An audience attendsthe G7 Declaration of Joint Support for Ukraine during NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 12, 2023.

An audience attendsthe G7 Declaration of Joint Support for Ukraine during NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 12, 2023. Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Central, Eastern European pressure improved Ukraine's outcome at NATO summit, experts say

European diplomats praised the results, which one said overcame White House resistance.

NATO's recent summit produced a promise to extend membership to Ukraine, disappointing Kyiv and some of its supporters who wanted an immediate invitation. But other European diplomats and experts called the new commitment a hard-won victory over U.S. reluctance.

“I think Vilnius proved what we thought all along: that Ukraine would be the central question, however much the White House wished it would rather be the Sweden accession,” one European diplomat told Defense One, referring to Turkey softening its position on Sweden joining the alliance. “All in all, it was pretty much the maximum that was possible to achieve in these circumstances." 

The summit, which ended Wednesday, produced a NATO promise to “issue an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO when allies agree that conditions are met.”

The language leaves substantial wiggle room, but Kathleen McInnis, senior fellow at think-tank CSIS, and Luke Coffey of the Hudson Institute agreed that "conditions" mean an end to the war in Ukraine. 

The alliance also agreed to waive the membership action plan for Ukraine, a process that typically consists of advice and technical support from NATO for a prospective member. 

The alliance established the NATO-Ukraine Council. On the sidelines, the G7 nations pledged to support Ukraine with bilateral security agreements. The G7 consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. 

Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarovka praised the G7 announcement as “a very powerful document,” in remarks Wednesday at an event hosted by the Carnegie Center for International Peace. 

The summit also produced updated NATO battleplans and an agreement from Turkey to allow Swedish membership in NATO—a major development after a last-minute blocking maneuver by Ankara. 

Two experts who attended the summit said an alliance of Baltic, central, and southeastern European countries was instrumental in pushing the U.S. and others past their more conservative initial positions.

"The language would have been weaker, were it not for strong lobbying by NATO members," said former Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, naming the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. McInnis likewise cited pressure by central European and Baltic countries. 

Polish input in particular was important in reshaping U.S. statements on Ukraine, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the events. The individuals said Polish pressure led to revisions in planned U.S. statements almost until the moment national security adviser Jake Sullivan was scheduled to give a televised address on the topic.

“There are different allies who were less ambitious, even much less ambitious. And you need to make sure that they are also on board,” a central-eastern European diplomat told Defense One. The diplomat nevertheless hailed the results, saying it was “important for us to show unity, because that's what Putin is afraid of.”

While the U.S. and Germany were known to have opposed more ambitious plans for Ukraine, McInnis said other countries were also likely hard to get on board—particularly Russia-leaning Hungary.

Experts also noted France’s recent foreign policy turn toward more support for Ukraine as key to the summit's results. Former Ambassador Dan Fried, who worked as a diplomat at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest—during which Ukrainian membership was discussed—drew a sharp contrast between the two summits. 

“The French and the Germans were in staunch opposition in Bucharest,” Fried said. “Now the French have moved.”  

The first day of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France was sending long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine, a step the U.S. has so far not taken, despite long-standing Ukrainian requests. 

“The French have become much more ambitious in recent weeks, which is very positive,” the  central-eastern European diplomat said.  

At least some experts noted that in the slow-moving, 30-member alliance, victories obvious to long-term NATO watchers might be less apparent to recent observers. McInnis praised new NATO regional defense plans, and Coffey expressed approval for the waiving of the membership action plan.

The action was “symbolic,” Coffey said. “But it's important, because this has been part of the NATO debate for a long time.” 

The central eastern European diplomat also framed the war plans as “something unprecedented, and it's actually very positive development, from our perspective.”

McInnis, Fried, and Coffey view the overall takeaways as positive, particularly the alliance’s intent for Ukraine to join. 

“It's no longer the whether, it's the how and the when, and that's a big deal,” Fried said. 

“We have now crossed the bridge on Ukraine joining NATO,” Coffey added. 

Herbst was less optimistic, calling it a missed opportunity on NATO-Ukraine, and only a slight advance beyond the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022.

After initially calling the lack of a timeline for Ukrainian accession “absurd,” Ukrainian  Volodymyr Zelenskyy struck a more positive note by the summit’s close. 

“We have put to rest any doubts and ambiguities about whether Ukraine will be in NATO,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “For the first time, not only do all allies agree on this, but a significant majority in the alliance is vigorously pushing for it.”

Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.