June 8. 2023. 11:46

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NATO to upgrade Ukraine’s partner status without offering swift membership

NATO members are set to offer Ukraine an upgraded relationship format, in a move meant to show political support for the war-torn country and its membership bid, although any concrete roadmap for accession still remains a more distant prospect.

Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, made eight months ago, has so far remained unanswered, but is likely to be a key focus of the alliance’s Vilnius Summit in July. Meanwhile, the idea to upgrade Ukraine’s status with the alliance is gaining support.

Both sides currently meet in the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which directs cooperative activities and provides a forum for consultation between the NATO members and Ukraine on security issues of common concern.

As EURACTIV reported in March, NATO countries are looking to upgrade Ukraine’s status in its relationship by setting up a “Ukraine-NATO Council”.

This idea has gained traction and would be a signal to also show an upgrade in relations, several NATO diplomats told EURACTIV.

It would be the first move in “enhancing the political partnership” between the alliance and Kyiv since the war started and Ukraine applied for membership, two NATO diplomats said.

NATO foreign ministers are set to meet in Oslo next week where they are expected to discuss the shape and the timeline of the new council and future membership, as well as the need for more military aid to Ukraine as it prepares for its summer offensive against Russia.

Equal footing

Under the plan, Ukraine would be a “full-fledged” member around the Ukraine-NATO Council table instead of being only invited for discussions as is the case now.

Ukrainians could then call for meetings when they wish, and it would be easier to give a direct update on the situation on the battlefield, two people with knowledge of the discussions said.

It would open the door to a wide range of new cooperation areas that did not exist before, three people told EURACTIV.

Those could include more intelligence sharing and consultations, joint exercises, investment in the defence industry, and work on the interoperability between Ukraine’s and the NATO member states’ armed forces, giving Kyiv the option to align with NATO’s communiqués and standards, EURACTIV understands.

Likewise, some NATO member states have pointed out that Russia – Ukraine’s aggressor – has a joint NATO-Russia Council, although meetings are no longer taking place, while their partner Ukraine does not.

Ukraine formally adopted a constitutional amendment in 2019 committing to pursue NATO membership.

But even though the country has pushed several reforms of its security sector over the past few years, experts and allied diplomats say there is more Kyiv has to do to integrate into Western institutions.

The creation of a common format with Kyiv would contribute to shaping Ukraine into a future member, which would help to bring it as close to NATO standards as possible to enable a smooth transition when the time comes, diplomats said.

Ukraine’s Road to Vilnius…

Last month in Kyiv, during a surprise visit seen as a significant show of support, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO”.

Although NATO diplomats acknowledge a fast-track membership is not an option, some wish to officially put Kyiv on the path to membership.

Hawkish Eastern European members believe NATO needs to make it clear that “Ukraine will be a member of the alliance after the war”, two NATO diplomats said, calling for a roadmap or concrete plan to accession.

Some NATO members also believe that the 2008 Bucharest Summit’s formula – promising Ukraine, as well as Georgia, that they will one day join – is a clear enough message of commitment to their security.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he will not attend the Vilnius Summit if no concrete deliverables are expected, in an attempt to up the pressure on his Western military allies.

“Every week we add value for Ukraine from the NATO Summit in Vilnius, we are doing everything to make the decision at the summit work for us,” Zelenskyy said on Monday (22 May) on the way back from the G7 Summit in Japan.

..and into the Alliance?

Privately, Ukrainian officials do recognise that NATO membership is not imminent, but they still ask for a gesture from the Western military alliance.

NATO diplomats have been stressing ahead of the Vilnius summit that the meeting will also be about managing Ukraine’s expectations.

“On that issue [of Ukraine’s NATO membership], there are different views in the Alliance and of course, the only way to make decisions in NATO is by consensus,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday, adding that “consultations are ongoing”.

“No one is able to tell you exactly what will be the final decision at the Vilnius Summit on this issue,” he told an event organised by the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, but added that “all agree that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance”.

However, both he and several other NATO members have refrained from showing clear support to Kyiv’s membership bid and accept it, in contrast to the support they immediately gave Sweden and Finland last spring. Instead, they pointed towards the need to focus on military support to Kyiv.

One option to shape the membership path would be for NATO members to assess the progress Ukraine has made in a few years and re-evaluate its membership bid then.

However, this appears not to be supported by a majority of NATO members.

Originally, the United States and Germany were very cautious while Hungary remained firmly opposed because of bilateral problems with Ukraine, and Europe’s big powers such as France and the UK found themselves in the middle ground, EURACTIV understands.

NATO diplomats, however, say the crucial challenge for the Vilnius summit will be to find a balanced formula to confirm NATO’s “open door policy” without promising a fast-track accession.

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