Heading into this week’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, President Biden has made one thing plain: Ukraine won’t be joining the alliance any time soon, no matter how badly it might want to.
“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” Biden bluntly told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an interview that aired over the weekend.
Still, questions about Kyiv’s future with the defense bloc will loom large over the conference, which begins on Tuesday. In its leadup, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pushed hard for a “clear invitation” to at least begin the process of joining NATO, and recently told ABC News that his country “should get clear security guarantees” until it becomes a member.
For now, Ukraine seems far from guaranteed to come away with the kind of concrete membership invitation it so badly desires, given divisions within the alliance on how to handle its bid. But major new security assurances do appear to be in the works.
At the moment, the U.S. and its allies are intensively hashing out language for the NATO communique that will address the path forward for Kyiv’s membership in the alliance. It’s unclear how specific the document will get, or whether it will even go beyond the vague 2008 Bucharest declaration that Ukraine “will” become a member of the alliance at some point.
Bill Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said officials are debating whether to voice support for adding Ukraine by next year’s NATO summit, or to wait until its war with Russia officially ends. Many alliance members don’t believe Kyiv should be allowed to formally join the alliance while hostilities with Moscow rage on because that would embroil NATO directly in the conflict.
Biden seemed to side with that position during his interview with CNN, while calling for a “rational path” for Kyiv to join. “I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” he said. “If the war is going on, then we’re all in the war. We’re at war with Russia.”
Things are looking brighter for Ukraine when it comes to defense pledges. The Group of Seven nations are working on a package of what one European diplomat described as bilateral “security assurances” for Ukraine in lieu of the guarantees offered by Article V of the NATO treaty. Biden told CNN that the U.S. would provide Ukraine weapons like it does for Israel.
“The concept is that the United States, alongside other allies and partners within a multilateral framework, will negotiate bilateral security commitments with Ukraine for the long term,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday, adding that it would include military assistance as well as intelligence sharing and cybersecurity support. He also acknowledged that such an arrangement would require approval from Congress.
NATO also plans to announce a multiyear assistance package for Ukraine, according to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and establish a new NATO-Ukraine defense council.
On the weapons front, Ukraine looks like it won’t come away with everything it’s been asking for even after successfully persuading the U.S. to transfer controversial cluster munitions.
The White House has been consistently reluctant to send the long-range missile systems known as ATACMS to Ukraine, which could help it launch attacks deeper into Russian-held territory. Kyiv is also pressing for the quicker delivery of F-16s.
But for Kyiv, the most important question may be how long they can count on any new security pledges to last. “The Ukrainians want to hear ‘for as long as it takes until we win,’” Taylor said. “They want to hear that the goal is actually victory.”
Room for Disagreement
Countries on NATO’s eastern flank have argued that the summit should set Ukraine on a clear path to membership. There’s always the chance that something surprising happens, either when it comes to the details of the communique or the security pledges. And the basic idea of Ukraine fostering closer ties with the alliance unites member nations, even if they don’t agree on some of the specifics.. Stoltenberg said last week that the outcome of the summit would “bring Ukraine closer to NATO.”