Ultimately, the United States and its allies agreed they would preserve the declaration’s language as eventually presented Tuesday at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. The declaration lacks a timeline for Ukraine’s membership into the bloc but was the product of hard-won efforts to move the Biden administration and other European leaders to grant more-specific offers to Kyiv amid Russia’s ongoing invasion.
The incident illustrates the frustration inside NATO with Zelensky’s pressure tactics, where even some of his strongest backers questioned this week whether he was serving Ukraine’s interests with his outburst. At the same time, the backroom scramble it set off shows how little the alliance can do about it: NATO nations are all-in on the war effort, and many member states remain deeply sympathetic to Zelensky’s demands for a deeper level of support. And while many officials expressed annoyance with the tweet, there was an understanding that the leader of an embattled nation must demonstrate he will do anything to extract the maximum on behalf of his people.
Zelensky’s missive, launched as NATO leaders were gathering for the two-day summit, denounced as “unprecedented and absurd” what was then a draft of the membership language.
The Ukrainian leader’s public rebuke of the alliance stunned those assembled in the summit venue, an exposition hall on the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital, leaving the U.S. delegation “furious,” according to one official familiar with the situation. Like others, the person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.
Zelensky’s ‘guilt-based’ diplomacy leaves its mark on NATO summit
Ambassadors, ministers and other senior policymakers held informal talks about how the alliance should respond. U.S. officials raised the possibility of revisiting or striking the passage to which Zelensky had so forcefully objected: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met,” according to European officials involved in the negotiations.
Although Washington has given Kyiv billions of dollars worth of military aid and other support since the war began early last year, President Biden has favored a cautious approach, fearful that doing too much too quickly could risk escalating the crisis and drawing NATO into direct conflict with Russia. Biden attended the Vilnius summit with his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has traveled on to Jakarta, Indonesia, for a meeting of foreign ministers from Southeast Asia.
At a summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008, Ukraine and Georgia were offered eventual NATO membership, provided they fulfilled a slew of requirements first. Ukrainians complain that 15 years later, they are still facing a host of reform demands, many of which aren’t specific.
A U.S. official familiar with the conversations acknowledged that revisions to the declaration had been considered, saying the Biden administration was sensitive to Zelensky’s concerns and had hoped they might address them somehow.
At NATO summit, Biden’s caution clashed with calls to draw Ukraine closer
Three other senior policymakers, however, two of whom were direct participants in the talks, said their strong perception was that the United States was getting ready to water down the document’s language — to make it less welcoming to a speedy Ukrainian accession to the alliance.
“Some wanted to withdraw the reference to ‘invitation,’” or find another place to put that word, said one of the senior policymakers, a NATO diplomat who took part in the talks.
Spokespeople for the White House and the Ukrainian presidency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Another senior NATO diplomat who took part in the frantic negotiations said that, although “several people” supported removing the phrasing that had upset Zelensky, the U.S. delegation “did not specifically want to take that promise” of an invitation out of the declaration. There was a consensus that reworking the document would delay its release and, “in the end, those most concerned about the Ukrainian reaction came to the conclusion that it would be better to stick with the text” as drafted.
“It sends a very clear and strong message,” this person said, “both to Ukraine and Russia.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, backed by the Central European and Baltic nations, pushed to keep the language originally agreed upon. Those leaders saw it as the strongest possible offer to Ukraine given reluctance by the United States, Germany and others to go further for fear that doing so would draw the alliance into a direct confrontation with Russia. NATO leaders also announced wide-ranging packages of military assistance for Kyiv.
“We landed. The outcome was the best possible,” the diplomat said.
By the time NATO ambassadors formally discussed how to respond to Zelensky’s tweet, the United States was back on board with the declaration’s original wording, the policymakers said.
Inside the leaders’ room, there was more back and forth with advisers than is typical for these types of highly scripted summits, officials said. At one point, the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, entered the room and pulled Biden away from the table, appearing to be talking the president through something, one official said.
Zelensky later softened his tone, expressing gratitude during the in-person meetings in Vilnius and urging for as speedy a Ukrainian accession to the alliance as possible.
On Wednesday, a day after the tense negotiations, the head of Zelensky’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, was observed having an intense conversation with Sullivan during the first meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, a newly established consultative body created for Ukraine to convene NATO ambassadors and discuss its security concerns.
Yermak, said one person who witnessed the conversation, appeared as though he was trying to argue. Sullivan, this person said, “looked determined.” The exchange lasted about 30 minutes.
The tense effort to hold the line on Ukraine’s behalf left some of Kyiv’s strongest advocates exhausted and exasperated.
“It was not fun,” said a senior NATO policymaker familiar with the talks.
Emily Rauhala in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Toluse Olorunnipa and Meryl Kornfield in Helsinki contributed to this report.