President Volodymyr Zelenskyi during meeting with Secretary general of NATO Jens Stoltenberg on September 28, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Vitalii Nosach/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

NATO SUMMIT 2024 — A much-anticipated formal declaration out of the NATO Summit in Washington stopped short of inviting Ukraine to join the alliance, but says Kyiv is on an “irreversible path” to membership.

“We fully support Ukraine’s right to choose its own security arrangements and decide its own future, free from outside interference. Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” the formal communique out of the summit said. “We welcome the concrete progress Ukraine has made since the Vilnius Summit on its required democratic, economic, and security reforms. As Ukraine continues this vital work, we will continue to support it on its irreversible path to full Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership.”

The alliance said it would “be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met” and described ongoing work as a “bridge to Ukraine’s membership in NATO.”

NATO officials had managed expectations ahead of the summit, indicating that a formal invitation would not be in the offing. Still, Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said Tuesday allies were laboring over the precise language of the declaration — particularly the word “irreversible” — and “how strong [the declaration] will be.”

“For me, what is important is that Ukraine will get very clear message that their place is with NATO,” Pevkur said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH., said today that Ukraine will not be able to join the alliance while it’s at war, but she said the “bridge” to membership was the goal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged last month that Ukraine could not join NATO until the war was over.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had previously said Ukraine was on an “irreversible path” to NATO membership, and several other leaders such as Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda used the “irreversible” language to describe Ukraine’s path to NATO earlier today.

During a press event closing out day one of the summit, Stoltenberg fielded a number of questions about how “irreversible” the statement truly is. The outgoing NATO leader forcefully defended the wording, while also acknowledging that both the alliance and Ukraine needed to hold up their ends of the bargain for any future membership.

The statement is a “strong message from NATO allies saying that we want Ukraine to join… . Words are important. Words create an expectation, it creates an agenda,” he said. “But actions speak at least as loudly as words.”

As part of the action, NATO agreed to pledge €40 billion ($43.3 billion) in security assistance to Ukraine over the next year, something Stoltenberg described as a “minimum” needed. In addition, NATO will be taking over various member’s efforts to provide security assistance to Ukraine and folding it under a new headquarters-level organization, led by a three-star general and based in Germany with an estimated 700 people working on it. (When asked, Stoltenberg declined to identify who would be leading that unit.)

“We want to end the war as soon as possible. The quickest way to end the war is to lose the war, but that would not bring peace. It would only bring occupation,” the NATO chief said. “So unless we want Ukraine to lose, unless we wan to bow to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we need to show commitment and resolve.”

Zelenskyy is set to meet with the NATO leaders on Thursday, but indicated the urgency for more aid from NATO in a speech Tuesday night.

“Even these days, the NATO summit, which has become a strong event — strong decisions are needed and we’re waiting for them. We’re counting on them,” the Ukrainian leader said. “For 75 years Europeans could be confident [that] no matter the friction within the allies, no body when talking to Russia would trade the membership of European nations. But why does Moscow hope for this now, and why do the words Ukraine is a NATO member cause more fear not in Moscow?”

Elsewhere in the declaration, NATO said that Russia’s “full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shattered peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and gravely undermined global security. Russia remains the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security. Terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, is the most direct asymmetric threat to the security of our citizens and to international peace and prosperity. The threats we face are global and interconnected.” The proximity of mentions of Russia to “terrorism” in the same point in a 38-point declaration may suggest the increasing concern NATO members have displayed over purported hybrid activity by Russia in NATO countries, from cyber attacks to vandalism.

The China Question

One theme in the leadup to the Summit was that beyond the war in Ukraine, there would be a focus on China and, more broadly, the Indo-Pacific. NATO and EU leaders are set to meet with delegations from South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, and when they do, Stoltenberg will be quick to point out language in the communique directly hitting China.

China, the NATO allies wrote, has “become a decisive enabler of Russia’s war against Ukraine.” The leaders also call on China to cease all material and political support for Russia in its war.

However, asked what actions NATO would be taking against China to ensure good behavior, Stoltenberg deflected, emphasizing multiple times in his presser that the statement itself was important.

“Allies have stated clearly that China cannot enable the largest conflict in Europe in recent history without it negatively impacting their interest and reputation,” Stoltenberg said.