NATO leaders met Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Lithuania’s capital as they close a summit that has included emphasis on supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia's invasion and discussion of Ukraine’s future within the alliance.
Zelenskyy said at a joint news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that he understands some allies do not want to consider Ukraine joining the alliance at this time due to fears of a world war, and that it is clear Ukraine cannot join while the conflict with Russia is ongoing.
NATO leaders said in a written declaration Tuesday that the bloc “will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met," reiterating their position supporting Ukraine’s membership but stopping short of any specific commitments or timeline that Zelenskyy has sought.
Zelenskyy said Wednesday he understands the statement to mean the conditions will be met when Ukraine’s territory is secure.
Stoltenberg highlighted a three-part package of more closely integrating Ukraine with NATO, including work on interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces, a new NATO-Ukraine council that held its first meeting Wednesday and removing a requirement for Ukraine to complete a membership action plan on its path to becoming a member.
“Today we meet as equals,” Stoltenberg said. “I look forward to the day we meet as allies.”
Russia has issued several statements during the summit stating that security assistance for Ukraine and NATO expansion represent a threat to Russia.
Asked about potentially inflaming the situation, Stoltenberg said there is already a “full-fledged war going on in Europe” and there is no risk-free option. He said the “biggest risk is if President [Vladimir] Putin wins.”
Stoltenberg repeated NATO’s position that it is only for Ukraine and NATO allies to decide if Ukraine will join the alliance and that “Moscow doesn’t have a veto.”
Britain said members of the Group of Seven, or G7, leading industrialized nations planned to announce a new framework for allies providing long-term security support for Ukraine.
Zelenskyy welcomed the move, saying that while the best security guarantee for Ukraine would be NATO membership, the G7 action would be a concrete step in support of Ukraine’s security. He added that Ukraine has already spoken to nations outside of the G7 that are interested in joining as well.
Stoltenberg said that while guarantees, documents and meetings are important, the most urgent task for allies is to provide Ukraine with enough weapons.
Zelenskyy was also set to hold separate talks with U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
The U.S. leader is scheduled to deliver an address “highlighting how the United States, alongside our allies and partners, are supporting Ukraine, defending democratic values, and taking action to address global challenges,” the White House said.
Following the two-day summit, Biden heads to Helsinki on Thursday to meet with leaders of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark. Once Sweden has joined NATO, all five Nordic countries will be members of the military alliance.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters