NATO and Ukraine clashed publicly for the first time this week.
At a gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania, with all the 31 members of NATO, there were clear frictions between Kyiv and the military alliance. This culminated with the Ukrainian leader, Volodomyr Zelenskyy, saying Tuesday that the absence of a timeline for his country to join NATO was “absurd.”
One senior diplomat present at the meetings told CNBC Thursday that Zelenskyy “overplayed” his hand during the summit and was therefore pressured by the United States and others to show more gratitude.
There was a “very clear message from the U.S. side, you [Ukraine] went too far,” the senior diplomat who attended the meetings in Lithuania but preferred to remain anonymous due to sensitivity of the topic, told CNBC Thursday.
The comments give an insight into the power dynamics within NATO. Even if some members very keen to follow Ukraine’s request, the United States in particular isn’t supportive of immediate membership for Kyiv at this time.
“The summit outcome reflects the basic reality that NATO is a U.S. security commitment to, as the strongest military power in the world, defend other eligible countries. Hence NATO will always only move at the speed of Washington, which right now is fixated on China in the long-run,” Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), told CNBC via email.
“The U.S. will therefore not let a warring country into NATO and give too firm a timeline commitment,” he added. Ukraine has been fighting Russia’s full-scale invasion since February 2022.
During a NATO public forum on Wednesday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the American people deserve a degree of gratitude for their support after a Ukrainian activist criticized the lack of a precise timeline for Kyiv to join NATO.
U.K. Defense Minister Ben Wallace also said Wednesday “I am not Amazon,” when discussing the delivery of weapons to Kyiv. “Whether we like it or not, people want to see gratitude,” he said, according to Reuters. His boss, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, quickly distanced himself from those comments.
Public opinion remains supportive of Ukraine across the European Union, but there has been a drop in support for some specific measures. The number of citizens who back the sending of weapons or the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia has actually fallen during the first 12 months of the war.
“The fact remains that time is not on our side. The longer this conflict goes on the more difficult it is to find the money. This is undeniable,” Maria Demertzis, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank, said.
In a joint press statement also on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden told Zelenskyy: “I know you’re many times frustrated about when things — what things get to you quickly enough and what’s getting to you and how we’re getting there. But I promise you, the United States is doing everything we can to get you what you need as rapidly as we can get it to you.”
Biden also added: “And I look forward to the day when we’re having the meeting celebrating your official — official membership in NATO.”
The 31 members of NATO did not commit to a date for when Ukraine can join the group. Instead, they removed the need for an action plan as “Ukraine has become increasingly interoperable and politically integrated with the alliance” and said they will extend an invitation “when allies agree and conditions are met.”
The bottom line is Ukraine will not become a NATO member as long as the war drags on.
“They key thing is that we [the West] have played a very delicate balance, we ourselves cannot be at war,” the same senior diplomat told CNBC.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Finland’s Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen acknowledged that even if NATO were to give a clear membership path for Kyiv, it “wouldn’t be a 100% guarantee” that it would join soon. Finland is the newest NATO member, having joined in early April.
However, Valtonen disregarded claims that Ukraine has not shown gratitude, arguing that aid should not be seen as charity.
Regardless, Zelenskyy seemed to have listened to the criticism. His public remarks following Tuesday’s speech were marked by repeated appreciation. When returning to Ukraine from the NATO summit, he said via Twitter: “I am grateful to all those who have worked for unity in Vilnius.”