Ukraine will not join NATO when President Biden and Western alliance leaders meet in Lithuania starting Tuesday. Sweden probably won’t either, as its accession is still blocked by only one member: Turkey.
Negotiations have been going on for months now that were supposed to be complete when the 31 NATO nations, including the newest, Finland, meet at the summit in Vilnius, a city with a long history of Russian and Soviet domination. .
The fact that none of this has been resolved yet, even as frantic inter-alliance talks continue, underscores how the NATO unity that Biden celebrates throughout is increasingly difficult to sustain as the war progresses.
The alliance works by consensus, which increasingly infuriates its larger members, who contribute much of the budget and heavy firepower. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who has spent the past week touring NATO capitals to rally support, has threatened to skip the event if members do not make significant progress in forging a clear commitment on how and when they will join. the western alliance
Mr. Zelensky has attended a number 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, Biden said of Ukraine: “I don’t think it’s ready for NATO membership.” He then acknowledged a deeper and longstanding fear: that admitting 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 Ukraine would bring one of Europe’s strongest and most battle-tested nations into the alliance and deserves the entrance now or as soon as there is a ceasefire.
The entry from Sweden seems much closer. But Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the NATO leader who most openly flirts with Russia and buys its weapons, has barely budged on his objections, and officials in several NATO countries say they assume he is shaking up the West. for further help. or arms.
Mr Biden, who arrives in Vilnius on Monday evening, spoke to him again on the phone on Sunday, advocating for NATO unity. In a brief account of the call, the White House said, with some understatement, that Biden told Erdogan “his wish for him to welcome Sweden into NATO as soon as possible.”
It would have been hard enough to handle all of this in a two-day summit, at a very moment when European leaders are trying to sell out their publics to make NATO once again what it once was: a true fighting force. who trains and patrols to keep Moscow at bay.
But the membership disputes may be overshadowed by fresh concerns that the long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive will stall and Kiev will run out of ammunition, one of several scenarios in which US intelligence officials say Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin are thinking of boarding. turn humiliation into victory.
Mr Biden authorized cluster munitions, controversial within the alliance, to fill the gap until more shells can be produced for Ukrainian artillery and, though unsaid, to better destroy the Russians in their trenches deeply excavated. .
Mr. Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, argued that US allies would accept the decision, including those who have signed the 15-year-old Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the production, sale or use. of weapons The concern is that munitions create a post-conflict hazard very similar to that of landmines. The “rags” that are scattered on the battlefield can explode years later, often when children pick them up.
Privately, Biden’s advisers suggest that the countries that signed the treaty, including Britain, France and Germany, are secretly relieved that the US is sending them to Ukraine because they fear that cluster bombs, despite the risks, are the only option. Sullivan said Friday that treaty signatories cannot send them to Ukraine or help the United States do so, but said they did not openly oppose Biden’s decision. In fact, Mr. Biden has received more criticism from some members of his own party than from treaty members.
The question of what exactly to promise Ukraine will be the most vexing question at the summit.
The final communiqué is expected to say that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in the NATO alliance,” NATO country officials said, but there is debate over adding, “when conditions allow” or if detailing some of those conditions. But beyond the wording, how Ukraine got 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 ends.
The United States, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries reject that approach. They insist that Ukraine must undertake other reforms of its political, financial and judicial systems to qualify for membership. What matters now, they say, is practical help in the medium term: committing to supporting Ukraine militarily and financially through the US presidential election and beyond.
Biden said last month that there will be “no shortcuts” for Ukraine to join NATO, even after the war.
It may seem like just an argument about refining diplomatic language, but for this summit to succeed, it must demonstrate transatlantic unity in supporting Kiev’s efforts to drive out Russian forces and deter further invasion if some sort of ceasefire is negotiated. . . Putin is watching for cracks, and Zelensky needs something encouraging to bring home in the midst of a long war and a grueling, high-casualty counteroffensive.
Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the National Security Council, said friday that Mr. Biden will work with Ukraine to prepare them for NATO, but “has said that Ukraine would have to make reforms to meet the same standards as any other NATO country before joining. So there are standards that the alliance sets for all members, and the president made it clear that Ukraine would need to make those reforms.”
No matter how the wording is crafted, NATO officials say another key element of the summit will be a show of practical support for Ukraine. Putin, several NATO leaders have argued, believes that Europe’s commitment will falter, and that, combined with an ammunition advantage, would ultimately lead to Ukraine’s defeat.
So the next two days will be full of pledges, organized under a general pledge issued by a few countries, perhaps the Group of 7, or a smaller group known as the Quad (United States, Great Britain, Germany and France), to which Other countries will sign up, diplomats from NATO countries said. The hope is to issue such a document with the promises in Vilnius.
The document is intended to provide Ukraine with serious long-term security commitments, even if it falls short of the security guarantee of full NATO membership. That means providing modern weapons and training that will ensure Ukraine is so well armed that Russia never tries 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 notion that if you have a frozen conflict, you are not welcome.”
There will be another important, albeit symbolic, act: Ukraine’s relationship with NATO will be raised to “council status”, which means that on key issues, Ukraine will be able to sit with all 31 member states as an equal, without Hungary, for example, capable of blocking their participation. Russia once held that status until it annexed Crimea; giving it to Ukraine is a clear message to 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 on equipment. The latest figures show that only 11 of the 31 members have reached that goal.
Still, NATO has no way of enforcing those demands.
Also, and perhaps as important as anything else, the allies will give political approval to the first detailed war plans on how to defend all of 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, run to more than 4,000 pages and tell countries in specific terms what is required of them to defend themselves and their allies.