In a rare public display of division and lost tempers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Western partners exchanged expressions of frustration with each other at the recent NATO summit in Vilnius Lithuania. The exchange exposed more than their frustration. It exposed raw questions about the origins and endings of the war in Ukraine.
Zelensky traveled to Lithuania craving a promise and a timeline for NATO membership. He got a repetition of the promise but no timeline. And the promise was muddied and watered down. Though NATO announced that Ukraine "has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan" that advises NATO aspirants on reforms they have to make to meet NATO standard for admission, they simultaneously announced that they "will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine" when those "conditions are met."
Noting the paradox of an MAP without an MAP, Zelensky lashed out that "It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine."
Zelensky’s explosion made the US delegation so "furious" that they considered revising the invitation for Ukraine to join NATO, making it "less welcoming to a speedy Ukrainian accession to the alliance," or withdrawing the invitation altogether. UK defense secretary Ben Wallace said that the US and UK "want to see a bit of gratitude" from Ukraine and revealed that he "told them last year, when I drove 11 hours to be given a list, that I’m not like Amazon."
But if the US and the UK don’t want NATO to be treated like Amazon, then they shouldn’t advertise their services like Amazon. The US led West has consistently promised that Ukraine will have what it needs to defeat Russia for as long as it takes.
Zelensky’s demands, though insatiable, are not unreasonable. As early as February 27, 2022, Zelensky was willing to negotiate the end of the war that had started only three days earlier on terms that satisfied Ukraine’s goals. But then, and in subsequent negotiations mediated by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and, most promisingly, in talks held in Istanbul, the US and UK pressured him to continue the war in pursuit, not of attainable Ukrainian goals, but in pursuit of US goals. Then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Zelensky that Russian President Vladimir Putin "should be pressured, not negotiated with" and that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, "the West was not." State Department spokesman Ned Price explained that “This is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine.”
Zelensky gave up peace for Ukraine for a promise that the US and its NATO allies would give it everything it needed to continue to fight Russia in pursuit of the US and its allies’ goals. It is not unreasonable for him to expect fulfillment of that promise when confronted with the Russian military and treat NATO like Amazon as advertised.
In the end, Zelensky offered the demanded contrition, saying "The United States has stood side by side with Ukraine throughout our defense against aggression. We appreciate it tremendously," and the US kept the declaration of promised NATO membership for Ukraine.
Strangely, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who played the leading role in the push to keep the language of the invitation in the declaration. That is a strange role for Macron to assume. In December 2022, Macron said, "We need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table. One of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors, and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia."
Macron then broke with the US by saying the West had to negotiate not keeping an open NATO door to Ukraine; Macron now broke with the US by maintaining that NATO had to keep on open door to Ukraine. Perhaps the change in policy reflects the change in times. Dr. Suzanne Loftus, Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute Eurasia Program, suggested to me that Macron’s calculus – perhaps not entirely correctly – is that "making a statement about Ukraine joining NATO will push Russia and Ukraine to end the war in the sense that Russia will get scared that NATO will one day enter the war, and Ukraine would be motivated to negotiate with Russia if it knows it will be in NATO."
France keeping the NATO door open to Ukraine in the 2023 Vilnius NATO summit is also ironic because it was France and Germany in the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit that closed the door on US President George W. Bush’s call to welcome Ukraine into a NATO Membership Action Plan.
The public exchange between Zelensky and his American and British partners put on display not only their frustrations with each other and their divisions but also, once again, the important questions of the origins of the war and the need for negotiations.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.