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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


NATO’s annual summit has been and gone. The national delegations have returned to their home countries, dispersing like a bag of marbles emptied across a parquet floor. NATO leaders predictably try to portray the summit as a success. Media hacks, equally as predictably, raise their doubts.

The main item on the agenda was always going to be Ukraine. The tone shifted midway through the two-day summit. On Tuesday the dominant note seemed to be one of frustration: Volodomyr Zelenskyy said it was ‘absurd’ that Ukraine wasn’t being given a proper timescale and clear path to membership. Yesterday, on the other hand, Ukraine’s leader left Vilnius sounding decidedly upbeat, full of grace and gratitude to NATO members.

The summit ended with a ‘great positive’, said Zelenskyy, expressing gratitude to the US after his bilateral with President Joe Biden. He seemed grateful, too, for a declaration from G7 leaders pledging further security, economic, technical and financial support. Zelenskyy expressed confidence Ukraine would be invited to join NATO soon after the war ends.

The moods were back to front: Tuesday’s child is supposed to be the one full of grace, and Wednesday’s full of woe… but never mind.

Ukraine and NATO

In the past I have argued against NATO enlargements, and would have urged caution on Ukraine’s prospective membership prior to last February, but the situation has changed dramatically. Not inviting Ukraine into the alliance after the war would seem a contemptible insult to Ukrainians, where support for joining NATO has soared since Russia’s large-scale invasion.

No one expected NATO to admit Ukraine right away and that was apparent going into this week’s summit. Last month, Germany’s foreign minister ruled out the accession of Ukraine while the war is ongoing, while France’s president said the priority for the summit was ‘something between security guarantees [for Ukraine] and full-fledged membership.’ There should be a ‘path to membership,’ Emmanuel Macron added. Most importantly, the US is also known to be lukewarm on any quick accession of Ukraine. The US, after all, is the crucial voice here – and Biden has called it ‘premature’ to admit Ukraine.

What was needed in Vilnius was a step forward from previous statements on Ukraine’s ambitions. Did that happen?

The woe of Tuesday was provoked by the communiqué issued at the end of the day. Many of us were underwhelmed. The alliance first promised Ukraine future membership at its equivalent summit in 2008 and it is worth recalling the context of that initial promise.

In Bucharest the allies ‘agreed that [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.’ The declaration satisfied few at the time – the Americans had wanted to give Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), but France and Germany were nervous of how Russia would react – but the concrete promise of future membership was an unprecedented one. It may also have been an unhelpful compromise. I agree with Samuel Charap and Timothy Colton’s assessment that ‘the decision was the worst of all worlds: while providing no increased security to Ukraine and Georgia, the Bucharest Declaration reinforced the view in Moscow that NATO was determined to incorporate them at any cost' (2017, p.88). Within the alliance itself, many frankly saw it as little more than a sop to Ukraine that committed them to doing little. When the crisis in Ukraine broke some years later, Ukraine was not likely to join NATO any time soon.

The bad communiqué

On Tuesday NATO’s communique reaffirmed its claim that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. Then it added two relevant new clauses. The first, which NATO leaders framed in highly positive language, was to remove the requirement for a MAP altogether. Ukraine has ‘moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan.’ Moved beyond… progress... a shift from ‘a two-step process to a one-step process,’ boasted the NATO Secretary-General. I’m not convinced the language was right. The thing about a MAP is that diplomats and NATO bureaucrats will have a mental template of what the aspirant member’s path to accession looks like, albeit one carefully tailored to Ukraine’s circumstances. (There may not have been a MAP for Finland or Sweden, but their starting position has been very different; they did not need to implement any significant reforms prior to accession.)

The second clause was the real problem though. It read: ‘We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.’ (Let’s ignore the clumsy and unhelpful ‘we will be in a position to…’ and assume it means ‘we will…’.) The alliance had removed the need for a MAP – and introduced unspecified ‘conditions’. That really could mean anything its members want it to! And the clause just underlines that there is currently no agreement on when Ukraine might become a member.

What’s more, the notion of allies agreeing and conditions being met was already the case, even before 2008. It was already the case because the North Atlantic Treaty, the founding text of NATO, says it. Article 10 says that members ‘may, by unanimous agreement, invite any European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty… to accede to this Treaty.’ The alliance’s founding treaty, in other words, already affirms that a state can accede to NATO if allies agree, and it can do so only if conditions are met (i.e. if the aspirant state is in a position to further the treaty’s principles, which is to say the ones mentioned in its preamble, such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law).

The basic effect of the second new clause was to cancel out the positive spin of the first. The allies might as well have said that they will extend an invitation to Russia to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met. Would that actually be inaccurate in any way?

It may be that it was a matter of poor drafting. Long hours will have gone into preparing the text, wordings will have been negotiated back and forth, and the final phrasing of these documents is often necessarily ambiguous. But the reaction on Tuesday showed it completely missed its mark. Given that there’s a war on, I feel like the communique was a step backward in relative terms from the declaration made in 2008 (and reiterated in summit declarations since). But as I say, the mood shifted overnight into Wednesday and Zelenskyy sounded content with the assurances he had been given.

Russia's nuclear threat

Why has the US been so cautious about bringing Ukraine into NATO? My guess would be that this concerns agreements and understandings, explicit or implicit, they have with Russia. The Americans have connected their caution on Ukraine to the risk of nuclear war. That is no small risk, certainly, and unspoken conventions are needful in this area.

At this point, my thinking turns a little bit 'Dr Strangelove'. I have written out another few paragraphs on how the US and its NATO allies could be challenging, and changing, the beliefs and expectations of their Russian counterparts round the use of nuclear weapons. However, I am going to let those paragraphs rest in my mind for a day or two - even without very many readers I feel a sense of responsibility about musing on nuclear strategy.

The summit also inaugurated a new NATO-Ukraine Council where Ukraine will be 'an equal' of members and take joint decisions. What the council amounts to remains to be seen, but its name inevitably recalls the failed NATO-Russia Council. An unfortunate similarity.

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