NATO's east expects clearer Ukraine post-war member path at Vilnius summit
PHOTO CAPTION: Members of the Latvian Special Operations Unit prepare to fire mortar rounds during bilateral training with U.S. Army Green Berets assigned to 10th Special Forces Group in Ādaži, Latvia, March 28, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Kirsti Brooksby via U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)
(Reuters) - Members of NATO's eastern flank expect the military alliance's July summit in Vilnius will set Ukraine on a clearer path to membership, once its war with Russia ends, the countries said at a summit in Bratislava on Tuesday.
NATO allies have squabbled over the speed of Ukraine's eventual accession to the alliance, and Kyiv itself acknowledges it cannot come until its war following Russia's invasion ends.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met European leaders last week in Moldova as he urged NATO to provide security guarantees if membership was not possible for now.
Presidents of NATO eastern countries, most of which border Ukraine or Russia, met on Tuesday together with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a sign of further backing for Ukraine to be brought closer to NATO.
"We are for strengthening relations with Ukraine in terms of concrete practical aid, but also in bringing relations with Ukraine closer," Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, who hosted the meeting, told a televised news conference.
"We do not consider this an expansion or encroachment of NATO toward Russia," she added, saying it would instead provide guarantees to NATO members that Russia will not absorb countries on its borders.
The eastern flank countries of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia - known collectively as the Bucharest Nine - have been among Ukraine's staunchest backers.
Some NATO members, though, fear a hasty move could bring the alliance closer to direct confrontation with Russia and Hungary's president Katalin Novak warned against making "unrealistic promises".
"We expect that in Vilnius, we will upgrade our political relations with Ukraine to a new level, and launch a new political track that will lead to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, once conditions allow," the Bucharest Nine's joint statement said.
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda, who will host the Vilnius summit, told reporters that while the nine countries unanimously supportUkraine's membership of NATO, getting support from other NATO allies was "problematic".
"We don't yet see which way this goes," he said.
"Over the remaining weeks we must find a way to take a large step forward and not disappoint expectation of Ukraine and its supporters.
"It would not be enough to repeat once more that NATO doors are open," he added.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet and Robert Muller in Prague and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, editing by Ed Osmond)