Though, despite intense campaigning and pleading by Volodymyr Zelensky, the Vilnius summit did not give any timetable for Ukraine’s path towards its membership, Nato acknowledged in paragraph 11 of its official communique that “Ukraine’s future is in Nato”.
For obvious reasons, the absence of clearly defined timelines and conditions for Ukraine’s accession was projected by the media as a personal setback for Zelensky, who had harboured hopes that the Nato summit would culminate in a concrete invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance.
Ostensibly, the lack of such an invitation reflects the “cautious” approach taken by Nato member states, who remain wary of “provoking” further tensions with Russia, but the fact is that Nato has given much more than what Zelensky had expected from the Vilnius summit: unwavering pledges for extremely generous financial and military assistance to Kyiv as well as the creation of the Nato-Ukraine Council. President Zelensky may not have received the invitation, but the summit yielded a series of substantial victories for Ukraine.
Notably, Ukraine has secured a commitment of military and economic aid, while also embarking on F-16 fighter jet training in collaboration with 11 partner countries.
Most significantly, the formal affirmation that “Ukraine’s future is in Nato” solidifies the nature of the partnership between Ukraine and the alliance.
At the same time, the Vilnius summit has yielded another significant development in relation to the Ukraine conflict: the inception of the Nato-Ukraine Council. In this major move, Kyiv and the alliance’s 31 members will have a dedicated platform for consultation and joint decision-making.
Beyond its consultative function, the council will also serve as a vital mechanism for crisis management, enabling Kyiv to summon urgent meetings when necessary.
However, the establishment of the Nato-Ukraine Council, apparently aimed at enhancing channels of communication and consultations with Ukraine, may inversely exacerbate tensions in the region. It is being viewed by Moscow as an indirect attempt to grant Ukraine a symbolic “seat at the table” without conferring formal membership status.
While the Nato-Ukraine Council may be seen as a symbolic gesture of support for Ukraine’s aspirations, its implications and potential consequences for regional stability cannot be overlooked. The crisis meetings that Kyiv can convene through this council are considered to be a thinly veiled attempt to further stoke tensions and provoke Russia.
In 2008, Nato indicated that Ukraine could potentially join the alliance at a later time, but when Ukraine requested “fast-track” membership in September 2022, it was declined.
The reluctance to expedite Ukraine’s entry into Nato is rooted in the potential implications of Article 5 in Nato’s charter, which mandates that an attack on one member would trigger a collective defence response from all others. If Ukraine were to join amid the ongoing conflict with Russia, it would necessitate all Nato member countries declaring war on Russia.
During the Vilnius summit, Nato reiterated that Ukraine would be invited to join as a member “when allies agree and conditions are met,” indicating that the decision is contingent upon consensus and fulfilment of specific criteria.
However, on this matter, Nato has again given a big concession by allowing Ukraine to bypass the Membership Action Plan, a step in the entry process.
Another key dilemma facing Nato in the foreseeable future lies in determining the circumstances under which Ukraine could potentially join the alliance — a decision that hinges not only on when the war concludes, but also on how it concludes. Complicating matters further is the fact that Putin may have a serious interest in perpetuating a “frozen” conflict with Ukraine, viewing the nation-state as fictitious and leveraging it for political legitimacy.
Ukraine’s path to Nato membership is grappled with the complexities of the war’s conclusion and the motives driving Russia’s actions.
If the end of the conflict resembles a “frozen conflict” akin to the situation between Moldova and the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria, where Moscow retains the ability to manipulate tensions at will, Ukraine’s aspirations for Nato membership could face significant hurdles for an extended period, possibly spanning years or even decades.