Zelenskyy’s frustrations boil over as NATO temporizes

Lithuania NATO Summit 43050

Tensions over Ukraine’s desire to join NATO burst into the open as the alliance’s annual summit began on Tuesday, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is attending the summit as a special guest, sharply criticizing the bloc’s failure to offer a firm date for his country to join the Western military alliance as it tries to ward off a Russian invading force.

NATO leaders gathered in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius announced that Ukraine will eventually be invited into the alliance, but only after Kyiv has met certain conditions and existing members unanimously agree on the matter. President Biden has been one of the leading skeptics on Kyiv’s appeal for accelerated membership in the alliance, in part for fear it would draw the U.S. and its European allies into a direct shooting war with Russia.

Mr. Zelenskyy, who is slated to meet with President Biden on the sidelines of the summit Wednesday, expressed frustration via Twitter that it is “unprecedented and absurd when a time frame is set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership.”

“At the same time, vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine,” the Ukrainian president wrote. “It seems there is no readiness to invite Ukraine to NATO or to make it a member of the alliance.”

Geopolitical stickiness surrounding Ukraine’s status is becoming a defining aspect of the two-day summit in Vilnius, even as positive vibes coursed through the gathering Tuesday following a breakthrough agreement a day earlier by Turkey to advance long-neutral Sweden’s bid to join the 31-country alliance.

The U.S. and European officials have framed the summit as a chance to showcase deepening NATO unity in the face of Russia‘s Ukrainian invasion. But internal debates remain unresolved on the issue of how the alliance can bring Ukraine closer into the fold without actually making it a member — a move Russian President Vladimir Putin has said would cross a red line.

Regardless of the appearance Tuesday that NATO leaders were treading delicately on the issue of Ukrainian membership, Russia expressed sharp displeasure with the summit occurring just across its western border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited NATO’s eastern expansion as a key justification for his country’s invasion of Ukraine nearly 17 months ago, and on Tuesday the Kremlin accused the alliance of treating Russia as an “enemy.”

“Russia is perceived by [NATO leaders] as an enemy, as an adversary,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a press conference in Moscow. “It is in this vein that the discussions [in Vilnius] will be conducted,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov separately homed in NATO’s announcement from Monday that the path is now open, likely over the coming months, for Sweden to become NATO‘s 32nd member nation, following Finland, which officially joined in April.

“We will definitely draw conclusions depending on how quickly and extensively NATO will use the territory of Finland and Sweden,” said Mr. Lavrov. He claimed that “both Helsinki and Stockholm are already discussing a variety of issues with the United States that relate to the deployment of the alliance’s infrastructure right on the Russian border with Finland and very close to our border with Sweden.”

Mr. Lavrov told the official Tass news agency that by aligning with NATO after decades of neutrality, Sweden and Finland have “sacrificed” what he described as the benefits of special trade, economic, investment and other ties with Russia.

Surprise move

Russia’s comments came after the surprise move on Sweden by Turkey, one of a small number of major NATO allies that maintains robust, albeit tenuous relations with Moscow.

NATO had struggled for months to reach an agreement on admitting Sweden. Prior to Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had stood in the way. He argued that Stockholm has a history of harboring anti-Turkey Kurdish militants and has imposed economic and other sanctions on Ankara for alleged past rights abuses.

In response, Sweden changed its anti-terror laws and lifted an arms embargo that it had on Turkey. But Mr. Erdogan continued to hold out, with analysts saying the Turkish leader sought to use the Sweden issue to gain leverage over other powerful NATO members — most notably the U.S. — who’ve eagerly backed Swedish ascension.

A joint statement Monday said Mr. Erdogan had dropped his resistance and will now ask Turkey’s parliament to swiftly approve Sweden joining NATO. It remains unclear what behind-the-scenes deal may have triggered the Turkish president’s reversal.

Mr. Biden met with Mr. Erdogan in Vilnius on Tuesday, but both men remained mum in public on particularities.

While Mr. Biden made a reference to “the agreement you reached yesterday,” Mr. Erdogan said nothing about it.

However, the Turkish president appeared eager to develop his relationship with Mr. Biden, saying before an audience of reporters that previous meetings the two had were “mere warm-ups, but now we are initiating a new process.”

Mr. Erdogan has been seeking advanced American F-16 fighter jets and a path toward membership in the European Union. The White House has expressed support for both, but publicly insisted that the issues were not related to Sweden’s membership in NATO.

