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NATO to Zelenskyy: 'We Meet as Equals'

President Joe Biden, right, looks to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as he speaks during a meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

VILNIUS — NATO leaders met Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as they close a summit in Lithuania’s capital, reiterating support for Kyiv to join the alliance but stopping short of any specific commitments or timeline that Zelenskyy has sought.

“Today, we meet as equals. I look forward to the day we meet as allies,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

In its written declaration Tuesday, leaders said they “will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.”

Kyiv’s NATO membership in the middle of Russia’s invasion would require allies to apply the principle of “an attack on one is an attack on all” enshrined in the bloc’s Article 5 – putting members in direct conflict with Moscow.

While not extending a fast track to membership, NATO is dropping its requirement for Ukraine to fulfill its so-called Membership Action Plan, a list of political, economic and military goals it must meet before joining the alliance.

A day after blasting NATO’s lack of a clear timetable as “absurd,” Zelenskyy appeared more conciliatory and acknowledged concerns that allies do not want to be dragged into direct conflict with Moscow.

“Even during the full-scale war against Russia, Ukraine continues to conduct reform,” he said. “Therefore, we highly appreciate the recognition that Ukraine will not need an action plan on its way to NATO.”

NATO-Ukraine Council

Wednesday’s agenda features the first meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, a newly established decision-making body that carries more authority than the previous NATO-Ukraine Commission, which was a consultation-only platform.

This general view shows a working session on Ukraine during the NATO summit, in Vilnius on July 12, 2023.
This general view shows a working session on Ukraine during the NATO summit, in Vilnius on July 12, 2023.

Zelenskyy is also set to hold separate talks with U.S. President Joe Biden later Wednesday.

Alongside Zelenskyy, leaders of the Group of Seven wealthiest democracies, including Biden, will announce a new framework to provide long-term security and economic support for Ukraine through separate bilateral negotiations.

“This multilateral declaration will send a significant signal to Russia that time is not on its side,” said Amanda Sloat, National Security Council Senior Director for Europe, in a briefing to reporters.

Biden’s final item before leaving Vilnius is an address “highlighting how the United States, alongside our allies and partners, are supporting Ukraine, defending democratic values and taking action to address global challenges,” the White House said.

Immediately after his remarks Wednesday evening, Biden is scheduled to depart for Helsinki to meet with leaders of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark. Now that Sweden will be joining NATO, all five Nordic countries are part of the military alliance.