Ukraine now has a path to NATO membership, but allies have not set out a timeline

 VILNIUS, Lithuania — A stark exhibition of war photographs lines the walls of a tunnel on the way into the NATO leaders’ summit. Signs printed on shuttle buses read: “While you’re waiting for this bus, Ukraine is waiting for NATO membership.” Reminders of Russia’s war on the eastern European country are everywhere this week in 

VILNIUS, Lithuania — A stark exhibition of war photographs lines the walls of a tunnel on the way into the NATO leaders’ summit.

Signs printed on shuttle buses read: “While you’re waiting for this bus, Ukraine is waiting for NATO membership.”

Reminders of Russia’s war on the eastern European country are everywhere this week in Vilnius, Lithuania. Even in the flower beds. Rows of blue and yellow blooms outside the venue are arranged to match the Ukrainian flag.

Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelenskyy, arrived in the Lithuanian capital Tuesday and was greeted like a rock star in a city park, where he spoke to a cheering crowd decked out in blue and yellow.

But if he had hoped for the same warm welcome at the NATO leaders’ table, he was surely disappointed.

The 31 member nations released a communique at the end of their first day of meetings that affirms their intent to allow Ukraine to join the military alliance, but falls far short of what Zelenskyy and others had asked for: a clear timeline toward membership. 

“Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” the document reads. 

That is the drum Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal ministers have been beating at the summit, as well as at the G7 and other international gatherings in recent years. 

NATO members reaffirmed their 2008 commitment to ensure Ukraine becomes a member and have agreed it will not need to complete a membership action plan, effectively cutting a two-step process down to one. 

A new NATO-Ukraine Council is expected to meet for the first time Wednesday, providing a forum for closer ties. 

But the question remained: how long will it take? 

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy decried the lack of timeline.

“It’s unprecedented and absurd when a time frame is set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership,” Zelenskyy tweeted.

“While at the same time, vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine,” he said, referring to the statement NATO leaders released Tuesday.

“It seems there is no readiness to invite Ukraine to NATO or to make it a member of the alliance.”

Earlier in the day, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Ukraine cannot become a member while it is at war.

“While the war is raging, we will continue to support Ukrainians fighting for their freedom and ours,” she said, adding that even when the war ends, Russia will be a threat.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked Tuesday what needs to happen to declare the war over. 

“Today, we’re not going to define ‘at war,’” he said. “We’re not going to lay down a definition for that.”

Ahead of a meeting with Zelenskyy in the evening, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters the alliance has reservations about Ukraine that go beyond that. 

“One is … to what extent they have been able to modernize their defence and security institutions, to strengthen their governance, including fighting corruption,” he said. 

Stoltenberg added that allies must also have military interoperability.

The NATO communique said: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.”

All 31 members also agreed to continue supporting Ukraine, though they do not always agree on how that should be done. 

Some allies, including Canada and the U.K., have criticized the United States for its decision to provide Ukraine with cluster bombs — munitions that open in the air and release smaller bomblets. Unexploded “dud” rounds are extremely dangerous because they can be set off later by civilians. 

More than 120 countries signed onto a convention banning their use, along with landmines. Canada championed the Oslo Convention when it was signed in 2008, but Ukraine, Russia and the U.S. did not join. 

Sullivan insisted the U.S. is working to ramp up production of other ammunition and that the type of bombs it’s providing will have fewer duds. 

“Despite the difficulty, despite the challenges, despite the risk to civilian harm associated with cluster munitions, the risk to civilian harm of leaving Ukraine without the ammo it needed was, from our perspective, greater,” he said. 

Trudeau said such weapons “should not be used,” and Joly said Canada “mentioned” its opposition to the U.S. delegation. 

Former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy said Joly and Trudeau could go much further by publicly pushing for accountability.

“The use of the weapons themselves will severely complicate and undermine the effort by Ukraine that we’re supporting, that this has a moral principle to it, as compared to what the Russians do,” he said in a Tuesday interview. 

“All of a sudden we’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t really care.’”

In 2022, Biden’s former press secretary denounced Russia’s use of the munitions and said it was a potential war crime, something human-rights groups agree with. 

Joly refused to answer whether she considered the use of cluster bombs to be a war crime. 

Axworthy said the North Atlantic Council, the forum that steers NATO, is where allies should press the U.S. to put a timeline on the use of such weapons and explain why America failed to ensure industrial capacity could keep up with Ukraine’s needs.

He said Washington is undermining agreements signed by most countries prohibiting the use of cluster bombs and landmines because the U.S. has balked for decades at pressure from other countries to limit the arms it can use.

Axworthy also ridiculed Sullivan’s pledge that Ukraine will be able to control where cluster munitions are used and limit harm.

“(H)e’s beginning to sound like a snake-oil salesman,” he said.

“From now on, any tin-pot dictator who wants to break a treaty, particularly one that’s designed to protect civilians, can simply say, ‘Well, the United States does it all the time.’ That hypocrisy comes back to haunt you.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2023.

— With files from Dylan Robertson.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press


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