WASHINGTON ― A day after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted NATO leaders had “confirmed” it would become a member, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear no such action was imminent.
Stoltenberg’s remarks came a day after President Joe Biden refused to give a “yes” or “no” to Ukraine joining NATO while at the alliance’s annual summit in Brussels on Monday. Biden did say during a press conference that the U.S. and other NATO allies affirmed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“Ukraine is an aspirant country,” Stoltenberg told the Washington-based Defense Writers Group on Tuesday. “We provide support to them, especially to continue to modernize and refine their defense and security institutions, civilian-political control over their security services, and not least fighting corruption.”
He added: “We have different building-integrity programs, which are very much about how to fight corruption as part of the reforms ... which Ukraine has already embarked on, but we need more. We need to do more with them to make sure they are fully implemented.”
“To agree on the membership action plan, you need consensus among 30 allies. This was not the focus of this summit,” Stoltenberg said.
On Monday, the summit ended with the release of a joint communique that reaffirmed NATO’s 2008 decision for Ukraine to become a member through a membership action plan, or MAP ― though there’s no timetable mentioned. Meanwhile, Kyiv is working to adopt NATO-mandated reforms both to strengthen it against Russian interference and move it towards membership.
Ahead of a summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva on Wednesday, Kyiv has appeared eager to interpret its interactions with Biden and NATO in its favor.
In its initial readout of a call between Zelenskyy and Biden, Zelenskyy’s office claimed Biden emphasized the importance of offering Ukraine a specific roadmap for joining NATO. But it then changed that version to clarify it was Zelenskyy who pushed for providing Ukraine with a membership action plan; it said Biden promised that Kyiv’s position will be taken into account when discussing strategic issues within NATO.
“Commend @NATO partners’ understanding of all the risks and challenges we face,” Zelenskyy said in a tweet. “NATO leaders confirmed that [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance & the #MAP is an integral part of the membership process. [Ukraine] deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security.”
When Biden was asked Monday whether NATO had allowed Ukraine to join, he said it would depend on Ukraine’s anti-corruption activities and its implementation of NATO’s criteria to get to the membership action plan.
“And so it’s, you know, school’s out on that question. It remains to be seen,” Biden said, adding: “It will not just depend on me whether or not we conclude that Ukraine can become part of NATO. It will depend on the alliance and how they vote.”
Meanwhile, Biden said, the U.S. would “do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression.”
Ukraine has been locked in a tense tug-of-war with Russia ever since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula following the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president in 2014 and a Russia-backed separatist insurgency in the country’s east — a conflict that has killed more than 14,000.
In an interview on Russian state television, Putin issued a strong, new warning that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was unacceptable for Russia. He noted it would allow the alliance’s missiles to reach Moscow and other key targets in western Russia in only seven minutes, a destabilizing situation that he said was comparable to Russia putting its missiles in Mexico or Canada.
Last week, the Pentagon announced a previously teased $150 million security aid package to Ukraine, which included counter-artillery radars, counter-unmanned aerial systems, secure communications gear, electronic warfare and military medical evacuation equipment.
The $125 million package announced in March included armed Mark VI patrol boats, counter-artillery radars, tactical equipment, support for a satellite imagery and analysis capability, and equipment to support military medical treatment and combat evacuation procedures.
Pentagon officials also highlighted steps Kyiv has made on reforms ― including its passage of a defense procurement corruption law ― as well as five more things it must do to conform to Western standards.
“The United States is committed to assisting Ukraine with the implementation of these reforms, and we maintain a robust advisory effort to help modernize Ukraine’s military in line with NATO principles and standards,” said the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, Laura Cooper.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.