The Biden administration has previously backed Turkey’s desire to buy 40 new F-16s as well as modernization kits from the United States, although a major increase in the delivery of such weapons would require approval from Congress, where the issue has long been divisive.

When pressed about the matter during an interview with MSNBC in Vilnius on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “I’m not going to speak for members of Congress, but it’s in the interest of the United States, it’s in the interest of the NATO alliance, for Turkey to get these planes.”

However, Mr. Blinken also stressed that the Biden administration views Mr. Erdogan’s pursuit of the jets and his stance on Sweden as “separate issues.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who has led the oppostion of the F-16 deal with Turkey in the past, said this week he was in discussions with white House officials on the way forward given Mr. Erdogan’s shift.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, talking to reporters in Vilnius, was more definitive, saying Mr. Biden “has placed no caveats on [the F-16 sale]. … He intends to move forward with that transfer.”

Ukraine wants in

Mr. Zelenskyy’s presence in Vilnius is expected to dominate the NATO summit on Wednesday, a reflection of his global celebrity as the face of Ukraine’s unexpectedly effective resistance to the Russian invasion launched in February 2022. Ukraine fears its position outside NATO leaves it perpetually vulnerable to military and economic pressure from Moscow.

Hours after the Ukrainian president’s criticisms on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sought to downplay the prospect of friction over Ukraine’s status, asserting that he and other NATO leaders had “reaffirmed” during an initial summit meeting that “Ukraine will become a member of NATO.”

The alliance also “agreed to remove the requirement for a membership action plan [for Ukraine]” Mr. Stoltenberg told reporters in Vilnius, referring to a key step most other member nations have had to take in joining the alliance.

“This will change Ukraine’s membership path from a two-step path to a one-step path,” he said.

While several major NATO members, including the U.S., are openly arming and training Ukraine‘s military to push Russian forces out of the country, there is no consensus among the 31 allies for officially admitting Ukraine into NATO’s ranks.

Some argue that admitting Ukraine would fulfill a promise made years ago by the George W. Bush administration and is a necessary step to guarantee Kyiv’s protection against future Russian attacks. Others fear it would be seen as a provocation at a time when Russian forces occupy a fifth of Ukraine‘s territory and Kyiv has yet to carry out a number of internal reforms.

The issue is expected to be at the center of Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Zelenskyy on Wednesday. Mr. Biden has faced criticism from some Eastern European NATO members and from members of both parties on Capitol Hill about his cautious stance on Ukraine’s NATO hopes.

“I don’t think [Ukraine] is ready for membership in NATO,” Mr. Biden told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday. He said joining NATO requires countries to “meet all the qualifications, from democratization to a whole range of other issues.”

Mr. Biden added, however, that the U.S. is prepared to provide long-term security assistance to Ukraine — “the capacity to defend themselves” — as Washington has long done with other close allies.

With Russia eager to exploit divisions within NATO, some analysts say the issue of how to respond to Ukraine’s interest in joining the alliance is the weightiest matter hanging over the summit in Vilnius.

“Member states want to strengthen NATO’s partnership with Ukraine, but they remain divided on crucial details — whether membership should be full or partial; immediate, gradual, or once again postponed; unconditional or linked to the outcome of the war,” Stephen Sestanovich, a Council on Foreign Relations expert on Eurasian affairs wrote in a recent analysis for the think tank.

Luke Coffey at the Hudson Institute argues that “NATO leaders and policymakers need to start developing a plan to keep Ukraine on the path to eventual membership while deepening NATO-Ukraine relations.”

“With some creative thinking and political will, the summit could serve NATO’s interests and meet the Ukrainian government’s reasonable and understandable expectations,” Mr. Coffee wrote for the think tank in an analysis published in April.

For the time being, NATO leaders are removing obstacles on Ukraine’s membership path so that it can join more quickly once the war with Russia is over.

Mr. Stoltenberg said Tuesday that the most important thing is to ensure Ukraine wins the war with Russia, because “unless Ukraine prevails there is no membership to be discussed at all.”

For his own part, Mr. Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that he and other Ukrainian leaders “value our allies.”

He added, however, that “Ukraine also deserves respect” and that “uncertainty is weakness.”

“I will openly discuss this at the summit,” the Ukrainian president said.

— This article was based in part on wire service accounts.

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