man at podium

Ukraine wins G7 security pledges but its path to NATO membership remains unclear 

​​​​​​​A two-day NATO summit wraps up on Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania. The 31-nation military alliance now has plans to grow, with Sweden expected to become a full-fledged member. Ukraine is eager to join as well, and its membership bid was at the top of the NATO summit agenda.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrived to a hero’s welcome on Tuesday in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where world leaders met for the two-day NATO summit.

Zelenskiy thanked Lithuanians for supporting Ukraine in the face of Russia's invasion but his main message going into the NATO summit was clear: “Ukraine makes NATO stronger.”

Currently, 31 countries are part of the NATO alliance, and Ukraine’s status with the group was the top agenda item on Wednesday.  

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, said on Wednesday that Ukraine will join NATO, but the details are ambiguous. 

“We will issue an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, when allies agree and conditions are met,” he said.

Zelenskiy responded on Twitter, saying that it’s “absurd” when a “time frame is not set, neither for the invitation, nor for Ukraine's membership.”

He also wrote that “uncertainty is weakness.”

Rachel Rizzo, from the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said that Ukraine has been trying to sort out a clear path to NATO membership for years. The turning point came in 2008, at a previous NATO summit in Romania.

“What happened in 2008 under pressure from then-President George Bush, was NATO allies agreed that Ukraine and Georgia, at the time, would eventually become members of the alliance, but they made no clear plan or pathway as to when or how that might happen,” she said.

NATO member states have rushed to assist Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country on Feb. 24, 2022, but the pathway to join the alliance remains uncertain.  

At this week’s summit, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was asked about President Joe Biden’s position on Ukraine joining NATO. 

“The president [Joe Biden] said, quite simply, that he’s not prepared to have Ukraine in NATO now because it would mean that the United States and NATO would be at war with Russia ... ”

Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor

“The president said, quite simply, that he’s not prepared to have Ukraine in NATO now because it would mean that the United States and NATO would be at war with Russia now, and he also pointed out that every country joining NATO needs to take on a set of reforms, democratic and other reforms, and that Ukraine has made progress on this path but there’s more progress to make.” 

Rizzo explained that the power of joining NATO comes from something called Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which “basically says an attack against one is an attack against all, and obliges countries by treaty to come to the defense of an ally should they be attacked.”

In Ukraine’s case though, the country is currently at war with Russian forces occupying large swaths of its territory. So, NATO allies have embraced Ukraine as a partner, saying that its future is with NATO, but the timeline remains open-ended.

“What the communique said was that Ukraine can join NATO when all allies agree and when certain conditions are met; that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. That is not the clear pathway or the clear timeline that Zelenskiy was hoping for,” Rizzo said.

Still, Ukraine is not walking away from Vilnius empty-handed. Zelenskiy acknowledged that on Wednesday when he said, “The results of the summit are good.”

NATO is creating a new council to strengthen ties with Ukraine. It’s also streamlining the process for Ukraine to join the alliance by waiving something called the “membership action plan.”

And finally, new security guarantees were announced for Ukraine. The G7 nations are now pledging long-term military assistance for Ukraine’s self-defense.    

Related: Russia and Ukraine engage in prisoner swaps to retrieve their own fighters

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