By Sabine Siebold, John Irish and Andrew Gray
VILNIUS (Reuters) -NATO leaders agreed on Tuesday that Ukraine’s future lies within the alliance but they stopped short of handing Kyiv the invitation or timetable for accession it sought, a stance that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had earlier criticised as “absurd”.
The leaders met at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius as a Ukrainian counteroffensive against the Russian invasion forces occupying parts of the country was proceeding more slowly than Kyiv had hoped.
In its declaration, NATO also dropped the requirement for Ukraine to fulfil what is called a Membership Action Plan (MAP), effectively removing a hurdle on Kyiv’s way into the alliance.
“Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” the declaration said. “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met.”
They did not specify the conditions Ukraine needs to meet, but they said the alliance would help Kyiv to make progress on military interoperability as well as on additional democratic and security sector reforms.
Zelenskiy had earlier assailed NATO leaders for not offering a timeframe for membership.
“It’s unprecedented and absurd when a timeframe is not set, neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership,” Zelenskiy said before arriving as a special guest.
Zelenskiy’s salvo at the start of a summit came after NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the bloc would send Kyiv a “positive message” on its path to membership.
It highlighted the divisions among NATO’s 31 members over giving a date or a straightforward invitation for Ukraine to join. Kyiv has been pushing for a swift entry, bound together with security guarantees, since even before Russia unleashed its invasion in February 2022.
The declaration said: “We reaffirm our unwavering solidarity with the government and people of Ukraine in the heroic defence of their nation, their land, and our shared values.”
In strong language towards Moscow, it said: “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
Asked about Zelenskiy’s criticism, Stoltenberg told a press conference: “There has never been a stronger message from NATO at any time, both when it comes to the political message of the path forward for membership and the concrete support from NATO allies.”
He said previous accessions to NATO had not been accompanied by a timeline. “They are conditions-based, have always been,” he said.
Zelenskiy did score wins elsewhere. French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris would start supplying long-range cruise missiles, following a similar announcement by Britain.
With a range of 250 km (155 miles), the missiles nearly triple Ukraine’s previous capabilities, allowing forces to hit Russian troops and supplies deep behind the front lines.
A French military source dismissed suggestions that the missiles were an escalation, saying their use was proportional and that Russia was using cruise missiles launched from thousands of kilometres away.
Germany, too, announced new aid worth 700 million euros, including two Patriot air defence missile launchers, and more tanks and fighting vehicles.
The summit was also buoyed by the prospect of Sweden joining NATO as its newest member after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday abruptly dropped his objections to the move, while pushing to revive talks for Turkey to join the European Union.
Finland attended the summit as a member for the first time after its own entry into the alliance in April.
While NATO members agree Kyiv cannot join during the war, they have disagreed over how quickly it could happen afterwards and under what conditions.
NATO members in eastern Europe have backed Kyiv’s stance, arguing that bringing Ukraine under NATO’s collective security umbrella is the best way to deter Russia from attacking again.
Countries such as the United States and Germany have been more cautious, wary of any move that they fear could draw NATO into a direct conflict with Russia.
U.S. President Joe Biden has stressed that NATO needed to stay united against the attempts of Russian President Vladimir Putin to split it.
“I still think that President Putin thinks the way he succeeds is to break NATO and we’re not going to do that,” Biden said.
Moscow, which has cited NATO’s eastern expansion as a factor in its decision to invade Ukraine, has criticised the two-day summit ending on Wednesday and warned Europe would be the first to face “catastrophic consequences” should the war escalate.
“Potentially, this issue (of Ukraine joining NATO) is very dangerous for European security… and therefore those who will make the decision must be aware of this,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
European leaders did not seem to understand that moving NATO military infrastructure towards Russia’s borders was a mistake, he said.
(Reporting by John Irish, Andrew Gray, Sabine Siebold, Steve Holland, Justyna Pawlak, Andrius Sytas, Krisztina Than, Niklas Pollard, Jason Hovet, Janis Laizans; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Matthias Williams and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Alex Richardson and Howard Goller)
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