Since the NATO Summit in Vilnius failed to grant Ukraine an invitation to the Alliance, undisguised disappointment has been common.
The summit has been dubbed “a symbol of lost opportunities” and “a repeat of Bucharest 2008.” Some experts have even begun to suspect that Washington’s goal is not so much to facilitate a Ukrainian victory as to prevent that of Russia and thus incentivise Kyiv and Moscow to start negotiations.
Undoubtedly, an invitation to NATO would have been one of the utmost important steps in Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Yet its absence should not overshadow the decisions taken in Vilnius that are gradually bringing Ukraine closer to its ambition.
Intensified arms supplies
Replenishing arsenals of weapons and ammunition has been a paramount necessity for Ukraine since the invasion began. “Weapons, weapons, and once again weapons” – this is how presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak described one of President Zelensky’s goals during his visit to the United States in December 2022. Those words have remained relevant to this day. On the eve of the Summit, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov said that Ukraine needs “substantially more weapons.”
In Vilnius, Kyiv received some very good news. Despite the fact that NATO does not formally supply lethal weapons to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (allies and partners within the Ramstein group do), many member states prepared additional packages ahead of the summit. Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov estimated the total volume of such military assistance at 1.5 billion euros. Furthermore, significant progress has been made in some top-priority areas: France began to transfer long-range cruise missiles, while a coalition of 11 countries led by the Netherlands and Denmark were to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets.
Over the months, NATO members have already increased investments in the military industry to boost the production of ammunition and armoured vehicles. Thus, the Allies’ arms supplies to Ukraine – and commitments thereof – have been both growing and becoming more systemic. In Vilnius, German Minister of Defence Boris Pistorius mentioned that a week prior to the summit, the federal government submitted to the Bundestag as many procurement contracts as it had filed in the previous 10 months.
Positive dynamics on security guarantees
From the first days of the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian leadership has been searching for a format that would be fundamentally different from the infamous Budapest Memorandum. In May 2022, the Yermak-Rasmussen Expert Group was established and tasked with developing international security guarantees. In 3 months, it presented the Kyiv Security Compact that put forward a complex of specific political and legal commitments. That framework document was based on the idea that a pool of countries could, on a bilateral basis, strengthen Ukraine’s defence capacity so that, in the future, it would be able to withstand any potential military aggression. The proposed security guarantees included the supply of modern weapons, the exchange of intelligence, the training of personnel, and support for the renovation of Ukraine’s military-industrial complex – that is, similar to what the US provides to Israel.
However, compared to the Israeli-type arrangements, the Kyiv Security Compact has several important differences. First, the document emphasises the interdependence between Ukraine’s security and stability in the entire Euro-Atlantic region. Second, Ukraine is expected to continue to improve its governance and combat corruption. Third, the security guarantees, as detailed by the Yermak-Ramussen group, are not only the end goal but also a steppingstone on Ukraine’s path to NATO.
In Vilnius, the Kyiv Security Compact’s provisions finally began to turn into reality. The G7 leaders launched negotiations with Ukraine to formalise bilateral security arrangements in the form they had been presented by the Yermak-Rasmussen group. Besides, NATO approved a multi-year assistance programme for the Ukrainian military sector to facilitate transition to NATO standards, which is congruent with the aims and tasks envisaged by the Kyiv Security Compact. It was the adoption of this programme that the Ukrainian government considered as its highest priority on the summit’s agenda.
Upgraded format of political dialogue
The biggest question surrounding the summit was whether the member states would be able to agree on inviting Ukraine to the Alliance. It would have provided additional political support to Kyiv by sending a clear signal to Putin that Ukraine was no longer a “grey zone.” In particular, this approach has long been advocated by the Bucharest Nine (B9) countries, including the Baltic states.
However, not all Allies were ready to demonstrate such a political will. Namely, Germany and the US have been avoiding taking steps that would imply this level of commitment to Ukraine, which the isolationist wing of their political spectrum perceives as excessive. For instance, Germany’s Defence Minister was frank in admitting that he was alarmed by a noticeable popularity spike witnessed by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing radical party that opposes higher defence spending as well as assistance to Ukraine.
Hence, in order to satisfy all the parties involved, the final Communiqué – albeit offering significantly more certainty compared to the 2008 Declaration – omitted a pledge to invite Ukraine to join the Alliance. The summit, therefore, produced a set of political decisions. The political dialogue was upgraded to the level of the NATO-Ukraine Council, and Ukraine was assured of the opportunity to join NATO bypassing a Membership Action Plan (MAP).
But perhaps the most important outcome was a joint declaration of support for Ukraine that the G7 adopted in Vilnius. The document not only essentially follows the Yermak-Rasmussen group’s recommendations, but also recognises – for the first time ever – that “the security of Ukraine is an integral part of the security of the Euro-Atlantic region.” Such a statement, in effect, affirms the consolidated position of the B9 countries that are also the most vocal supporters of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Hardly would it be an exaggeration to say that the G7’s joint declaration banished the “ghost of Bucharest” that hovered over Vilnius.
Several months ago, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba suggested that it would already be an achievement if the Vilnius summit were to bring Ukraine noticeably closer to joining NATO. If so, the summit was, indeed, successful. Today, the future of Ukraine in the Euro-Atlantic community looks more certain than it did 15 years ago. Never before had there been such a high degree of support among the NATO member states for Ukraine’s eventual accession. In this context, the Vilnius summit has been a step towards a new security system in Europe, in which the eastern flank of NATO will be protected by a wall of steel stretching from the Barents Sea to the Sea of Azov, and Ukraine will undoubtedly be located to the west of it.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.