Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted during a NATO summit he attended in June that Western leaders had confirmed his country "will become a member of the Alliance."
The Ukrainian leader's tweet, seen by some Western diplomats as ill-timed and intended to goad Russia, drew a predictably furious response from Kremlin officials. They have long warned that the accession of Ukraine to NATO is unacceptable to Moscow, the crossing of a red line which would be met by retaliatory measures.
Despite - or because of - Kremlin threats, and a Russian military buildup along the borders of Ukraine, President Zelenskiy has continued to press for Ukraine to be admitted into NATO as soon as possible, saying it is the only way to deter further Russia aggression. Others, including some Western leaders, fear it would do the reverse - invite more Russian aggression.
At the June summit, Zelenskiy did not get an admission date. And U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been a strong champion in the past for Ukraine to join the Atlantic alliance, scotched talk of an impending admission. "School's out on that question. It remains to be seen," he said when reporters asked him about Ukraine joining.
"In the meantime, we will do all we can to put Ukraine in a position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression," he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued a series of increasingly insistent demands for guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO.
Some observers question whether what they see as a tamping down by Biden, and senior U.S. and European officials, of Ukraine's NATO ambitions, is evidence that Russia may already have achieved one of its key goals - namely, to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western alliance.
At best, the White House and European allies are sending mixed messages about NATO membership for Ukraine, they say. "The urgency of Moscow's ultimatums would suggest that Ukraine is on the verge of NATO membership. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth," according to Peter Dickinson, editor of UkraineAlert, a newsletter of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group.
"At this point, the closest Ukraine has ever come to joining NATO is a vague and largely symbolic commitment to future membership received at the alliance's 2008 summit in Bucharest. While this pledge has been repeated on numerous subsequent occasions, it carries no real weight and is essentially a reaffirmation of the alliance's standard open-door policy towards all potential new members," added Dickinson, also an editor of Business Ukraine magazine.
In June, NATO did "upgrade" its relationship with Ukraine, designating the country an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. The EOP program, which was launched in 2014, aims "to support and deepen cooperation between allies and partners, which have made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions," according to NATO. Sweden, Finland, Australia, and Jordan also enjoy the designation. But as NATO states on its website: "Ukraine's status as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner does not prejudge any decisions on NATO membership."
After Zelenskiy posted his June tweet, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also sought to downplay the significance of the designation, telling reporters, "Nothing new" had happened. And he referred them to the 2008 NATO conference in Bucharest, where the alliance welcomed the membership aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia. But NATO declined to offer either a membership action plan, or MAP, which would have set them on a definite path to admission.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush had pushed for NATO to offer MAPs to both countries, but several European members, including Germany, were opposed, fearing to do so would further roil relations with Russia. A British diplomat told VOA opposition from some of America's partners has not evaporated. "There is little appetite among some members to inherit an open conflict, which NATO would do, if Ukraine became a member," he said.
FILE - Soldiers take part in exercises at the Yavoriv military training ground, near Lviv, western Ukraine, Sept 24, 2021, as part of joint drills between the U.S., other NATO countries and Ukraine.
With Putin loudly insisting NATO should never admit Ukraine, the Biden administration, and Western alliance partners, are caught in a dilemma, say some analysts and Western diplomats. Many NATO members are not ready to admit Ukraine for a range of reasons, including a worry that Ukraine is still not on top of corruption. But while they do not want to be hurried into making a decision, they are also fearful of being accused of appeasing Russia or Moscow interpreting that they are weak.
The dilemma facing the West has been seized on by Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington research organization, to argue that the U.S. should negotiate with Russia a treaty that renders Ukraine a neutral country.
Lieven acknowledges the idea would be criticized by Western hardliners. "They need to ask themselves, however, whether they are really prepared to contemplate war with Russia; and if not, what they are proposing as a concrete alternative to these proposals," he wrote for the Quincy Institute, which advocates for a non-interventionist American foreign policy.
But it is unlikely Ukraine would agree to the erosion of its rights as an independent nation. Zelenskiy has been pushing even harder than his pro-NATO predecessors for a timetable for Ukraine membership, but he has been rebuffed with the latest knock back coming last month when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sidestepped his request for a schedule for Ukrainian membership.
On his Facebook page, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the meeting between Zelenskiy and Stoltenberg to discuss the strengthening of Ukraine's armed forces was "very good, positive," but added, "The only drawback, to be honest, was that we weren't told the year when Ukraine will become a NATO member, although we asked."
All this week senior U.S. officials have emphasized that Russian demands for a halt to any further NATO enlargement - and specifically a guarantee that Ukraine never be admitted as a member - are "non-starters."
Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S. permanent representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, added her voice Tuesday, echoing previous dismissals of Russian demands by Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. "We will not allow anyone to slam NATO's 'Open Door' policy shut," Smith said.
Despite the strong words, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer questions whether the Kremlin has, in effect, already been allowed to exercise a veto on Ukrainian membership because of NATO fears of being bungled into war. He said in a newspaper commentary that Kyiv has had to wait for a long time to join NATO, but it is likely it will have to wait much longer.
"Allies appear unenthusiastic about a MAP now, particularly because there is no good answer to the question, 'If Ukraine joins NATO tomorrow, does the alliance then find itself at war with Russia?'"
Pifer suggested Ukraine stop demanding a timetable for membership, saying in "the current circumstances, the answer will either be silence or no. Neither helps NATO-Ukraine relations." He added, "There should be candor between NATO and Ukrainian officials about the state of play with MAP, as there should be on Washington's part."
A British diplomat who asked not to be identified for this article, told VOA, "Maybe clarity is best avoided at this stage - admitting Ukraine now would inflame tensions and ambiguity keeps Russia guessing, too.