Why Zelensky is left unhappy with NATO’s Ukraine plan

NATO has offered Ukraine a smoother path into the Western security alliance but refrained from providing a clear timetable for Kyiv’s membership, dashing the hopes of millions of Ukrainian citizens and their president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Since Ukraine is still fighting a massive war against Russia in Europe, adding the nation to the alliance anytime soon would trigger a defense article that would bring the U.S. and its allies into the conflict.

The solution offered by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg includes strengthened support and relations with Ukraine, a new council specifically to work with Kyiv and the removal of a procedural step toward joining the alliance.

“What allies have agreed today is a strong, united and positive message to Ukraine about enduring support but also a positive message on the path forward for membership,” Stoltenberg said Tuesday at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Zelensky sharply criticized the proposal because it did not establish a direct timeline toward membership, which he said would embolden Russia. The Ukrainian leader said his country “deserves respect” and that it was “unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership.”

Michael Purcell, a professor at George Washington University with expertise on Russia and international security, said “anything less” than ensuring Ukraine’s membership would be disappointing to Ukraine, though the decision was no surprise.

“This is the way NATO does business,” Purcell told The Hill. “And I think Zelensky in a calm moment would not be surprised by this outcome.”

Still, the blow to Ukraine’s NATO aspirations was particularly upsetting for Kyiv because its people had hoped for a breakthrough at the alliance’s summit this week in Vilnius.

Before the decision was finalized, Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said “millions of Ukrainians are looking to Vilnius today with hope.”

“We want to see the word ‘invitation’ or ‘to invite’ from NATO to Ukraine,” Goncharenko told Stoltenberg during a Tuesday press conference. “That would boost the morale of the Ukrainians enormously. If this would not happen, that would be really demoralizing.”

Ukraine first expressed interest in joining NATO in 2002 and six years ago called for a formal Membership Action Plan (MAP) process, which involves a series of political and military reforms overseen by alliance leadership.

Calls for a MAP increased after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Kyiv in 2014, fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine and invaded in 2022.

Ukrainians now face the prospect of a long war. The counteroffensive that Ukraine launched last month has made only incremental progress against entrenched Russian forces.

Alp Sevimlisoy, a NATO expert and millennium fellow with the Atlantic Council, said the Western alliance should have announced a plan to admit Ukraine within 12 to 16 months to improve European security.

“When we look at what the Russian Federation is aiming to do, it’s to ensure that it can keep pushing, whether [against] the Ukraine or whether it’s the Baltics, without a response from us,” Sevimlisoy said. “So what we are doing, and what we’ve done militarily, is ensure that precedent hasn’t been set that Russia is being put into its place.”

The deal instead includes a multi-year program of assistance for enhanced interoperability with NATO, the establishment of a NATO-Ukraine council to strengthen political ties and enhance decision-making, and the removal of MAP as a requirement.

Some analysts said the agreement has done little to improve cooperation and interoperability with Ukraine at a time when they are already training and providing Kyiv with the best of the best. Removing the requirement of MAP eliminates a strong oversight power, since Ukraine still struggles with corruption and democratic challenges, and reflects disunity across the alliance on admitting the embattled country.

NATO agreed in a communique published Tuesday that Ukraine’s future is in the organization and it will be admitted once conditions are right, but it’s unclear if those conditions include a geopolitical goal, such as a ceasefire.

President Biden has said he does not support a faster track for Ukraine, saying it should tackle anti-corruption and democratic processes first.

Biden has also stressed it is not feasible to admit Ukraine into the alliance during the war, which would risk invoking Article 5 and NATO members joining the conflict against Russia. The White House repeated that claim Tuesday.

Purcell, from George Washington University, noted that Article 5 also contains a clause that says allies may take “action as it deems necessary” if a NATO member is attacked and could be interpreted in a way that doesn’t necessarily mean all-out war with Russia.

But Purcell agreed admitting Ukraine was risky because Russian President Vladimir Putin has become an increasingly erratic leader who has used nuclear arms as blackmail.

“I certainly empathize with NATO’s leadership,” he said. “If you’re the guy sitting at the desk with the red button, it’s a different calculus.”

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