The 74th NATO summit takes place in Vilnius on 11 and 12 July. The key expectation is what the Alliance will offer Ukraine.
It is still an open question whether Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will attend: He said he did not want to come if there were no concrete results.
"We expect that a decision will be made in Vilnius to invite Ukraine to join the Alliance. And the allies will commit in the summit decision to Ukraine's membership as soon as circumstances permit," Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, tells LIGA.net.
Ukrainian ambassador to NATO Natalia Galibarenko tells LIGA.net that the Alliance should recognise three things at Vilnius: "That NATO needs Ukraine as much as Ukraine needs NATO; that Ukraine is an integral part of Euro-Atlantic security; that Ukraine should be invited to join NATO now and will become a member of the Alliance when conditions permit."
However, the key country is yet to greenlight the decision: The White House still has no clear answer on how to end the war.
Does Ukraine have a chance of receiving a political invitation to NATO at Vilnius? Why is US president Joe Biden's position so important? And what will happen if the Alliance does not give Ukraine what it wants?
Right now, there is no final vision of what exactly Ukraine will receive at Vilnius in terms of NATO membership.
"Discussions are still ongoing on how Ukraine’s further path to membership will be enshrined in the joint communiqué of the summit," explains Ms Galibarenko.
"The struggle over the wording continues," Oleksandr Merezhko, chair of the Ukrainian parliamentary foreign policy committee, tells LIGA.net.
He says Ukraine is doing everything to ensure that the final declaration does not repeat the 2008 Bucharest summit declaration, when the infamous ‘open door’ policy was formulated instead of a membership action plan (MAP).
"There are ongoing discussions in the Alliance about possible solutions. Work on the text of the final document of the summit is still ongoing," Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, says.
Hanna Shelest, security studies program director at the Ukrainian Prism, a think-tank, tells LIGA.net she "would not be surprised if, on the day of the summit, they were still discussing wording to avoid the repeat of ‘the Bucharest’".
It is already known that Ukraine will get two things at the NATO summit in Vilnius.
The first is upgrading the status of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (31+1) into the NATO-Ukraine Council (32 members, including Ukraine). Its first meeting takes place on the sidelines of the summit on 12 July.
Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov explains that the format of the Council provides for "a new level of relations, [and] a higher level of interaction."
"This is when Ukraine, although not yet a NATO member, will be on an equal footing in all committees, in all representative meetings, with the right to raise issues stipulated in their agreements," Mr Reznikov said.
However, Mr Zelenskyy’s diplomatic team is working not only on the form but also on the content of the Council.
"The first and most important function of the Council should be to bring Ukraine to NATO membership," Mr Zhovkva said. "If it is just a platform for discussions about the ‘open door’ [policy] … then this reformatting loses its meaning."
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba does not doubt that the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council without a strong step towards Kyiv’s membership is "like providing a tank without a gun".
"NATO needs Ukraine as an ally, not just a privileged partner", Mr Kuleba posted on Twitter.
And the second thing Ukraine will get at the upcoming NATO summit is a comprehensive assistance package.
This idea was born in the context of many NATO member states’ desire to shift the procurement of immediate needs – like helmets, first aid kits, and anti-aircraft guns – to medium- and long-term priorities, Ms Galibarenko earlier told LIGA.net.
"This is a multi-year task, and discussions are underway on how to ensure that the plan is properly funded," she explained. "The optimal goal is to present the first concept at the Vilnius summit, so that the heads of state will give green light to the plan and the ministries will work out its specific provisions."
In addition, Ukraine’s president expects to sign off on some security guarantees – and while it has nothing to do with NATO directly, this is what Kyiv wants as a safeguard before it becomes a member of the Alliance.
"There is nothing there that we have not already been given," Mr Zhovkva explains.
"We want to put it on paper with a group of countries that are ready for this. And then we will be able to sign bilateral agreements on security guarantees for Ukraine with those states that want to."
The main intrigue of the Vilnius summit is what the final declaration will offer Ukraine in terms of future membership.
The best outcome would be an invitation to join the Alliance after the war, says Yehor Chernev, the head of Ukraine’s permanent delegation to the NATO parliamentary assembly.
Ukraine is asking NATO to decide on the invitation right now in order to start preparing "for the future," Mr Zhovkva, the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, says, adding that this will be only the first step on the path of Ukraine’s gradual movement towards membership in the Alliance.
Ms Shelest from the Ukrainian Prism explains how the procedure will look like.
"First, the country says it wants to [join]. Ukraine did this back in 2005, when an ‘intensive dialogue’ began at the level of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.
"The second stage is an invitation."
In the case of Sweden and Finland, the declaration of the Madrid summit 2022 reads: "Today, we have decided to invite Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO, and agreed to sign the Accession Protocols".
Mr Zhovkva confirms that the wording of the Vilnius summit communiqué may be similar to that of Madrid regarding Finland and Sweden, "but with the difference that the decision to sign accession protocols with Ukraine will be made later, when the allies reach an agreement."
"When Ukraine talks about a political invitation, it is about this first stage," explains Ms Shelest. "Then consultations begin. But we want to see the clearest possible invitation."
On the other hand, the phrase "after the war" in the final declaration, which Mr Chernev refers to, may play a cruel joke on Ukraine.
"For us, the end of the war from the point of view of international law is when our territory, including Crimea, is completely liberated," explains Mr Merezhko.
Mr Zhovkva predicts that the summit decision will not be tied to the end of the war, recalling that most bilateral declarations with NATO members – there are already 23 of them – include the formula ‘when conditions permit’.
