VILNIUS — NATO didn’t give Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy what he was looking for, but on Wednesday he toned down his public anger over the alliance’s cautious stance on Kyiv’s membership bid.
“Nobody is willing to have a world war, which is logical and understandable,” Zelenskyy told reporters gathered at the NATO leaders’ summit in Vilnius, speaking through an interpreter.
The Ukrainian leader’s muted tone contrasted sharply with his messaging from a day earlier, when he blasted a NATO leaders’ communiqué as “absurd” for not providing Kyiv with a timeline and concrete path to membership.
On Wednesday, rather than fixate on the terms under which the alliance would accept Ukraine once the war ends, the Ukrainian president praised Western capitals for offering Kyiv security assurances while insisting that the ultimate goal for Ukraine remains NATO accession.
The assurances “will surely become a very important and specific success,” he said. “We can state that the results of the summit are good,” he said, but an invitation would be “optimum.”
A number of Western capitals are offering Ukraine assurances that they will keep supporting the country with weapons, equipment and money. The move, a G7 declaration set to be published on Wednesday afternoon, is designed as a gesture of long-term support for Kyiv, with details to be hashed out later.
That level of support was enough to anger Moscow. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the guarantees “misguided and potentially dangerous.”
“By providing guarantees for Ukraine’s security, they are encroaching on Russia’s security,” he said.
Opening the door
Kyiv has lobbied for months for NATO to issue Ukraine a political invitation, or at least a strong gesture that it is committed to admitting the country once the war ends — showing ordinary Ukrainians and Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine’s future is in NATO.
Ukraine wanted an “invitation as a signal to Putin that [the] issue is closed,” said a Ukrainian official familiar with the negotiations.
In a 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO gave Ukraine a vague promise that it will become a member of the alliance and said that the next step would be a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) to work on political and defense reforms.
Despite Kyiv’s demands, the U.S. and Germany have opposed granting Ukraine a concrete path to automatic membership when the war ends. Some Western officials have pointed to the need for further reforms, arguing that there is a need to focus on practical support for Ukraine now and to leave big decisions until after the war.
“We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met,” the leaders wrote in a summit communiqué, published Tuesday evening.
In Vilnius, the leaders also agreed to drop the requirement for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) and to create a multiyear program to help Ukrainian forces transition to Western standards as well as setting up a new forum for discussions with Kyiv, dubbed the NATO-Ukraine Council.
Zelenskyy said he was grateful for the guarantees, but wanted concrete details.
“I would also like to draw your attention to the wording regarding the ‘conditions’ that we must meet in order to receive an invitation to NATO. The absolute majority of our people expect specifics about these conditions,” he tweeted.
NATO officials argued that the moves represent progress, and that removing the need for a MAP turns Kyiv’s road to membership from a two-step to a one-step process.
But Ukrainian officials were unhappy with the communiqué — both due to the lack of a timeline and what they interpret as vague language.
Conditions are “not clear” and the annual plans described in the document are “not connected to membership,” the Ukrainian official said.
And there are now fears among Ukrainian decision-makers that Germany and others want to use potential NATO membership as a bargaining chip in any future peace talks with Russia, the Ukrainian official said, adding that there is a “feeling that there’s something else we don’t know” behind discussions.
On Wednesday, however, Zelenskyy presented a positive interpretation of NATO’s decision to drop the MAP.
Standing next to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Zelenskyy said: “I would like to extend words of gratitude to you, Jens, for this important step.”
Words of caution
The change in tone came after officials from some of Ukraine’s closest partners signaled that his public criticism might have gone too far.
“There’s a slight word of caution here,” said British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. “Whether you like it or not, people want to see gratitude.”
Kyiv, the British politician insisted, did get progress in Vilnius.
“The win here for Ukraine is the sort of cultural acceptance that Ukraine belongs to NATO,” Wallace said. “The word ‘belongs’ implies fate, implies it is going to happen. It is not an if, it is a when.”
Senior politicians in Vilnius conceded that Ukraine did not get exactly what it wanted, but argued that Kyiv is still going home with significant support.
“It is quite a big step,” Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told POLITICO on Wednesday. “But I can also understand that — having gone to Kyiv and seen what’s going on — I can very well understand that they are impatient.”
Zelenskyy faces domestic political and economic pressure over the offer he brings back from Vilnius.
Some Ukrainian economists are afraid that only NATO membership will provide the security needed to attract investments to rebuild the country.
“Only a clear signal of Ukraine joining NATO could be a real guarantee of security for large investments in the country. Yesterday, unfortunately, Ukraine was told that NATO is afraid to give such a signal,” said Hlib Vyshlinsky, executive director of the Center for Economic Strategy, a think tank based in Kyiv. “This carries a real threat of turning Ukraine into an underdeveloped weak gray zone and a constant threat to the security of Europe.”
But there is also realism about what the Western allies could offer while Ukraine battles Russian troops.
“NATO states agreed to cancel the MAP for Ukraine. That will greatly simplify Ukraine’s accession to NATO after the war. And this is a plus. This is the best we could get at this point. Simply if you proceed from reality, and not from wishes and magical thinking,” Sergey Fursa, deputy director of the Kyiv-based Dragon Capital Investment Company, wrote in a Facebook post.
Laura Kayali, Cristina Gallardo and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting from Vilnius, Veronika Melkozerova contributed from Kyiv.
This article has been updated.