Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has criticised the “absurd” absence of a timetable for his country to join NATO as leaders met at a summit in Lithuania.
US President Joe Biden described the gathering as a “historic moment” and said Washington agreed with a proposal, yet to be released publicly, to outline a path for Ukraine’s eventual membership of the alliance.
However, Mr Zelenskyy, who is in Vilnius for the summit, expressed disappointment at how the negotiations were playing out.
“We value our allies,” he wrote on Twitter but added that “Ukraine also deserves respect”.
“It’s unprecedented and absurd when timeframe is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership,” Mr Zelenskyy said.
He added: “Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.”
The public flash of anger from the Ukrainian president, who has been lauded in the West as a hero for his leadership, could renew tensions in Vilnius just as they had begun to subside.
Mr Zelenskyy later addressed a crowd at a concert being held alongside the conference in Lithuania’s capital, telling a crowd full of people waving Ukrainian flags that “NATO will make Ukraine safer and Ukraine will make NATO stronger”.
Zelenskyy’s last-minute brinkmanship was not enough to produce a significant breakthrough
A well-timed Tweet by Ukraine’s president condemned as “absurd” any failure by NATO allies to offer his country a clear timeline for membership to join the club.
It was posted just as leaders of the 31 member states began a crunch meeting in Lithuania on Tuesday to finalise the wording of an offer around membership, with division on whether or not to give Kyiv the formal invitation it has lobbied hard for.
In the end, however, the last-minute brinkmanship by Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not enough to produce a significant breakthrough.
The end result appeared to be more of a fudge, with a reaffirming of NATO’s belief that Ukraine’s future is as part of the alliance but without offering any kind of timeline.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, did his best effort to describe the outcome, contained in a communique as a “strong package for Ukraine and a clear path towards its membership”.
Mr Zelenskyy will be sure to offer his views at a dinner with NATO leaders on Tuesday evening and when he meets with them at the summit on Wednesday.
Offering a sense of the internal discussions that pre-empted the announcement, Petr Pazel, the Czech president, said his country and a majority of other allies were in favour of Ukraine’s accession to start as soon as its war with Russia is over.
“However, there are still some allies who have some concerns,” he told Sky News earlier in the day.
A European diplomatic source identified Germany and the United States as having been resistant to going too far on the language.
Ultimately, NATO is an alliance that works by consensus – one of its core strengths. But it means the group can only move as fast as its most resistant member.
The job now will be to overcome Ukrainian disappointment and focus on supporting its war effort as until that is over any hope of membership to NATO is a pipedream.
Responding to Mr Zelenskyy’s comments, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said a timeline for Ukraine’s membership in the alliance has not been set out as it is “conditions-based”.
Speaking at a news conference this afternoon, Mr Stoltenberg said there has “never been a stronger message from NATO at any time”.
The alliance chief said members had agreed a “substantive package” to move Ukraine closer and were sending a “strong political message with the language on membership”.
“If you look at all membership processes there have not been timelines… they are conditions based, have always been,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters in Vilnius.
On Monday evening, the night before the summit opened, Turkey withdrew its objections to Sweden joining the alliance, a step towards the unity Western leaders have been eager to demonstrate in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The deal was reached after days of intensive meetings, and it is poised to expand the alliance’s strength in northern Europe.
“Rumours of the death of NATO’s unity are greatly exaggerated,” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, told reporters on Tuesday.
According to a joint statement issued when the deal was announced, Mr Erdogan will ask Turkey’s parliament to approve Sweden joining NATO.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is expected to take a similar step.
The outcome is a victory for Mr Biden, as he has described NATO’s expansion as an example of how Russia’s invasion has backfired on Vladimir Putin.
Finland has already become the 31st member of the alliance, and Sweden will become the 32nd. Both Nordic countries were historically non-aligned until the war increased fears of Russian aggression.
Because of the deal on Sweden’s membership, “this summit is already historic before it has started”, Mr Stoltenberg said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters NATO’s expansion is “one of the reasons that led to the current situation”.
“It looks like the Europeans don’t understand their mistake,” Mr Peskov said. He warned against putting Ukraine on a fast track for NATO membership.
“Potentially it’s very dangerous for the European security, it carries very big risks,” Mr Peskov added.
Mr Biden began Tuesday by meeting Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, where he emphasised his commitment to transatlantic cooperation.
“Nothing happens here that doesn’t affect us,” he told Mr Nauseda. The White House said Mr Nauseda presented Mr Biden with the Order of Vytautas the Great, the highest award a Lithuanian president can bestow. Mr Biden is the first US president to receive it.
Mr Biden and Mr Erdogan were scheduled to meet on Tuesday evening, and it was unclear how some of the Turkish president’s other demands would be resolved.
He has been seeking advanced American fighter jets and a path towards membership of the European Union.
The White House has expressed support for both, but publicly insisted that the issues were not related to Sweden joining NATO.
“I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkey on enhancing defence and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area,” Mr Biden said in a statement on Monday.