© Reuters. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler attend a meeting, on the eve of a NATO summit, in Vilnius, Lithuania July 10, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Her
By Sabine Siebold, John Irish and Steve Holland
VILNIUS (Reuters) -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said it would be “absurd” if NATO leaders gathering for a summit on Tuesday did not offer his country a timeframe for membership, after the alliance head said it would send Kyiv a “positive message”.
Kyiv is pushing to be swiftly allowed into the Western alliance, bound together by mutual security guarantees. But divisions among NATO’s 31 members mean there will not be a date or straightforward invitation for Ukraine to join.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Kyiv would get more military aid and security guarantees, an easing of formal conditions to join, as well as a new format of cooperation with the alliance, the so-called NATO-Ukraine Council.
“I expect allies will send a clear, united and positive message on the path towards membership for Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said on arriving to the talks he was due to host.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan also said the gathering would send a “positive signal” about Kyiv’s membership bid.
Zelenskiy, however, spoke against what he saw as weak wording around Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership.
“It’s unprecedented and absurd when a timeframe is not set, neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership,” he said on the Telegram messaging app before joining the summit as a special guest.
The summit, in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, is taking place as Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive, which began last month, proceeds more slowly than hoped.
Amid several pledges of more military aid, French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris would start supplying long-range missiles to help Ukraine hit back against Russian forces who invaded in February 2022.
“I have decided to increase deliveries of weapons and equipment to enable the Ukrainians to have the capacity to strike deeply,” Macron said on arrival at the summit.
While NATO members agree Kyiv cannot join during the war, they have disagreed over how quickly it could happen afterwards and under what conditions.
NATO members in Eastern Europe have backed Kyiv’s stance, arguing that bringing Ukraine under NATO’s collective security umbrella is the best way to deter Russia from attacking again.
Countries such as the United States and Germany have been more cautious, wary of any move that they fear could draw NATO into a direct conflict with Russia.
Diplomats said the text of the final agreement of the summit may raise the prospect of the alliance being in a position to “extend an invitation” to Kyiv to join “when allies agree and conditions are met”.
Officials said that might leave out specifying what those conditions would be. They stressed the draft agreement had not yet been finalised.
The summit is also set to approve NATO’s first comprehensive plans since the end of the Cold War to defend against any attack from Russia.
Moscow, which has cited NATO’s eastern expansion as a key factor in its decision to invade Ukraine, has criticised the two-day summit.
Russia’s state news agency RIA quoted a Vienna-based senior Russian diplomat as warning that Europe would be the first to face “catastrophic consequences” should the war in Ukraine escalate.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that “necessary arrangements” would be made to ensure Ukraine receives security assurances for after the war.
Lithuania’s NATO ambassador said the summit would commit 500 million euros a year in non-lethal help to Ukraine, including medical supplies and de-mining.
A European diplomatic source said G7 security guarantees for Ukraine would be announced just after the NATO summit.
SWEDEN ON ITS WAY IN
While Ukraine was set to be kept waiting, another country seemingly secured a breakthrough on its path to NATO membership.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan late on Monday agreed to forward Sweden’s bid to join to his parliament for ratification, appearing to end months of opposition that strained the bloc.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was what prompted Sweden – and its Nordic neighbour Finland – to abandon decades of military non-alignment and apply to join NATO.
Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April but Sweden’s accession has been held up by a dispute with Turkey, where Erdogan had accused Sweden of not doing enough to crack down on militants that Ankara sees as terrorists.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Erdogan agreed to step up cooperation on fighting terrorism. Scholz said he would talk to his Turkish counterpart in Vilnius about Ankara’s ties with the European Union.
The United States also promised to move forward with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, Sullivan said.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “not at all” surprised Turkey ended up lifting its veto, and that he was confident Sweden would be voted into NATO.