"I think that this would be the most correct wording for joining NATO," he says, adding that it is on the 23 signatories of the declarations that Ukraine relies in the first place.
Ukraine also expects that a membership action plan (MAP) will be cancelled on its way to the Alliance.
"We expect confirmation from the allies that Ukraine no longer needs a membership action plan on its way to joining NATO," the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office confirms.
Western analysts agree with this. 46 reputable Western experts, military officers and diplomats, including former US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Began and former US State Department Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, called on the Alliance to provide a roadmap. It should clearly lead to Ukraine's membership in NATO as soon as possible.
The Atlantic Council called to go beyond the ambiguous formula of the Bucharest Summit and create a new deterrence and defence partnership that would be an alternative to the MAP. Ukraine, according to analysts, should be invited to participate in NATO Council meetings, just as Sweden and Finland were waiting for their final accession.
Ukraine, however, may be grazed with a cold shoulder at the NATO summit.
Mr Stoltenberg said that the summit would outline a vision of Ukraine's future as an "independent democratic member of the Euro-Atlantic family".
In May, German news agency DPA reported that the United States and Germany had made it clear behind closed doors that they did not want to make any commitments beyond the vague NATO declaration of 2008.
In June, US president Joe Biden said that Washington would not shortcut Ukraine’s accession to the Alliance, adding Kyiv needs to meet the criteria to join – something White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre confirmed early in July.
"There are still sceptics in the White House who are slowing down the process," Ms Shelest explains, adding opponents of Ukraine's future membership in NATO are still worried about a possible escalation from Russia.
"But when we ask what exactly this escalation means, we rarely get a clear explanation. At best, it is a nuclear threat: If Mr Putin is so crazy that he can use nuclear weapons, why provoke him?"
The US’s position may also be linked to the upcoming NATO 2024 anniversary summit in Washington.
"The Washington summit will take place a few months before the US presidential election. It will be an opportunity for Mr Biden to make a historic step," Mr Merezhko explains, adding, however, that domestic issues and not foreign policy are important for Americans in the election.
Therefore, the only thing that some American politicians may pay attention to is Mr Putin’s nuclear blackmail.
On a more global level, Ukraine’s partners do not know how to end Russia’s war, Andrii Zahorodniuk, chairman of the board of the Centre for Defence Strategies and Ukraine’s former defence minister, tells LIGA.net.
Similar discussions are ongoing in Germany.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz says Ukraine will not be able to become a NATO member "in the foreseeable future", while the top speaker of the opposition Christian Democrats, Roderich Kiesewetter, called for Ukraine to be given a clear timetable for accession in Vilnius.
"The argument here is very simple: If the Alliance does not develop such a mechanism, the Russian Federation will get the impression that it has the right to veto Ukraine's membership in NATO," Viktor Savinok, a senior analyst at the Western Institute in Poznan, told LIGA.net.
He believes the position of the United States is key for the German government in deciding on Ukraine's NATO membership.
"We saw this during the debate on the transfer of heavy weapons to Ukraine, when there was no decision on the Gepards until there was a US decision on HIMARS; [and] when there was no decision on Leopard until the Americans made a decision on Abrams."
Mr Savinok is convinced that if the United States, Germany and France had a common understanding of how to invite Ukraine to NATO, there would be tools to convince Hungary or Türkiye – that is, there should be no problems with a consensus decision.
The United States is the ‘pivot’ on which the security of the Alliance rests, Mr Merezhko says.
"Hungary can express its position as much as it wants, but it is not a real guarantor of security in NATO. It does not have the same influence as the US, the UK, [or] Germany.
"The main thing is that there must be a US decision and a general consensus, taking into account the positions of the heavyweights."
Mr Zelenskyy said he believes the US president is the person who decides whether Ukraine will join NATO or not.
"The US must understand that only Ukraine's membership in NATO can save Europe from another major war," Mr Chernev explains. "And if Washington wants to continue to be a guarantor of security in Europe, Ukraine's accession to NATO is one of those guarantees."
Ukraine’s defence intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, earlier said "the expectations of [Ukrainian] society will not be satisfied" and Ukraine will not be invited to join the Alliance at the summit.
"I’m sure some words will be declared, but nothing besides that," he said in an interview with The Times newspaper.
If Ukraine does not get the decision it needs, it will be a huge political and reputational blow to the West itself, Mr Chernev said: "Countries that are still hesitating between the West and the Global South will see that the alliance with the West is not reliable."
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s former foreign minister, tells LIGA.net that while the Vilnius summit is indeed important, it is wrong to tell the public that it is either a ‘betrayal’ or a ‘victory’.
"Our partners have their own logic. They are thinking about what to do with Russia. One of the biggest concerns of a large number of countries is what to do with articles four and five [of the Washington Treaty] during the war? What to do with the question of territory?
"There are a lot of questions here that the West is yet to answer. So it's not about consensus; it's about the lack of answers."
Mr Merezhko agrees that Ukraine should not be offended by the possible outcomes of the summit.
"If it doesn't happen at the Vilnius summit, it will happen at the Washington summit; if not at the Washington summit, then at the next one. We are interested in the result," the MP explains.
On 5 July, Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausėda said that there was still a chance to persuade the more cautious allies to change their position and issue more decisive statements on Ukraine.
The key task for NATO countries now is to find a wording that will satisfy Ukraine but will not expose the Alliance to risks that it cannot politically take, Mr Zahorodniuk said.
A political solution is equally important for the Alliance itself to show that the Russian Federation has no power over NATO, Ms Shelest said.
"And we will start working even harder, because there is very little time before the Washington summit, and this will be our second chance."