As the NATO summit in Vilnius draws closer, Ukraine expects it will deliver concrete commitments in terms of its membership instead of ‘open doors’ statements, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the Alliance says.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Natalia Galibarenko told LIGA.net about Ukraine’s push for future NATO membership; its current and further assistance to Kyiv’s efforts to retake Ukrainian land from Russia; sceptics within the Alliance – and what to do with them.
What is the air at NATO headquarters on the eve of the Vilnius summit? Is there a set agenda?
The intensity of the various meetings [at the headquarters] is starting to pick up.
So far, the agenda has not been officially released to the public. But we assume that the president of Ukraine will be invited to Vilnius, where we will have a separate session. There is also an idea to hold bilateral meetings.
The summit will focus on the changing structure of Euro-Atlantic security after Russia’s invasion and Ukraine, of course – not only because we are now on top of the international agenda, but also because the summit will be hosted by Lithuania, which has traditionally been one of our biggest supporters within NATO.
Is it already confirmed that Mr Zelenskyy will attend in person?
The president has accepted the invitation from NATO secretary general [Jens] Stoltenberg.
The final decision will be made later, taking into account the security factor, as well as the final decisions of the summit we will be expecting.
The president visits countries with a specific purpose. If we look at the recent visits, it is to prepare for a counter-offensive and to provide a high-level political impetus to ensure that all the weapons we were promised are delivered.
During his meeting with Mr Stoltenberg in Kyiv, Mr Zelenskyy outlined two main expectations from the summit. The first is to get an understanding of when Ukraine will join NATO. Is it likely that the Vilnius summit will provide an answer?
The main feature of NATO is that all decisions are made by consensus. And until you find thirty-one votes, you can't move forward.
NATO’s invite for Ukraine to join is also subject to a consensus. The good news is that not a single country questions the fact that Ukraine should be a member of NATO. But when we talk about the question of when and how, the devil is in the details and different positions begin to emerge.
Some countries advocate that the priority is to win the war, and only after Ukraine’s victory should NATO return to the membership issue. Another group of countries, which we support more, believe that one thing does not contradict the other.
Yes, there is a war going on, but when it comes to inviting Ukraine to join NATO, we do not insist that this will happen during the war.
The position of NATO's leadership is quite clear: first victory, and then substantive membership negotiations. What does Ukraine expect in Vilnius then – a roadmap, or perhaps a membership action plan?
I will not speak publicly on this, because there are active consultations among NATO member states. We announce what we are 95 percent sure of.
We are working on several options.
If we take the example of Finland and Sweden, it was political will. And our arguments are about the same. We do not refuse to implement reforms; we still have a lot to do to be compatible with NATO.
We are ready to implement any document where the ultimate goal is Ukraine’s membership [in NATO] – but only on this condition. We don't want to get stuck in the ‘open door’ policy again, spending another twenty years hearing about the decision of the Bucharest summit – which, by the way, has never been implemented.
The Financial Times reported that the United States, Germany, and Hungary are against providing Ukraine with a membership roadmap, and their officials’ comments say the same thing. Why so – especially with the US?
The United States makes no secret of the fact that the priority now is to win the war. Their logic is there is no point in discussing membership before Ukraine secures its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
They are not against it and do not say that we do not deserve it or that it will [never] happen.
We are talking about a different Vilnius package because, apart from the membership perspective, we are also working on political and practical packages.
The practical package is the issue of more stable funding for various projects and transition to NATO standards. The political package is that we want to upgrade and raise the level of political relations.
The United States is absolutely on our side here.
Is this an exhaustive list of sceptical countries or are there actually many more?
There are more. I will not be listing them all.
Some people still believe that giving Ukraine a clear membership commitment will cause an even greater escalation with Russia – although it is hard for me to imagine how much more of escalation there could be.
There are still countries that think that perhaps after the war is over and peace is achieved, Ukraine will not push so hard for joining NATO.
However, I think it is already clear to everyone that the guarantee of future non-recurrence of aggression, even after peace, is article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty]. And that is why we will continue to push.
