/ 19 July 2023

Vilnius summit: The complex path to Ukraine’s Nato membership

Ukraine Nato
An inscription about Vilnius and Ukraine is seen displayed on a bus a day after the NATO Summit in the city, in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 13, 2023. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Despite intense campaigning and pleading by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Vilnius summit did not give any timetable for Ukraine’s path towards its membership, with Nato merely stating in paragraph 11 of its official communique that “Ukraine’s future is in Nato”. 

The absence of clearly defined timelines and conditions for Ukraine’s accession was projected by the media as a setback for Zelenskiy, who had harboured hopes that the Nato summit would culminate in a concrete invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance. 

Ostensibly, the lack of such an invitation reflects the “cautious” approach taken by Nato member states, who remain wary of “provoking” further tensions with Russia. However, Nato has given much more than what Zelenskiy had expected from the Vilnius summit — unwavering pledges for extremely generous financial and military assistance to Kyiv as well as the creation of the Nato-Ukraine council. 

The Vilnius summit underscored the undeniable reality of Ukraine’s position in the European arena. Zelenskiy may not have received the invitation, but the summit yielded a series of substantial victories for Ukraine. Notably, Ukraine has secured a commitment of military and economic aid from the G7, while also embarking on F-16 fighter jet training in collaboration with 11 partner countries. Germany, too, has pledged an impressive €700 million in additional military assistance. 

The formal confirmation that “Ukraine’s future is in Nato” solidifies the nature of the partnership between Ukraine and the alliance. Similarly, certain Nato members are determined to manifest its significance in alternative manners, such as through the establishment of enduring security guarantees, reminiscent of the United States’ longstanding alliance with Israel, which receives $3.8 billion in annual military aid from Washington. US President Joe Biden expressed willingness for such an arrangement, conditional upon the existence of a ceasefire and a peace accord. Reports indicate that the United Kingdom, France and Germany are contemplating similar assurances.

With the inception of the Nato-Ukraine council, Kyiv and the alliance’s 31 members will have a dedicated platform for consultation and joint decision-making. Beyond its consultative function, the council will also serve as a vital mechanism for crisis management, enabling Kyiv to summon urgent meetings when necessary. The objective of the council is to bolster the extent of Ukraine’s collaboration with the alliance, enhancing a deeper and closer partnership by enhancing channels of communication. But the council’s establishment may inversely exacerbate tensions in the region

It is being viewed by Moscow as an indirect attempt to grant Ukraine a symbolic “seat at the table” without conferring formal membership status. The council’s formation seems to be a calculated manoeuvre to further isolate Russia and expand Nato’s influence. While the Nato-Ukraine council may be seen as a symbolic gesture of support for Ukraine’s aspirations, its implications and potential consequences for regional stability cannot be overlooked. Critics argue that the trans-Atlantic alliance has once again revealed its expansionist agenda eastwards, which may further aggravate the tensions in Europe. The crisis meetings that Kyiv can convene through the council are considered to be a thinly veiled attempt to further stoke tensions and provoke Russia.

In 2008, Nato indicated that Ukraine could potentially join the alliance at a later time, but when Ukraine requested “fast-track” membership in September 2022, it was declined. 

The reluctance to expedite Ukraine’s entry into Nato is rooted in the potential implications of Article 5 in Nato’s charter, which mandates that an attack on one member would trigger a collective defence response from all others. If Ukraine were to join Nato amid the ongoing conflict with Russia, it would necessitate all Nato member countries declaring war on Russia. 

During the Vilnius summit, Nato reiterated that Ukraine would be invited to join as a member “when allies agree and conditions are met”, indicating that the decision is contingent upon consensus and fulfilment of specific criteria. But, on this matter, Nato has again given a big concession by allowing Ukraine to bypass the Membership Action Plan, a step in the entry process. 

Zelenskiy has strategically used this dilemma as a bargaining chip to exert pressure on Nato leadership, seeking additional concessions and favours. By leveraging the unresolved question of Nato membership, Zelenskiy aims to secure advantageous outcomes beyond the realm of immediate membership. 

The Vilnius summit revolved around the issue of Russia and the imperative of preventing it from posing an enduring security challenge to Europe. The gathering remained focused on strategies to curtail Russia’s influence in the backyard of Europe — particularly against the backdrop of the Wagner “attempted mutiny”.

Another key dilemma facing Nato lies in determining the circumstances under which Ukraine could potentially join the alliance — a decision that hinges not only on when the war concludes, but also on how it ends. 

Determining when this war has truly ended poses a considerable challenge to the Nato leadership. Complicating matters further is the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have a serious interest in perpetuating a “frozen” conflict with Ukraine, viewing the nation-state as fictitious and leveraging it for political legitimacy. 

This conundrum raises important questions about the nature of the conflict and its potential resolution. Can a definitive end be achieved when one party has a strategic stake in a prolonged and unresolved confrontation? Moreover, the conflict’s intricacies intertwine with complex geopolitical dynamics, historical narratives and competing national identities. 

Ukraine’s path to Nato membership entails grappling with the complexities of the war’s conclusion and the motives driving Russia’s actions. Thus far, Nato has discussed the end of the war as a clean and definitive moment, but such a scenario is far from guaranteed. 

If the end of the conflict resembles a “frozen conflict” akin to the situation between Moldova and the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria, where Moscow retains the ability to manipulate tensions at will, Ukraine’s aspirations for Nato membership could face significant hurdles for an extended period, possibly spanning years or even decades. 

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. He qualified as a physician from Dow Medical University in 1991 and has a master’s degree in international relations from Karachi University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.