Expect vague rhetoric as leaders gather in Vilnius this week
Heads of state and senior ministers will descend on Lithuania’s capital Vilnius this week for a Nato summit heralded as a potential turning point for the alliance. It’s being seen as decisive for Ukraine’s Nato aspirations as debates rage over whether to offer Kyiv a clear timeframe and concrete pledge for membership.
As has been the case throughout the war, Nato is divided into hawkish countries including Britain and most Eastern European states calling for a clear signal on future Ukrainian membership, and countries such as Germany which stand accused of trying to “essentially block membership”. The Biden administration is somewhere in between, wary of its responsibility to keep up Ukrainian morale through the prospect of Nato membership but rejecting shortcuts to admittance.
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Peek behind the bullish rhetoric, though, and there’s a broad consensus against rapid accession for Ukraine. Joe Biden on Sunday said Ukraine is not ready for Nato membership and that it would be “premature” to “bring Ukraine into the Nato family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war”. Meanwhile, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský, a strong advocate for Ukrainian Nato membership, admitted to me in a recent interview that “Ukraine is not currently ready to be a full member of Nato. Even if all the allies wanted this, Ukraine is not technically ready.”
If even Kyiv’s closest allies are in agreement that the country is not ready to join, discussions in Vilnius will need to have the more abstract aim of fostering political will for Ukrainian membership at some vague future date. There’s an irony in the fact that while Western leaders unequivocally assert Ukraine’s right to self-determination, they themselves are the hesitant gatekeepers to the alliance it craves to join.
With Ukraine technically not ready to join Nato, and with the organisation having little interest in admitting Ukraine anytime soon even if that were possible given the ongoing war, there is only one conceivable shared aim for negotiations: a hazily defined prospect of future membership, to deter unspecified future Russian aggression, at some undefined point after an uncertain Ukrainian victory in the war. Plans must no doubt be laid in advance, but that’s a whole lot of “ifs”.
More worryingly still, that single aim — deterring renewed Russian aggression after a ceasefire — may actually be harmed by current negotiations over Nato membership. The prerequisite for preventing renewed aggression must, ipso facto, be a negotiated peace to end the current fighting — something Moscow will never countenance if it believes Ukraine will simply join Nato once a peace deal is signed.
Ukraine is understandably desperate to drive negotiations forward in Vilnius. But Nato talks won’t make a difference to events unfolding on the battlefield and, far from securing future peace, making vague plans for membership today is the single step most likely to turn the current conflict into a “forever war”.