A giant poster on the road into the host city of this week’s NATO summit in Lithuania reads: “Ukraine deserves NATO membership now.”
That is what Kyiv would like to see, though it is not going to happen as long as Ukraine is in a fierce war with Russia.
Even after the fighting stops, a speedy accession to the transatlantic club is very unlikely, despite such a pathway being the strong desire of Vilnius and its fellow Baltic state capitals.
Yet the question about how close to hold Ukraine will dominate the two-day gathering of NATO leaders, including US President Joe Biden, the UK’s Rishi Sunak and President Emmanuel Macron of France, in the Lithuanian capital.
A top US diplomat told Sky News that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who will also attend, will be “relieved” when he hears what the allies have to offer on membership.
“I think he will feel relieved to see the unity that the alliance is showcasing in this moment and the full package of concrete deliverables that the alliance is prepared to offer,” Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to NATO, said in an interview.
But a Ukrainian military source said there was already a sense of “big disappointment”.
“We understand that we can’t change a lot but feel ourselves betrayed as a nation,” the source said.
“NATO was created to deter Russia. Now Ukraine, with support of NATO, is deterring and weakening Russia. Ukraine is now conducting Article 5 by itself to protect Poland and the Baltic states.”
The source was referring to the founding Article 5 principle of the alliance that an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all and requires a collective response. Any nation, like Ukraine, that is not a member is not afforded this protection.
The overtures to Ukraine are expected to take two, separate forms.
Firstly, there will be a commitment by allies in a final communique at the end of the summit to some kind of route for NATO membership that goes further than a general pledge made in 2008 that the door to joining the alliance was open.
As part of this, allies are expected to ditch a requirement for Ukraine to complete a process known as a membership action plan that involves lengthy political and military reforms.
They will also convene the first meeting of a NATO-Ukraine Council, a new arrangement designed to let Kyiv deal with allies on a more equal footing.
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All this falls well short of a clear invitation to join the club that Ukraine had been seeking.
But NATO is an alliance that works by consensus so can only ever move at the pace of the most reluctant – as demonstrated most recently by Turkey’s behaviour over a historic bid by Sweden to become a member state.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan only lifted his veto on Swedish membership on the eve of the summit, despite a large majority of allies backing Stockholm’s bid. Even then Ankara has yet to set a firm date for when the Turkish parliament will ratify the accession agreement.
Hungary too has yet to rubber stamp Sweden’s joining papers.
It means Stockholm is still outside the club and Swedish membership is far less controversial than inviting a country that is locked in a war of survival with Russia to join NATO.
The Swedish experience is a clear signal that Ukrainian membership – while agreed in principle by all allies – is not likely to happen quickly.
That is why the second step that might emerge in Vilnius is so important.
Individual member states led by the US, UK, France and Germany – rather than NATO as a collective – are finalising a framework agreement that will set out a series of long-term security guarantees that they will grant Ukraine short of speedy NATO membership.
These guarantees, such as enduring commitment to provide weapons, intelligence and other security assistance, will provide long-term support to Ukraine in its war and an element of deterrence from future attacks once the fighting stops.
It is a kind of buffer while Kyiv navigates a path to full membership to NATO.
Included on the table is the option of the kind of “Israel-style” security assurances that the United States provides to the Israeli government. This was first raised by Mr Biden in an interview with CNN at the weekend.
It is not clear whether the allies involved in this initiative – which is separate but complementary to the NATO discussions – will reach an agreement before the summit concludes but Vilnius would provide a timely backdrop to offset Ukrainian disappointment over its NATO aspirations.