Vilnius NATO Summit: Is an Ambitious Agenda for Ukraine Possible?

Kyiv looks to NATO capitals for assurances, but disagreements remain sharp

15 June 2023

Hennadiy Maksak

Future of Ukraine Fellow

NATO allies are split on how to incorporate and support Ukraine during the ongoing Russian aggression, but enhanced, more tailored cooperation can be expected at the upcoming summit in Vilnius.

In July 2023, in Vilnius, NATO will hold its second summit during Russia’s full-scale attack against Ukraine. Echoing the summer temperatures in Lithuania, this assembly will feature heated debates.

Against the wartime backdrop, the allies will discuss additional measures for defence and deterrence while taking stock of military capabilities in all dimensions of the battlefield. One may expect some forward-looking decisions on the enhanced military presence of the Alliance on the Eastern flank, intensified multinational military drills and joint initiatives to boost defence industries in NATO members.

But what still lies beyond the scope of compromise is the destiny of Ukraine. The level of support and Ukraine’s potential accession process are the issues that will generate a lot of discord among the group.

Current stakes for Ukraine-NATO relations

Ironically, the spectrum of ideas popping up in the run-up to the Vilnius Summit is becoming wider. With every new day, the level of discussion on the potential outline of the place of Ukraine in NATO takes new heights. The recent NATO ministerial in Oslo (Norway), which is one of the last preparatory senior-level meetings in the run-up to the summit, has also been focused on  “how to step up and sustain the support for Ukraine.”

The NATO-Ukraine agenda is quite wide, but it is very interconnected at the same time. Ukraine expects the member states to provide clear answers on the following legitimate requests:

  • prospects and timeframe for Ukraine to join NATO;
  • tangible security guarantees to Ukraine from NATO or its allies for the period before NATO accession;
  • revisited and empowered assistance from NATO to Ukraine;
  • a new shape for an institutional and normative basis for bilateral cooperation between the Alliance and Ukraine.

There are many political limitations to this Ukrainian agenda within internal discussions between the Allies. Let us walk along these proposals and find out what is possible to achieve during the Vilnius Summit in July 2022.

Membership perspective: delayed but scheduled after victory

On a political level, in September 2022, the Ukrainian President, Prime Minister and Head of the Verkhovna Rada signed the application to join NATO. Unsurprisingly enough, this application was met quite lukewarmly in NATO capitals due to serious discrepancies in national positions of allies and overarching fears of being involved in direct confrontation with Russia.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian authorities have continued to advocate for this option since autumn. Contrary to the broad public advocacy campaign for the EU candidacy status, Kyiv has approached allies mostly on the level of closed diplomatic consultations. Such an approach was complemented by the Ukrainian drive for signing bilateral declarations with NATO allies about the accession perspective, as well as strong empowerment of the parliamentary track, including UNIC.

At this moment, while Ukraine is still in a full-fledged war, the Alliance will be reluctant to open any negotiation process in order to avoid being directly dragged into a military conflict with Russia. At the same time, Kyiv and its partners among NATO allies continue communicating on the formula for a clear path to “bring Ukraine’s accession to the Alliance closer“.

In Kyiv, there is no illusion that Ukraine would obtain membership before the Russian-Ukraininan war is over, yet the Vilnius declaration should explicitly pave the way for potential membership. If NATO members fall short of delivering a clear signal in this regard, top-level Ukrainian officials may refrain from participation in the summit.

Allies still have no agreed approach to what this formula might entail. For example, a statement from 19 parliamentary foreign affairs committee chairs of NATO members called for “a clear path for Ukrainian accession to NATO and clear and strong security guarantees for Ukraine.” This parliamentary statement, adopted at the beginning of June 2023, is demonstrative in terms of political division, as slightly over one-third of allies are wary about any straightforward decision.

Assurances and guarantees

It is also evident that not only Ukraine but a significant part of NATO allies expect the decision to be taken about guarantees for Ukraine during wartime when the comprehensive accession process is out of the political agenda.

Many experts from allied states point out that the summit outcomes will witness some security guarantees; if not on the collective level of the Alliance, then surely by individual allies or their groups. Some voices are strongly proposing President Zelenskyy’s Peace Formula and Kyiv Security Compact as a concept for temporary application by NATO members before Ukraine fully affiliates with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Some oil into the fire was poured by former NATO Secretary General Rassmussen, who recently voiced his potential formula of interim security guarantees to Ukraine. It implied that some allies would go for the provision of security and defence guarantees.

His argument echoes the security guarantees granted by Great Britain to Sweden and Finland during the period of completing the accession procedures for NATO membership.

Most certainly, it is not a bare assumption only to flirt with the media, as Rasmussen played a crucial role in the elaboration of the Kyiv Security Compact, the concept which was specifically designed to look into modalities of possible security guarantees. On the one hand, it may be a diplomatic step of Rassmussen to influence the negotiation process. On the other, it might be a clear signal that Ukraine might become a trigger for emerging subregional defence coalitions among NATO allies.

An obsolete map for MAP

Many expert and diplomatic sources from the NATO allies confirm the preliminary agreement about the upgrade of the institutional basis for cooperation between NATO and Ukraine.