People will invest only if they are made sure Ukraine will be at peace and Russia will not return. And with NATO membership and article 5 – this will be the guarantee, including to Western companies.
One of the goals of Mr Zelenskyy's European tour was apparently to strengthen Ukraine's position in the Vilnius summit. Did this help change the position of some countries – in particular Germany?
I really hope that at Vilnius we will see a change in this position. It is already positive that joint statements have been signed on the support of NATO membership in the future by those states.
Only the president has the level of contacts that can make revolutionary decisions.
We, as ambassadors, can make a project, put it on paper, and come up with an implementation mechanism. But this decision must be made at the highest political level.
That's why the president's role is to convince the most sceptical leaders.
What instructions do you receive from the government? Which countries do you need to talk to more substantively, more closely?
We try to work with everyone.
The specificity is that, unfortunately, we are excluded from the decision-making process. The headquarters does not allow us to attend meetings held by thirty-one countries.
Therefore, very often, to push a certain idea, you need a pool of supporters who can bring it to a meeting, [and] then the idea gets support and begins its development.
With sceptics, it's more about arguing and persuading to dispel their fears and prejudices about Ukraine.
The idea that Ukraine's victory in the war could change the position of the US and Germany seems realistic. But what about Hungary?
This is a difficult question.
In recent years, Ukraine has offered so many options – various consultation mechanisms, negotiators, postponement of the provisions of the law on education, various commissions to address the concerns of the minority.
In principle, NATO is not a platform for discussing minority rights. Unfortunately, this country simply uses the principle of consensus to block our work in the Alliance.
Since 2017, all NATO-Ukraine commissions at the level above ambassadors have been blocked. Only in April, thanks to the unity of all Allies except one country and the role of the secretary general, were we able to convene a NATO-Ukraine commission at the level of foreign ministers.
We have problems with national minorities in one way or another with Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. But they take it outside the international organisations. And this does not prevent these countries from supporting us – both militarily and non-militarily.
You mentioned the NATO-Ukraine commission. Why is this commission important and isn't it just another working group whose main task is to postpone discussions about specifics?
This is a very convenient model, especially in times of war, because it can be convened at the level of ambassadors, foreign or defence ministers, or presidents.
When extraordinary events occur, we can convene an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine commission at the ambassadorial level, when either I participate or guests from Kyiv come. For us, this is a mechanism where we sit at the same table in the 31+1 format.
I hope that one of the outcomes of Vilnius will be to raise the level of political relations so that we can move to a format of 32, not 31+1.
Hungary is openly threatening to block Ukraine's rapprochement with NATO. Is this a real threat? Or, as the case of the NATO-Ukraine commission has shown, ‘if there’s a will, there’s a way’?
I cannot predict Hungary's actions before Vilnius.
I will hope for as long as I can that Hungary will understand that it should be on the side of Ukraine in this war.
If they do not understand this, we will continue to press our line.
Mr Zelenskyy's other expectation is to receive security guarantees while Ukraine is not in NATO. What are the chances that such a document will be signed at the Vilnius summit?
Security guarantees are more about bilateral relations, that is those that Ukraine has with individual states, not with NATO as a whole, because the Alliance has only one security guarantee, and that is article 5.
We don't want to create a vacuum of endless risk of a repeat of the war before NATO membership. And if we manage to reach an agreement on guarantees with the major powers, it would be a great achievement for Ukraine.
Here, we are particularly interested in the cases of Sweden and Finland, which also received pre-membership security guarantees.
When Ukrainians hear the phrase ‘security guarantees’, they immediately think of the Budapest memorandum, that is ‘fictitious’ guarantees. Can Ukraine get something similar to, say, article five at Vilnius?
I can't tell you now so as not to get ahead of myself.
It is possible. There is such a task. Article five remains our ultimate goal.
Is there a chance to repeat the scenario of Finland and Sweden, which received personal security guarantees from the US and UK?
As the president once told us at an ambassadorial council, "Everything impossible is possible."
During the war, Ukraine has surprised many NATO partners more than once. We can take advantage of this Scandinavian experience.
