NATO leaders will gather for a two-day summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Tuesday as the military alliance addresses the plethora of critical security issues sparked by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While NATO always has a lot of topics to discuss, as has been the case since the start of the war, Ukraine is top of the agenda.

For Kyiv, the pressing matter is NATO membership and while the prospect of this happening while the war is ongoing is off the table, President Zelensky himself is set to attend the summit to make the case that his country should join when it ends and on Sunday voiced hope for the "best possible result" and a clear signal that it could one day join the alliance.

1) Ukraine joining NATO 

It’s been made very clear in no uncertain terms that while Ukraine’s proposed entrance into NATO will be discussed at the alliance's summit, it will not be decided upon.

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Speaking on Friday, White House National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, said: "The NATO Summit will dive into the question of NATO's relationship with Ukraine, both the question of its pathway towards future membership and the question of an ongoing partnership that has existed for several years.”

But "Ukraine will not be joining NATO coming out of this summit," he said.

Kyiv "still has further steps that it needs to take before membership," Sullivan added. "Ukraine will have the opportunity to discuss the reforms that are still necessary for Ukraine to come up to NATO standards."

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US President Joe Biden, who set off on Sunday for Britain on his way to the NATO summit, said he hoped the military alliance leaders would "lay out a rational path for Ukraine to be able to qualify to be able to get into NATO".

Speaking to CNN, he said there were also "other qualifications that need to be met, including democratisation".

"I don't think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war," he added.

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Bringing Ukraine in now, Biden said, would mean "war with Russia" because of the NATO commitment to collective defence.

While this may be disappointing for an impatient Ukraine hoping to join as soon as possible, Sullivan also stressed that just the fact membership is being discussed is a massive achievement in itself, describing it as a “milestone.”

NATO's 31 members are still haggling over the final wording for a statement on how to address Ukraine's membership.

Eastern European countries back Kyiv's calls to be granted a pathway into NATO for when the conflict ends. 

But key powers the United States and Germany are reluctant to go beyond a 2008 promise that Ukraine would join one day, without setting a clear timeframe.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg is confident concrete progress can be made, saying: “I expect allied leaders will reaffirm that Ukraine will become a member of NATO and unite on how to bring Ukraine closer to its goal.

“The exact wording will be made public when we have agreed.”

2) Possible compromise

Even if Ukraine doesn’t get a firm commitment from its western allies, there are still a number of things that could come out of the meeting.

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NATO diplomats say allies could smooth Ukraine's eventual path by dropping a more formal list of conditions it would have to meet when it comes nearer to joining.

Stoltenberg said, as part of a package, NATO would tighten ties with Kyiv by launching a NATO-Ukraine Council that will sit for the first time in Vilnius, with Zelensky participating. 

He said NATO's members have also committed 500 million euros ($545 million) to a multi-year programme aimed at bringing Ukraine closer to alliance standards.

To reassure Kyiv in the interim, diplomats say heavyweights such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany are negotiating with Ukraine over longer-term commitments to supply arms.

These would be outside the NATO framework and fall far short of Kyiv's ultimate desire to be covered by the alliance's collective-defence umbrella. 

Stoltenberg said any such assurances would "complement and underpin" the work NATO is doing to bring Ukraine closer.

John Herbst, at the Atlantic Council think tank, said failure to give Ukraine some kind of substantial encouragement on future membership would be a "defeat for NATO in Vilnius," AFP reports.

Analysts in Washington believe Ukraine could instead be offered something like the US arrangement with Israel, which receives lavish annual security funding, allowing it to make long-term plans.

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The Wilson Center's Philip Reeker said "there are various credible security commitments and guarantees that may contribute more toward Ukraine's short-term interests and long-term goals, including full membership."

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky give a joint press conference in Kyiv, on April 20. PHOTO: AFP

3) The Russian response 

The Kremlin will obviously be watching developments in Vilnius closely and has already expressed its dissatisfaction with Bulgaria which hosted Zelensky earlier this week.

The Kremlin meanwhile his visit to Sofia, saying the Ukrainian leader was trying to "drag" other countries into the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv.

"Many countries have already plunged headlong into this conflict, both directly and indirectly. This topic will be discussed with the Bulgarians," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Bulgaria – an EU and NATO member but historically and culturally close to Moscow – has been deeply divided over the issue of sending arms to Kyiv. 

4) The Sweden issue 

While Ukraine’s potential NATO membership grabs most of the headlines, they’re not the only country hoping to join the alliance in near future.

Sweden and Finland dropped decades of military non-alignment and applied to join NATO last year in the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Finland’s application move swiftly and it formally joined the bloc in April, but, empowered by the rule that requires unanimous support for a new member, Sweden's entrance was blocked by Turkey and Hungary.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding up Sweden's entry because of a longstanding dispute about Stockholm's permitting alleged Kurdish militants to live in the Nordic country.

Sullivan said it was "possible" that Turkey and Hungary will drop their opposition during the coming week's summit.

If not, "we believe it will happen in the not-too-distant future." Sullivan said there was "fundamentally goodwill" toward Sweden's bid within the alliance.

"A strong NATO makes the United States and the entire world more safe and more secure," he said.

Zelensky has echoed this sentiment saying indecision is threatening the strength of the alliance and global security.

"I think there is not enough unity on this," Zelensky said during a press conference earlier week.

"This is a threat to the strength of the alliance," the Ukrainian leader said, adding: "This is very important for the security of the whole world."

"I believe that the situation with the aggressor, with Russia, depends on this," he said. "Because Russia is counting on the world to show weakness and disunity in the Alliance, and this cannot be allowed.” 

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5) Wider NATO issues

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 upended Europe's post-Cold War security order.

At the summit, NATO will bolster its defence spending target and set two percent of gross domestic product as a minimum for every ally.

NATO members pledged a decade ago that they would strive towards that figure.

"Then, only three allies spent two percent of GDP on defence. This year, 11 allies reach or exceed the target," Stoltenberg said.

He said last year spending by NATO's European allies and Canada leapt by 8.3 percent – "the biggest increase in decades".

NATO leaders are also to sign off on new defence plans in Lithuania that will detail how allies would stave off a Russian attack.

The move is part of NATO's biggest overhaul to its security in decades that is also seeing them put 300,000 troops on higher readiness.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the summit begins on Monday. It actually begins on Tuesday.

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