Ukraine will not be inducted into NATO when President Biden and leaders of the Western alliance meet in Lithuania starting Tuesday. Sweden probably won’t either, its accession still blocked by a single member: Turkey.
Negotiations have been going on for months, which are expected to end when NATO’s 31 nations — including the newest, Finland — meet for a summit in Vilnius, a city with a long history of Russian and Soviet domination.
The fact that none of this has yet been resolved, even as fierce negotiations continue between the alliance, underscores how the NATO unity that Mr. Biden celebrates on every side is harder to sustain as the war drags on.
The alliance operates by consensus, increasingly infuriating its larger members, who provide much of the budget and heavy firepower. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who has spent the past week hopping between NATO capitals to drum up support, has threatened to skip the event if members do not make significant progress on forging a clear commitment on how and when it will be folded into the Western alliance.
Mr Zelensky has attended a series of meetings critical to continued aid in the fight against Russia, so if he misses this one, it will be visual evidence of a breach.
In an interview broadcast on CNN on Sunday, Mr. Biden said of Ukraine, “I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO.” He then acknowledged a long-standing, deeper fear: That accepting Ukraine now, given NATO’s commitment to collective defense, would ensure that “we are at war with Russia.” That’s an argument the president has been making for 15 months.
Germany agrees with Mr. Biden, but several former Soviet bloc nations now in NATO disagree, saying that Ukraine would bring one of the strongest and most battle-tested nations in Europe into the alliance and that it deserves entry now or soon. ceasefire
Sweden’s entry appears much closer. But Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the NATO leader who flirts most openly with Russia and buys its weapons, has hardly budged in his objections, and officials from several NATO countries say they believe he is jockeying the West for more great reward of help. or arms.
Mr. Biden, who arrives in Vilnius on Monday night, called him again on Sunday, making the case for NATO unity. In a brief account of the call, the White House said, with some understatement, that Mr. Biden told Mr. Erdogan of “his desire to welcome Sweden into NATO as soon as possible.”
All this would be complicated enough to deal with in a two-day summit, at the same time European leaders are trying to sell their audiences to make NATO again what it once was: a real fighting force that trains and patrols for. keep Moscow at bay.
But the membership disputes may be overshadowed by new concerns that the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive is stalled, and that Kiev could run out of ammunition — one of several scenarios that U.S. intelligence officials say President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is considering. turn humiliation into victory.
Mr Biden authorized the shipment of cluster munitions, controversial within the alliance, to fill the gap until more shells can be produced for Ukrainian artillery – and, though it was not said, to be better able to destroy the Russians in their deeply dug trenches . .
Mr Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, both said US allies would agree with the decision, even those who have signed the 15-year-old Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production, sale or use. of the weapons. The concern is that the munitions create a post-conflict hazard much like landmines. “Duds” that are scattered around the battlefield can explode years later, often when children pick them up.
Privately, Mr Biden’s aides suggest that countries that have signed the treaty – including Britain, France and Germany – are secretly relieved that the US is sending them to Ukraine because they fear that the cluster munitions, despite the risks, are the only option Mr. Sullivan noted on Friday that signatories to the treaty could not send them to Ukraine or help the United States do so, but he said they had not vocally opposed Mr. Biden’s decision. In fact, Mr. Biden has received more criticism from some members of his own party than from members of the treaty.
The issue of exactly what to promise Ukraine will be the most vexing question at the summit.
The final communique is expected to say that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in the NATO alliance,” NATO country officials said, but there is debate over whether to add “when conditions permit” or whether to detail some of those conditions. But beyond the wording, how Ukraine gets there, and through what process, remains in dispute.
Ukraine and its Central European allies, especially those bordering Russia, say they want Ukraine to be promised immediate membership once the fighting stops.
The United States, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries reject this approach. They insist that Ukraine must undertake other reforms of its political, financial and judicial systems to qualify for membership. What’s important now, they say, is practical help in the medium term – committing to supporting Ukraine militarily and financially through the US presidential election and beyond.
Mr Biden said last month that there would be “no shortcuts” for Ukraine to join NATO, even after the war.
It may seem simply an argument about refining the diplomatic language, but for this summit to succeed, it must demonstrate trans-Atlantic unity in support of Kyiv’s efforts to expel Russian forces — and in deterring a new invasion if any sort of ceasefire is being negotiated. . Mr. Putin is looking at cracks, and Mr. Zelensky needs something encouraging to bring home amid a long war and a grinding, heavy counteroffensive of casualties.
Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the National Security Council, said on Friday that Mr. Biden will work with Ukraine to prepare them for NATO, but “said that Ukraine will have to make reforms to meet the same standards as any other NATO country before they join. So there are standards that the alliance sets for everyone members, and the president explained that Ukraine will have to make those reforms.”
No matter how the wording is worked out, NATO officials say another key element of the summit will be a demonstration of practical support for Ukraine. Mr. Putin, several NATO leaders have argued, believes that Europe’s commitment will flag — and that, combined with an ammunition advantage, would ultimately lead to Ukraine’s defeat.
So the next two days will be filled with pledges, organized under a general pledge issued by some countries — perhaps the Group of 7, or a smaller group known as the Quad (US, UK, Germany and France) — to which other countries will join, said NATO country diplomats. The hope is to issue such a document with the promises in Vilnius.
The document is intended to provide Ukraine with serious security commitments in the long term, even if it falls short of the security guarantee of full NATO membership. That means providing modern weapons and training that would ensure Ukraine is so well armed that Russia will never try to invade it in the future.
Camille Grand, a former senior NATO official now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the challenge would be to avoid “simply repeating the vague promises of the past. We have to counter the idea that if you have a frozen conflict, you are not welcome.”
There will be another important, if symbolic, action: Ukraine’s relationship with NATO will be upgraded to “council status”, which means that on key issues, Ukraine will be able to sit with the 31 member states as an equal, without Hungary, for example, being able to block its participation. Russia once held that status until it annexed Crimea; giving it to Ukraine is a clear message to Mr. Putin.
The summit will also approve a new defense spending pledge for the alliance, to replace the one agreed in 2014, which aimed for allies to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military, including 20 percent of that on equipment. The latest figures show that only 11 of the 31 members achieved that goal.
However, NATO has no way of meeting these requirements.
Also, and perhaps as important as anything else, the Allies will give political approval to the first detailed military plans for how to defend all NATO territory since the end of the Cold War. Those plans, drawn up by General Christopher Cavoli, the US commander of allied forces in Europe, cover more than 4,000 pages and tell countries in specific terms what is required of them to defend themselves and their allies.