Mr Stoltenberg says that Ukraine should receive a multi-year support programme from NATO at the summit. What exactly are we talking about? Is it an extension of the comprehensive assistance package or something revolutionary?
This idea was born in the context of the desire of many NATO member states to move our relations from procurement of immediate needs – such as helmets, first aid kits, and anti-drone systems – to medium- and long-term cooperation priorities.
This is especially after Ukraine announced that we want to switch to NATO weapons standards and accelerate the interoperability with NATO forces.
From this request came the response from the NATO secretariat and the secretary general that Ukraine needs to develop a multi-year plan for this transformation.
This is a multi-year task, and discussions are underway on how to ensure that the plan is properly funded. 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.
If, on the eve of the summit, Ukraine realises that it will not end with anything but declarations of ‘deepening cooperation’ and ‘open doors’, is it possible Mr Zelenskyy will not come to Vilnius, or ignore it altogether?
I will not even fantasise on this topic.
We have to do our best to prevent such a scenario from happening. Because I really believe that Vilnius will be a historic place for everyone. We will work as much as we can.
Similarly, the Allies are aware that any uncertainty in our relations only plays into Russia’s hands, encouraging it not only to repeat aggression against Ukraine, but also to encroach on the territories of other countries, our neighbours.
On the other hand, there is an opinion that if Ukraine gets concrete commitments from NATO at the summit, it may encourage Mr Putin to continue this aggression as long as possible, at any cost.
This is indeed the case.
One of my arguments to our partners is that the full-scale invasion last February itself was launched under an artificial pretext.
At that time, Ukraine had no prospect of joining NATO. There were no obligations. The Russian side simply used this as an excuse to allegedly push back NATO's borders.
If the Ukrainian Armed Forces manage to launch an effective counteroffensive and retake many territories before the summit, will this affect the Vilnius summit?
I do not rule it out, although I believe that we cannot make decisions – especially as grand as our membership – dependent on the success of the counteroffensive.
War is a non-linear story, and we cannot say that it will end tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. After this counteroffensive, there may be more counteroffensives.
Whatever the case, NATO has to continue its clear line. And this uncertainty, the creation of some new grey security zones is, again, a danger for them on their borders.
Suppose Ukraine won the war tomorrow. Are you sure that this will definitely open all the doors to NATO? Or will there be talk of non-compliance with standards and other political reasons to refuse?
There will be excuses. We must be mentally prepared for this.
The only question is that the room for manoeuvre and excuses will be dramatically smaller. We have the US position that after the war is over, there will be a substantive conversation, all witnesses have heard everything.
And after the war is over, let the US deal with Hungary?
I think that after our victory, Hungary will understand a lot. And perhaps it will reconsider its policy.
Speaking about Ukraine's compatibility with NATO standards, there are about 1200 of them – how many does Ukraine currently meet?
According to [Ukraine’s defence minister] Oleksii Reznikov, it is about 18 percent. By the end of the year, he expects it to be 30 to 35 percent.
I don't think our priority is to achieve some kind of 100-percent compatibility. And the question is not about quantity, but quality.
What is important is that the war surprised our NATO partners in terms of interoperability, as it showed how capable the Ukrainian army is.
There is some truth in this, but on the battlefield we have exceeded the expectations of many. This is a matter of complete admiration.
Now many of my colleagues are joking that after the war, it will be the Ukrainian army that will have to teach NATO interoperability – so that NATO can be interoperable with the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Will Ukraine's victory be a benefit for us? Can Ukraine become a NATO member without all the necessary standards, including justice reform and anti-corruption – especially amidst reports of top-level corruption in the supreme court and the procurement scandal in the defence ministry?
I see the example of some states, in particular within NATO, which are still carrying out reforms. And there are corruption cases in many countries. No one is a saint here and no one has a 100-percent reputation for integrity.
It is simply more efficient and faster to reform a state when it is already within NATO, not out of it. Then there will be much more leverage to make Ukraine more democratic, legal and transparent – because the control system will be comprehensive.