NATO leaders say Ukraine should be able to join the military alliance in the future but stopped short of offering Kyiv an immediate invitation, angering President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The leaders of the 31 member states began a two-day summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on Tuesday as Ukrainian troops struggle to make significant gains in a counteroffensive against Russian forces occupying parts of their country.
“Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” the leaders said in a declaration, but they offered no timeline for the process.
“We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met,” the declaration said without specifying the conditions.
NATO did drop a requirement for Ukraine to fulfil what is called a membership action plan, effectively removing a hurdle on Kyiv’s way into the alliance.
But the failure to go much beyond a 2008 promise on future membership appeared a bitter blow to Zelenskyy, who was in Vilnius to address an admiring crowd of Lithuanian supporters in a packed city square before meeting NATO leaders.
Before his arrival, Zelenskyy had criticised NATO leaders in a Twitter post.
“It’s unprecedented and absurd when a timeframe is not set, neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership,” he wrote.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said that while NATO’s support for Ukraine is “unflinching and unquestioned”, the outcome of the first day of the summit was not what Kyiv had hoped for.
“They get this commitment towards a future invitation to join with conditions to be fulfilled that aren’t entirely clearly spelled out and, importantly, no timeline on all of that,” he said from Vilnius.
Hull said Zelenskyy had lobbied the head of the summit for an invitation to be issued immediately, even if it was contingent on the war coming to an end.
“He said that while he had faith in NATO, he didn’t necessarily have confidence, believing that any form of uncertainty would be interpreted by Russia as weakness,” Hull added.
Significant and direct threat
The NATO stance highlighted the divisions among its 31 members over giving a date or a straightforward invitation for Ukraine to join. Kyiv has been pushing for a swift entry, bound together with security guarantees, since even before Russia unleashed its invasion in February 2022.
NATO members in Eastern Europe have backed Kyiv’s call, arguing that bringing Ukraine under NATO’s security umbrella is the best way to deter Russia from attacking again.
Countries such as the United States and Germany have been more cautious, wary of any move that they fear could draw NATO into a direct conflict with Russia.
The NATO declaration said: “We reaffirm our unwavering solidarity with the government and people of Ukraine in the heroic defence of their nation, their land, and our shared values.”
In strong language towards Moscow, it said: “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
Asked about Zelenskyy’s criticism, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference: “There has never been a stronger message from NATO at any time, both when it comes to the political message of the path forward for membership and the concrete support from NATO allies.”
He said previous accessions to NATO had not been accompanied by a timeline. “They are conditions-based, have always been,” he said.
Increase of military support
Mindful of Zelenskyy’s disappointment over his hopes for a membership timetable, Western officials stressed that there would be a broader package of support proposals designed to give Ukraine a military edge over Russian forces.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the G7 group of major industrialised economies would issue a declaration on long-term support to kick in once “peace is obtained”. This is expected to be announced on Wednesday after the NATO summit ends.
In the nearer term, Berlin pledged another $771m (700 million euros) in military assistance to Kyiv.
The new aid includes two Patriot missile system launchers, another 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles and 25 Leopard 1 tanks.
President Emmanuel Macron also said France was joining Britain in supplying long-range SCALP, or Storm Shadow, cruise missiles to allow Ukraine to strike Russian targets deep behind the front lines.
And Denmark and the Netherlands said an 11-nation coalition will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets next month with a new training centre to be set up in Romania.
The summit was also buoyed by the prospect of Sweden joining NATO as its newest member after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday abruptly dropped his objections to the move while pushing to revive talks for Turkey to join the European Union.
A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, told Al Jazeera that NATO members are only united about Ukraine not joining the alliance.
“You can see here that NATO decided not to include Ukraine. What support are we talking about? This means that NATO members have been pulling Ukraine into the Western world at a time where Ukraine calls for help. They abandoned Ukraine, let it down.”
“They invite Finland and Sweden, but not Ukraine. Why? This is a question that should be posed on all TV channels – why not?”
Moscow, which has cited NATO’s eastern expansion as a factor in its decision to invade Ukraine, has criticised the summit and warned Europe would be the first to face “catastrophic consequences” should the war escalate.
“Potentially, this issue [of Ukraine joining NATO] is very dangerous for European security, … and therefore, those who will make the decision must be aware of this,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
European leaders did not seem to understand that moving NATO military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders was a mistake, he said.