When is a security guarantee not a security guarantee? The answer, Ukrainians know all too well, is when there’s nothing committing your friends to fight by your side if your country is unfortunate enough to be invaded.

The series of bilateral arrangements announced Wednesday at the NATO summit in Vilnius, which commit Canada and the other G7 countries to continue providing Kyiv with modern military equipment, training, cyberdefence and intelligence sharing, are significant. They represent the first formal promises the West has made to keep supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia, which is now in its 503rd day.

But there is no Article 5, the collective defence principle of NATO’s founding document, underpinning those vaguely worded agreements (which also call for Ukraine to continue its judicial reforms, increase transparency and maintain civilian control of its military) – no promise that any member of the G7 would react if Belarus, for instance, were to enter the war on Moscow’s side. So another NATO summit has come and gone without Kyiv receiving an invitation, or even a timeline, to join.

Which leaves in question what the security map of Europe will look like the day after Russia’s invasion of this country is brought to an end. That’s by design.

Before arriving at the summit, U.S. President Joe Biden effectively punted the question of Ukraine’s membership to some time after the war is over, saying it was “premature” to have members of the alliance vote on the issue. Mr. Biden also suggested that it is not as simple as saying Ukraine can join NATO as soon as the invasion ends because there are “other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues.”

That is patently not the case. Until it was plunged into martial law on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine was on a more democratic path than Turkey, Hungary or Poland, to name three NATO members that Freedom House, a U.S. non-governmental organization, rates as being in long-term democratic decline. The Ukrainian military, which has battled the much larger Russian army to a de facto standstill, is clearly NATO-ready as well and already using NATO tactics and armaments.

The real reason Mr. Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, among others, are hesitant to accept Kyiv into the 31-member alliance is because they know that peace with Russia will one day need to be made.

While there are no active high-level talks at the moment, several top former U.S. officials reportedly held backchannel talks about Ukraine with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this year, and on Wednesday Russia’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, said he and CIA boss William Burns had recently discussed “what to do with Ukraine.” Separately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who appeared to reverse his previous support for Sweden’s NATO membership – told the Vilnius summit that his country is willing to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine if the two sides propose it.

Neither side seems interested in talks right now – both are still hoping for a breakthrough on the battlefield – but when they do happen, one of the main areas for negotiation will be Ukraine’s future security relationships.

The possibility that NATO would expand into Ukraine – a country that Russian President Vladimir Putin views as a lost Russian province – was one of Mr. Putin’s main justifications for ordering the invasion. Many in the West view his claims about NATO aggression as a fig leaf cover for a colonial war that he likely would have launched anyway, but they nonetheless outline a path, however dimly lit, to a possible peace agreement.

Mr. Biden, in the last weeks before the invasion, refused to meet the Kremlin’s demand for a written guarantee that Ukraine would never be allowed to join NATO. But negotiating a hiatus on the expansion of the alliance may prove preferable to making compromises over the 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory that Russian troops currently occupy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an uncharacteristically sour Twitter post, made it clear that he understands – and dislikes – what’s happening. “A window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine’s membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia,” he wrote. “And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror.”

Writing Tuesday as the Vilnius meeting began, Mr. Zelensky called it “unprecedented and absurd” for NATO leaders to continue talking about Ukraine’s future in the alliance without setting a timeframe for that to happen. The final communiqué from the summit says only that Ukraine will be invited to join “when Allies agree and conditions are met.”

Mr. Zelensky put a more optimistic spin on the summit as it came to a close Wednesday, hailing the progress that had been made – including the elimination of the requirement that Ukraine go through a “membership action plan,” a qualification process that usually precedes a new member joining the alliance. He was also grateful for the new weapons the allies agreed to send to Ukraine, including Washington’s decision to provide cluster munitions, which have been banned by Canada and most other members of the alliance (though not by the U.S., Ukraine or Russia, which is already using them in Ukraine).

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the new G7 security guarantees “extremely ill-judged and potentially very dangerous” and said the G7 was “infringing on Russia’s security” by committing to keep supporting Ukraine.

Despite the worried rhetoric from the Kremlin, few in Ukraine were impressed by another series of agreements that fall short of bringing their country into NATO.

Vaguely worded international promises have a bad reputation in Kyiv, dating back to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which saw Ukraine give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons stockpile in exchange for guarantees that co-signatories the U.S., Russia and Britain would “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.” Exactly 20 years later, Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and launched a proxy war in the southeastern Donbas region that set the stage for last year’s full-scale invasion.

Ukraine has already spent 15 years waiting for NATO to accept it, ever since a 2008 summit of alliance leaders ended with a communiqué promising that Ukraine and Georgia – another of Russia’s neighbours that was subsequently invaded – “will become members of NATO,” without saying anything about when that would happen. “Since 2008, Ukraine has been left in NATO’s waiting room. This is a dangerous place to be,” former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday.

Daria Kaleniuk, a long-time anti-corruption campaigner who also lobbies Western governments to support Ukraine, was bitterly disappointed by the suggestion that her country needed to keep waiting for an invitation from NATO. “Should I patiently wait until a Russian missile strikes successfully my apartment in Kyiv with my kids inside? Or should I patiently wait for my sons turning 18 and going to fight the war against the largest threat to NATO?” Ms. Kaleniuk wrote on Twitter from Vilnius. “Apparently Ukraine needs to work on its own nukes.”

Mr. Zelensky himself tried to walk a careful line between gratitude and impatience. “The results of the summit are good,” he said in a news conference alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “But if there were an invitation, that would be ideal.”

The Globe and Mail, July 12, 2023