From the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) level, it will most certainly be elevated to the NATO-Ukraine Council. First established in 1997 with the framework of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, in 2009, the NUC was the main platform for assessing the progress of the Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine. One has to admit that, since 2014, the NUC format has been used by Ukraine to discuss the challenges posed by Russian aggression with the NATO allies.

In the most recent case, the NATO-Ukraine Commission was summoned on Ukraine’s request on 8 June, 20023, after the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. But this shift from the commission to the council is a symbolic gesture that does not reflect the realities on the ground in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

Another idea now aired in many Western capitals is granting Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). In the calculus of MAP’s proponents, it might be seen as a step ahead in the current level of bilateral track between the North Atlantic Alliance and Ukraine.

It may sound like an ambitious idea for a domestic audience of members of the Alliance, but they are caught by surprise that the Ukrainian side fiercely opposes this “at-first-glance” ideal solution. With support from the expert community, Kyiv points out several arguments that make the MAP granting irrelevant.

First, it is a rather obsolete approach which was used for the wave of NATO enlargement in the early 2000s for Central European, Baltic and Balkan states. After roughly a quarter of a century, this enlargement mechanism is no longer relevant and up to date.

Ukraine has experienced many formats of cooperation with the Alliance, including the NATO-Ukraine Action Plan, annual targets and later the Intensified Dialogues. Back then, when Ukraine asked about the MAP, it would have been quite an appropriate policy for NATO to grant. But the Alliance failed to deliver on time.

Since the Bucharest Summit in 2008, Ukraine has advanced its political and military cooperation with NATO and reformed itself in many sectors, which is important for trust-building and standards implementation. Under the framework of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, since 2015, Kyiv has undergone a serious domestic transformation and alignment with NATO standards.

Ukrainian authorities aligned the structure of the current Annual National Programme to the MAP frame. Thus, Ukraine unilaterally committed itself to deeper integration with the NATO requirements and procedures.

CAP+

Since the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO has proposed assistance to Ukraine under the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP), which was structured along with the thematic programmes and trust funds. The CAP played an important role in transforming the Ukrainian defence and security sector.

At the Madrid NATO Summit in 2022, Ukraine received a new enhanced assistance format under the CAP. Although it falls short in providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, the new instrument provides a range of indispensable help in times of war.

Since 2022, NATO has provided non-lethal support in the form of combat communication devices, fuels, medical supplies, military training, anti-drone equipment etc.

Under the new framework, which one may code as CAP+, the Alliance is devising a multiannual support programme for Ukraine. The scope of assistance and directions are still under wraps.

At the same time, Kyiv also appeals to individual EU member states to support Ukrainian counteroffensive needs and the overall development of its military capabilities.

Some allies provide significant assistance on the national level or under the framework of the EU’s defence initiatives. Now, Kyiv is providing detailed requests for military hardware, ammunition and training. But this kind of support will not be reflected in the summit declaration as decisions are made in other established formats like Ramstein, Copenhagen, etc.

What to expect in Vilnius

The major conclusion is that there’s still no agreed-upon approach among the allies when it comes to Ukraine.

Big diplomatic battles are still taking place in many NATO capitals. For sure, the White House in this situation appears to be a major stumbling block for any meaningful rapprochement of Ukraine to NATO. Germany and France, as very important NATO members, also try to distance themselves from clear-cut decisions in terms of a membership perspective for Ukraine. And needless to say, that other smaller member-states look carefully at the positions of big actors.

Ukraine’s path to NATO is very long and cumbersome. But the situation has changed drastically since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. While it would be fair to acknowledge that the previous cooperation between Ukraine and NATO – before the 2022 Russian escalation – helped the country survive in the first months of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the further cooperation with NATO allies prompted the Ukrainian Armed Forces to learn new standards on the fly, or, more precisely, by fighting.

Ukraine has made a clear step toward membership during this war. In September 2022, the Ukrainian application to NATO was prepared in full accordance with Alliance’s procedures. Now it’s time to reflect on the reality in Ukraine and the level of achieved advancement on the Euro-Atlantic path.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, it became obvious that NATO approaches should be transformed when it comes to the security of its allies and partners. No NATO-Ukraine Council with robust CAP+ can guarantee Ukrainians the right to live freely on their land. Yet, NATO membership can be that type of guarantee.

What is more important is that a lack of serious decisions about Ukraine can split allies way more than diplomatically hammered out positive decisions about Ukraine’s future in the NATO community.

The idea, voiced by Anders Russmussen about “a clear possibility that some countries individually might take action” if NATO fails to deliver on guarantees for Ukraine, should be assessed very soberly in many NATO capitals. Additionally, the reading of some regional coalitions of NATO members’ declarations witnesses significant differences in approaches to the case of Ukraine compared with those of the USA, France, Germany etc. “Regionalisation” and “individualization” of NATO allies do not look like solid building blocks of the new value-based European security architecture.

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Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Featured image from the Presidential Office of Ukraine. All materials featured on this site are is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International, and it can be found here.

Hennadiy Maksak

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Hennadiy Maksak is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as the founder and executive director of Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism, which enhances Ukraine’s foreign policy and international security. He served as President of the Polissya Foundation for International and Regional Studies, promoting regional cooperation and advancing Ukraine’s foreign policy agenda. Hennadiy held high-profile positions in the Ukrainian government, including Chair of the Civic Council under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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