The NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania raised high hopes for Ukraine being given a clear path and timetable for admission to the alliance. Instead, the invitation did not materialize, and the summit at times erupted in tensions between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and NATO leaders. Is Western support for Ukraine flagging, and what does this mean for the future of Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia’s invasion?
The results on Tuesday, the summit’s first day, were widely regarded as a disappointment for Ukraine and Zelenskyy. The NATO communiqué stated that “we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.” While this is clearer than the general intent to invite Ukraine to join first expressed in 2008, it is still fairly vague. Zelenskyy tweeted that it was “unprecedented and absurd” not to set a time frame for the invitation and suggested NATO was showing “weakness.”
The Biden administration was reportedly furious. Some comments from the British and American side suggested that Ukraine should show more gratitude for its allies’ help. Such clashes are music to the ears of Russian propagandists, who were quick to gloat about Ukraine getting snubbed.
Meanwhile, some who fault President Joe Biden for not being sufficiently hawkish on Ukraine have lambasted him for blocking Ukraine’s NATO invitation out of misguided reluctance to antagonize Vladimir Putin. But that’s almost certainly an oversimplification. A more specific NATO offer would have required all members to sign on. But with resistance from Hungary’s Putin-friendly Viktor Orbán, and with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreeing only in general terms that Ukraine should be in NATO, this was not happening — especially with the country still fighting a war.
Yet by the summit’s end on Wednesday, there seemed to be a growing consensus that the results were on the whole favorable to Ukraine. Zelenskyy himself sounded surprisingly positive about the outcome. Expatriate Russian lawyer and politician Mark Feygin, an outspoken Ukraine supporter, said on a YouTube news program that Ukraine was “100 steps closer” to admission to NATO. Biden, in his joint appearance with Zelenskyy, said he would support its NATO admission “an hour and twenty minutes” after the war ends.
Steps forward include the NATO-Ukraine council, which Ukraine will be able to convene when it has emergency security concerns. Ukraine has also received new long-term security commitments from the Group of Seven coalition of leading industrial nations.
And that’s not to mention new pledges, and deliveries, of weapons. That includes long-range missiles, which would be a game-changer. It also includes the controversial decision by the U.S. to send Ukraine cluster munitions — a step the Biden administration has taken despite strenuous objections from some allies abroad and some Democrats at home. It was the right decision: Cluster munitions — explosive weapons that release smaller submunitions — can help solve Ukraine’s acute firepower shortage. While there are valid concerns about the danger posed to civilians by unexploded shells, Ukraine will be in a good position to neutralize worries since it will be using the cluster munitions on its own territory.
Ukrainians and their supporters are still understandably frustrated by the often-slow pace of aid that has made Ukraine’s push to liberate its land more grinding and more dangerous. But if Putin hopes to win by waiting until international support for Ukraine wears thin, the NATO summit sends a signal that this is a losing strategy.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.