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Ukraine one key step closer to NATO membership amid Lithuania summit

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the end of a joint press conference in Kiev, April 20, 2023. (File photo by AFP)

Ukraine has taken a key step toward becoming a member of NATO after a high hurdle in its way to accession was lifted during the current two-day summit of the US-led military alliance in Lithuania.

As NATO leaders on Monday convened in Vilnius for the summit, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba of Ukraine said NATO member states reached a consensus to drop the requirement for the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine’s bid to join the alliance.

MAP is a list of political, economic and military goals that other eastern European nations had to meet before joining NATO.

"Following intensive talks, NATO allies have reached consensus on removing MAP from Ukraine's path to membership. I welcome this long-awaited decision that shortens our path to NATO. It is also the best moment to offer clarity on the invitation to Ukraine to become member," Kuleba tweeted on Monday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Western official also told AFP that the NATO allies "are set" to drop the MAP requirement for Ukraine.

"MAP is just one of the steps in the NATO accession process… so even with its removal, Ukraine will still need to complete further reforms before joining NATO," the official said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to attend the summit. He wants a clear invitation in Vilnius to add his country to NATO after the war ends.

Despite the reported consensus, some NATO members, such as the United States and Germany, have had reservations, wary of any step they fear could draw the military alliance into a direct conflict with Russia, potentially sparking a global war.

The war in Ukraine began after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the launch of a "special military operation" in the ex-Soviet republic on February 24, 2022 to “demilitarize” two eastern Ukrainian regions amid Kiev's vaulting ambitions to join NATO, which Moscow deems a redline.

In September 2022, President Zelensky formally applied for a fast-track NATO membership and ruled out talks with Putin as the war entered its eighth month.

"No final decision has been made but at the summit I am absolutely certain that we will have unity and a strong message on Ukraine," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a joint press conference with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Monday, adding that there would be more meetings later in the day.

Nauseda, for his part, placed a premium on the prospect of Ukraine's membership. The Lithuanian president said Ukraine had been "heroically fighting" Russia.

Moscow has repeatedly warned Ukraine against its NATO membership proposals, calling the move “purely destabilizing.” Russia has also warned the alliance against its further expansion toward its borders.

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