ankara or ways to upgrade Turkey's aging customs union with the EU.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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