1 of 7 | U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) at the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Tuesday. Biden congratulated Erdogan for the agreement he reached with Swedish Prime Minister Kristersson and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to send Sweden's NATO membership bid to parliament for ratification. Photo by Turkish President Press Office | License Photo
July 11 (UPI) -- NATO allies on Tuesday approved a plan to chart a course for Ukraine to join the military alliance, but President Volodymyr Zelensky said a lack of a concrete timeline was "absurd."
The NATO plan includes putting Ukraine on a multi-year assistance program to facilitate the transition of the Ukrainian armed forces from Soviet-era to NATO standards. The plan will also help rebuild Ukraine's security and defense sector, covering needs like fuel, demining equipment, and medical supplies.
"This is a strong package for Ukraine and a clear path towards its membership in NATO," Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. "[NATO members adopted] the most comprehensive defense plans since the end of the Cold War."
The communique said that NATO would continue to assess Kyiv's membership and "will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met."
Zelensky had called for NATO to send his country a "clear signal" about membership as it continues to fight off an invasion by Russia that has gone on for more than a year and expressed his displeasure with the language of the communique in a post on Twitter before its release.
"It's unprecedented and absurd when a time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine's membership," he said. "While at the same time vague wording about 'conditions' is added even for inviting Ukraine."
Zelensky will meet with the alliance's leaders on Wednesday for the inaugural meeting of the new NATO-Ukraine Council, which was established under the plan.
The new regional plan puts 300,000 troops at high readiness, including substantial air and naval combat power.
NATO members also committed to investing a minimum of 2% of each country's gross domestic product in defense.
"European allies and Canada recorded an 8.3% real terms increase in their defense budgets in 2023, the largest increase in decades," NATO said. "Eleven allies meet or exceed the benchmark this year, and this number is expected to grow substantially in 2024."
Ukraine is in the middle of a slow-moving counteroffensive as it tries to push out Russian troops after a Kremlin-led invasion more than a year ago. Many of NATO's members have pledged military hardware and financial support to Ukraine.
But Zelensky said the lack of a commitment to bring Ukraine into the alliance serves to bolster Russia.
"This means that a window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine's membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror," he said. "Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit."
Finland's new Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen said her country supports Ukraine joining NATO but that now is not the time to set a firm date. Finland was the most recent nation to formally join the alliance, in April.
In an interview with NBC News, Valtonen cited a provision in NATO's founding treaty in 1949 that prohibits a country at war from becoming a member.
U.S. President Joe Biden also said over the weekend that discussions around Ukraine joining NATO were "premature."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on Monday had agreed to forward protocol to admit Sweden to NATO's Grand National Assembly, said Ukraine "undoubtedly" deserves NATO membership.
Stoltenberg said the summit was "historic" given the decision to admit Sweden and the discussions surrounding Ukraine.
"At the summit, we will also make important decisions, sending a clear message to Ukraine that we stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes and expect allies also to reiterate their commitment to provide military support to Ukraine to help them liberate more land," he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Biden met with Erdoğan and congratulated him for the agreement he reached with Swedish Prime Minister Kristersson and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to send Sweden's NATO U.N. membership bid to parliament for ratification.
According to White House officials, both men discussed defense and economic goals for their nations, as well as shared interests on local issues, such as the stability in the Aegean region.