There was, to be truthful, some bad temper on display at NATO’s Vilnius Summit of July 11-12. Ukrainians are beginning to tire of the honeyed words about alliance membership “one day,” having first heard those words 15 years ago at the Bucharest summit.
“It is unprecedented and absurd — to provide no time frame for both the invitation (!) and Ukraine’s membership; and when instead some strange wording is added about ‘conditions’ even for inviting Ukraine,” President Zelenskyy said on the eve of the meeting. He also worried that this might mean the West considered Ukraine’s future membership a bargaining chip in possible future negotiations with Russia. Earlier this year, he explained that: “Rhetoric about open doors is not enough for Ukraine. Namely, not enough to motivate our state, our soldiers”.
Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace — a longtime, hardline backer of Ukraine’s fight — hardly improved matters when he told Ukraine it must persuade the US Congress that aid was worthwhile. “Whether we like it or not, people want to see gratitude,” he said, adding a snark to the effect that the allies were “not Amazon.”
Yes, there were positives. A clear message has been sent by the allies that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” that the potentially onerous Membership Action Plan (MAP) has been waived, a NATO-Ukraine Council has been established, and a substantial support package of multi-year assistance has been agreed upon. But after more than 500 days of war, Ukrainians had hoped for something bolder.
Ukraine started talks with NATO the same year it gained its independence. It joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991 and the Partnership for Peace program in 1994. The path toward NATO and EU membership was codified in the Ukrainian Constitution in February 2019.
Ukrainians’ frustrations were precisely voiced by a Ukraine advocate Daria Kalyniuk addressing US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. She said that since 2014 Ukraine has been playing by the rules, but that her son now sleeps in a corridor to diminish the risk of being killed during Russian bombardments. Should she prepare to tell him that he will be fighting Russians when he turns 18 in a couple of years because NATO is afraid of Russia? Sullivan responded with a reminder about the scope of allied support and underlined that accession would require NATO to engage in war against Russia.
Ukraine understands very well that the accession of a country in war is impossible. It did request fast-track NATO membership last year, but what it really hopes for is a clear accession algorithm when a window of opportunities opens. After nine long years of war, Ukraine is still standing at the NATO open door but barred from entry. It is now said that the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington will become the key moment. Yet it seems that its accession is highly unlikely any time soon unless some substantial shift takes place in Russia. This summit has tested the Ukrainians’ “faith in a strong NATO” that does not hesitate and “does not look back at any aggressor,” as Zelenskyy put it.
Is Ukraine grateful to its allies? There is no doubt about that. The President, officials, ambassadors, and civil society tirelessly repeat that. Ukrainians remember too well the fate of the Ukrainian National Republic, which without international support, was too quickly occupied by Bolshevik Russia in 1921. It remembers, too, the lack of boldness from the West in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and launched its war in the Donbas. Without Western support, Ukraine would probably have continued to fight but would have suffered much greater territorial and human losses.
Is Ukraine being ungrateful when demanding more and criticizing allies that its life literally depends on? The answer depends on what the West truly wants. If the goal is to ensure Ukraine doesn’t lose completely, it definitely is. If the goal is to help Ukraine win, liberate the people of the occupied territories, and solve the issue of a direct threat to Europe’s territorial integrity, the answer is not that obvious. As the US former ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker put it: “It is hard to see how NATO can accomplish its mission of security for Europe in the future without Ukraine being part of the alliance. That contradiction needs to be addressed at the 2024 Washington Summit.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainians continue to pay the price in blood. My friend stayed alive only because she left her apartment that day. She paid for the world’s security with her home. Another friend lost her brother on the third day of the full-scale invasion. She was happy to have his body for the funerals. She paid for the world’s security with her family member.
There are others who have paid with their health or their future. It is because of them that the Russian imperial machine has not moved hundreds of miles westward to menace more European Union member states.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.’
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.