VILNIUS — Ukraine wanted this year’s NATO summit to end with a clear declaration that it will become an alliance member once the war ends, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is leaving Lithuania without that ultimate prize.
For weeks, Ukrainian officials pushed their counterparts in the United States and Europe to draft language that offered a timeline and clear path toward membership. The communiqué allies released Tuesday fell short of that, stating instead that “we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine when allies agree and conditions are met.”
That line proved a deep disappointment for Kyiv, which raged behind the scenes as the U.S. and Germany resisted pressure to offer Ukraine concrete pledges. It was particularly upset at the vague reference to conditions, seeing it as a potential arbitrary roadblock to membership.
Ukraine’s leadership reached out to Washington and Berlin to make its displeasure felt, ending in Zelenskyy firing off an irritated tweet on Tuesday referring to the confidential draft text as “unprecedented and absurd.”
“It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” the president fumed to his 7.3 million followers.
The battle over the communiqué left Kyiv unhappy with the process.
Ukrainians were “disappointed with how NATO works” and felt there was “no real dialogue” with the alliance on the issue, said a Ukrainian official familiar with the negotiations.
Ukraine’s backers, to the tune of billions in military and economic assistance, were blindsided by Zelenskyy’s anger.
Even some of Kyiv’s closest friends within NATO were taken aback, seeing the blunt social media criticism from Ukraine’s president as unhelpful and unwarranted during the sensitive diplomatic negotiations.
“We take the tweet as an unfortunate expression of frustration,” said a senior diplomat from Northern Europe.
The tweet, coming just as NATO leaders were preparing to meet in Vilnius, added more tension to diplomats’ last-minute efforts to finalize the contentious text, which was ultimately published on Tuesday evening.
“We saw his tweet same time as everyone else did,” said a senior Biden administration official. “I think everyone understands the pressure he is feeling, and we’re confident that the commitments made at Vilnius will serve the long-term defense needs of Ukraine.”
But by Wednesday, everyone was making an effort to tone down emotions.
Officials highlighted the package NATO leaders agreed for Ukraine, which includes a multiyear program to help forces transition to Western standards and the creation of a new NATO-Ukraine Council, along with a decision to drop the need for a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) — a path of reforms ahead of joining.
And in a gesture intended to underline Western governments’ backing for the Ukrainian cause, G7 leaders issued a declaration on Wednesday afternoon on long-term security commitments for Ukraine. That will see governments making bilateral deals to provide security assistance, training and other support.
“I believe the package for Ukraine is good and a solid basis for a closer relationship on the path to membership,” said the senior diplomat from Northern Europe.
An angry Kremlin said of the G7 action: “We believe that it’s a mistake and it can be very dangerous.”
In the end, the specter of Russia’s aggression proved to be a unifying force.
“The tweet did not change anything in that sense,” the senior diplomat said, adding that the G7 declaration was “also positive and many allies already said they will join” and that “the mood today was very warm and friendly.”
French officials, meanwhile, were keen to showcase understanding and empathy for the Ukrainian leader.
“He’s in his role as head of a state at war and war chief. He’s putting pressure on the allies,” French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu told French TV on Tuesday.
“You have to put yourself in his shoes, there was a commitment in Bucharest, and we know what happened next,” he added, referring to a NATO summit in 2008 when the military alliance made vague promises Ukraine would eventually become a member.
For French President Emmanuel Macron, the Vilnius summit was a key moment to show unwavering support for Kyiv — after months of being perceived by Central and Eastern European leaders as being too conciliatory to Moscow.
“It’s legitimate for the Ukrainian president to be demanding with us,” Macron told reporters on Wednesday.
On the Ukrainian side, there was also an acknowledgment that Wednesday’s talks brightened the mood.
“The meetings with the NATO leaders were really good,” said the Ukrainian official. The country “got the clear signals that our membership in NATO will not be a bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia … this was the main fear.”
“So, despite the lack of clarity in the text of declaration on Ukraine’s membership path, the meetings showed that there is the commitment to deepen the relations,” the official said. But, they noted: “Of course, it’s not the same as clear fixed commitment in the joint declaration.”
Zelenskyy himself, who was in Vilnius to attend the first meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, also took a more positive tone in press appearances, expressing his thanks for the decision to drop the MAP requirement, gratitude for allies and praising the G7 commitments.
“I haven’t changed my point of view,” he insisted when probed about the difference in tone from the previous day.
“What’s most important is that we have a common understanding on the conditions on when and under which conditions Ukraine would be in NATO — maybe not all the details were communicated, but for me it was very important that it depends on the security.”
And asked about fears in Kyiv that NATO membership could end up as a chip in future negotiations with Russia, he was firm that this would not be acceptable.
“I’m sure that there won’t be betrayal from [U.S. President Joe] Biden or [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz,” Zelenskyy said, “but still I need to say that we will never exchange any status for any of our territories — even if it’s only one village with the population of one old man.”
Speaking to a crowd in Vilnius on Wednesday evening, Biden stressed that the West is there for Kyiv.
“We will not waver. I mean that. Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken,” Biden said.
And as the summit wrapped up, many officials were quick to try to put the tensions behind them.
“I consider this episode closed,” said a senior diplomat from Eastern Europe. “It is more important to look forward. We have a process in front of us. Let’s work on it!”
“It’s all ended well,” quipped a senior NATO official, adding: “that will do for me”
Laura Kayali and Alex Ward contributed reporting.