WASHINGTON and COLOGNE, Germany — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday defended the alliance’s stance on an eventual membership for Ukraine, just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented the lack of a specific timeline.
“We all agree that the most imminent task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign independent nation in Europe,” Stoltenberg told reporters after the first day of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. “So the most important thing we can do is to continue to provide weapons, ammunition [and] military support to Ukraine, because unless Ukraine prevails as a nation, as a democratic nation in Europe, there is no issue to be discussed about security guarantees or membership in NATO at all.”
Stoltenberg’s comments came after Zelenskyy called the summit’s final communiqué language “absurd” in a tweet on Tuesday afternoon. The Ukrainian president made clear he was expecting a concrete time frame for when Ukraine would be formally invited to be a member of NATO.
According to the Washington Post, an anonymous person familiar with the situation claims the U.S. delegation was furious with Zelenskyy’s tweet.
Stoltenberg said no country has ever been offered such a time frame for membership, saying all applicants must meet NATO conditions and garner unanimous allied support.
“If you look at all the membership processes, there have not been timelines for those processes,” Stoltenberg said. “They are condition-based, have always been.”
He outlined three steps the alliance would take to pave the way for an eventual Ukrainian membership. The first element is a multi-tiered program to help transition Ukraine to Western military equipment and provide assistance in rebuilding their defense sector.
The second is a new NATO-Ukraine Council where Ukraine and NATO will “meet as equals” and discuss strategic objectives, Stoltenberg said. This group is set to have its inaugural meeting July 12, the second and final day of the NATO summit, with Zelenskyy expected to attend.
The third element is removing the alliance’s formal membership action plan requirement — which constitutes a lengthy, wholesale examination of military and civilian compatibilities with alliance members — to quicken the accession process.
Additionally, Ukraine’s NATO membership hinges on conditions related to good governance and anti-corruption policies, according to Stoltenberg.
Perhaps most importantly, Stoltenberg noted ongoing combat with invader Russia prohibits membership at this time. The point reflects a longstanding fear among Ukraine’s Western backers that the war could spill over to NATO if the alliance were to put the full weight of its security guarantees on the table before a peace agreement is reached.
“We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met,” reads the summit’s final communiqué.
Georgina DiNardo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News and a recent graduate of American University, specializing in journalism, psychology, and photography in Washington, D.C.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.