The US is pushing back against efforts by some European allies to offer Ukraine a “road map” to Nato membership at the alliance’s July summit, exposing divides in the west over Kyiv’s postwar status.
The US, Germany and Hungary are resisting efforts from countries such as Poland and the Baltic states to offer Kyiv deeper ties with Nato and clear statements of support for its future membership, four officials involved in the talks told the FT.
The divisions were made clear at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels this week, with member state officials set to spend the next two months locked in negotiations ahead of a leaders’ summit in Vilnius in July.
The negotiations come amid warnings from Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he will only attend the summit if presented with tangible steps towards Nato membership, such as postwar security guarantees from its members or deeper collaboration with the alliance.
Nato in 2008 agreed Ukraine would at some point become a member, but has not advanced that language since then. At that time, it was the US who called for Nato to grant Ukraine a concrete accession timetable, the so-called Membership Action Plan, but France and Germany pushed back amid concerns that the move would provoke Russia.
Ukraine formally applied for Nato membership last year, following Russia’s invasion. So did Finland and Sweden — the former having joined the alliance earlier this week.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, last month presented member states with a proposal paper sketching out “practical and political” offerings for Kyiv, officials said. That included a suggestion of a new declaration on Ukraine’s relationship with Nato, building on the 2008 statement.
Diplomats involved in the talks this week said there was a robust debate among the foreign ministers in Brussels about what Ukraine should be offered. Allies displayed genuine differences in their demands, in contrast with Nato’s broad unity since Russia’s president Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
“We’ve got several weeks of hard negotiations ahead to close those gaps and craft a political outcome,” said one western official.
All 31 members of the alliance agree that membership is not a short-term option and cannot be seriously discussed while the war is ongoing.
But two people present in the meetings this week said a growing number support offering Ukraine “a political path” to membership in Vilnius that would “thicken” the bonds between the Brussels-based alliance and Kyiv. The US, however, was pushing back against that proposal, they said.
“The road [to Vilnius] is still very rocky,” said a second western official.
The US is instead urging allies to stay focused on short-term military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, in order to help it resist and eventually repel Russia’s invasion. Practical support such as ammunition deliveries should be the main priority for Vilnius, US officials said, with discussions over a potential postwar political relationship only distracting from that goal.
Washington is concerned that deepening ties while the war is ongoing could fuel Putin’s narrative of a battle between Russia and Nato itself and that Moscow may escalate the conflict, including by potentially deploying nuclear arms.
“In order for us to get to the question of when and how to get Ukraine into the alliance, we must, as the secretary-general has noted, ‘ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent nation’,” a senior US official said.
One option under consideration is to upgrade the existing Nato-Ukraine commission to a Nato-Ukraine council, a step that would elevate Ukraine’s status as a partner of the alliance, making it more involved in Nato meetings and consultations including enhancing intelligence briefings. Russia has such a format with Nato, which has been put on hold since the invasion.
Zelenskyy has told Nato leaders that he will only attend the Vilnius summit if the alliance is prepared to advance concrete co-operation with Kyiv, and is willing to discuss security guarantees for Ukraine in lieu of full alliance membership.
“I would like to tell all our partners, who are constantly looking for compromises on Ukraine’s path to Nato, that our country will be uncompromising on this issue,” Zelenskyy said in a speech this week.
Nato allies are also arguing over whether there should be a separate, Ukraine-specific summit statement, or if the country should be referenced in the wider overall summit declaration.
“The eastern Europeans, of course, are trying to come up with formulas that start a process,” said one person briefed on the discussions. “They want to suck us into a process that inevitably leads to their desired end state [of Ukraine’s membership] and others are hesitant about that.”
A spokesperson for Nato pointed to Stoltenberg’s public remarks after the meetings on Wednesday, where he reiterated Nato’s 2008 pledge to Ukraine.
But Stoltenberg also said making that a reality depended on both Ukraine remaining “a sovereign, independent nation”, and the country’s armed forces adopting Nato standard doctrines and practices. “This transition has started but we need more, and we need to implement it quicker.”
While at Nato headquarters on Wednesday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken told reporters that the alliance’s “door remains open” for Ukraine. “There’s no change in that,” he said while adding that the immediate focus should be on helping Ukraine prepare its counteroffensive and on bringing its forces “up to Nato standards and . . . interoperability”.