It was, by the standards of international summits, an undiplomatic intervention. A clearly frustrated Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted that Nato allies were showing Ukraine disrespect, that they were discussing his country’s hopes of joining the military alliance without him. “It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to Nato nor to make it a member of the alliance,” he wrote.
The outburst was certainly last minute, coming less than an hour before Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak and Nato other’s 29 leaders were due to sign off a final summit declaration on the topic. It turned out to be a communique that did not spell out a timeline by which Ukraine could join, nor a list of conditions it would have to meet, nor even extend an invitation to join at an unspecified future date once the war with Russia is over.
In truth, the public lobbying was always going to be far too late. Zelenskiy was playing as much to the court of international public opinion as the leaders’ meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. They proceeded as intended, signing off a carefully negotiated declaration that promised Ukraine could join when it had completed unspecified “democratic and security sector reforms”, a hurdle demanded in particular by Biden himself.
Later, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told CNN that Ukraine could not join Nato immediately as it was “an inescapable fact” that the treaty’s mutual defence clause would mean allies would be obliged to enter a direct war with Russia.
The Ukrainian president arrived on Tuesday afternoon to the capital of a country that, like his homeland, was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. The peaceful, prosperous city is less than 20 miles away from Russia-allied Belarus, its out-of-town apartment blocks reminiscent of many Ukrainian cities, but, protected by Nato membership, its people could come out safely in large numbers to see Zelenskiy speak in the city centre. Kyiv, he said, was already Lithuania’s ally and would fight to “defend its freedom and yours”.
That evening people gathered around the city centre to watch leaders come in and out of presidential palaces and royal castles in their motorcades in one of the largest international events the Baltic country has hosted. But Zelenskiy’s frustration was threatening to overshadow a summit billed as containing further practical support for Ukraine, and it was not going to go unnoticed by western leaders whose countries have contributed significantly in terms of military and economic aid.
The next day, Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, suggested that he thought that Zelenskiy might have gone a bit far. “Whether we like it or not, people want to see a bit of gratitude,” he said, meaning that in Ukraine’s haste to obtain badly needed military aid, it would accept one gift of weapons and immediately start lobbying for another. “You know, we’re not Amazon,” he said, pointing out that on one occasion he travelled to Ukraine to be presented with a shopping list on arrival.
Significantly, similar language was used by Sullivan, who had been needled by a question from a Ukrainian activist who suggested the US was “afraid of Ukraine winning”. The senior Biden aide began by saying the American people, meaning US taxpayers, “do deserve a degree of gratitude” from, he carefully qualified, “the United States, from our government” to avoid directly criticising Ukraine.
Ukraine had achieved a lot at the summit: a commitment from all members of the G7 to continue with military and economic aid long term, an agreement to start a training programme for its pilots on western F-16 jets with the help of 11 countries, a €700m (£600m) military aid package from Germany and many other fresh pledges, as well as a formal promise that “Ukraine’s future is in Nato”.
So, when Zelenskiy arrived at the summit on Wednesday morning, it was clear some recalibration was needed to avoid a disappointment becoming a falling-out. The Ukrainian president appeared serious and reserved in a joint press conference with the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and was careful to spell out he was grateful to Biden, the US Congress and the American people. “We highly appreciate this,” he said.
But amid all the dampening down, Zelenskiy was careful too to hang on to his key demand, that he still wanted a formal invitation to join – it would be, he said, “a signal” that Nato was serious about eventual membership. That will not happen while the war with Russia is hot, or before US elections conclude in 2024 – but Zelenskiy has to hope he has pushed it up the agenda for later this decade.