NATO wants to show support for Ukraine, but only up to a certain point

When NATO leaders gather this summer to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their military alliance, the last thing they want to see is a resurgent Russian army marching through Ukraine because Europe is too weak to provide a Kiev the support it needs.

What Ukraine ultimately wants is a formal invitation to join NATO. But alliance officials agree that won't happen during celebrations planned in Washington in July. NATO has no intention of welcoming a new member who, due to the alliance's collective security pact, would drag it into Europe's largest land war since 1945.

That has pushed NATO to look for a middle ground, something short of membership but concrete enough to demonstrate that it is supporting Ukraine “for the long term,” as Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, put it this week.

What that will be has so far proved elusive, according to senior Western diplomats involved in the discussions.

Proposals put forward this week at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels to give NATO greater control over coordinating military aid, funding and training for Ukrainian forces were immediately met with skepticism. The United States and Germany remain opposed to offering Ukraine to begin membership negotiations in Brussels, as they did at last year's Vilnius summit, and want the issue taken off the table in July despite a similar process to the European Union approved last year. winter. But they want to give Ukraine specific commitments to keep. Efforts to clearly define what conditions Ukraine must meet to start talks with NATO have yet to move forward.

And none of those things may matter by July if Russia continues to gain ground and Ukraine appears in danger of losing the war – a prospect that has become all the more real every month that Republicans in Congress continue to block a relief package. 60 billion dollar aid for Kiev.

“The situation on the ground could look much worse than it does today, and then the real question becomes, 'How do we make sure Russia doesn't win?'” said Ivo H. Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. .

“This can change the entire nature of the debate. We may all think that the NATO summit will take place as if it were the same as today, but that will not be the case,” said Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The last two months have not been good for Ukraine and there is nothing in sight that can improve.”

Last year, at a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Ukraine was assured once again that it would be given full membership of the alliance – one day – after making some changes to improve democracy and his safety. The vague promise has dismayed Kiev and its most fervent supporters in the Baltics, the Nordics and Eastern Europe.

Nine months later, Ukraine is grappling with the aftermath of a military counteroffensive that burned valuable artillery ammunition and other weapons while failing to capture appreciable territory from Russia. The country continues to have a desperate need for weapons, particularly for air defense; his Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Thursday that Ukraine was hit by 94 Russian ballistic missiles in March alone.

“I didn't want to spoil NATO's birthday party, but I felt compelled to deliver a sobering message on behalf of Ukrainians about the state of Russian airstrikes on my country, destroying our energy system, our economy, killing civilians, ” Kuleba said Thursday at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Kuleba said he “listened carefully” to his diplomatic colleagues discuss how NATO might address Ukraine's position in the alliance in Washington this summer and responded carefully in kind.

“It is up to the allies themselves to decide on the form and content of the next step towards Ukraine's membership in NATO,” he said. “We will anxiously await the outcome, but, of course, we believe that Ukraine deserves to be a member of NATO and that this should happen as soon as possible.”

Stoltenberg sought to bridge the gap by presenting at this week's meeting two proposals for continuing support for Ukraine that he said he hopes can be approved in time for the meeting of NATO heads of state in Washington in July.

The first, to make NATO, rather than the United States, responsible for coordinating donations and arms deliveries to Ukraine, has drawn objections from Hungary and other allies for its potential to drag down the alliance more directly in the war. He is also opposed by the United States, Daalder said, although the Biden administration has so far been careful not to criticize him publicly. On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken addressed the issue only by praising the current American-led process for its “extraordinary accomplishments.”

The other, to provide Ukraine with $100 billion in aid over five years, has been met with confusion, since it is unclear how NATO could force its member states to contribute – especially given budget constraints or politicians like that of the US Congress who resisted 60 billion dollars for Ukraine.

But Stoltenberg said such plans are vital to ensuring that Ukraine continues to receive sustained NATO support rather than piecemeal donations. (He did, however, applaud recent shipments of drones, missiles, armored vehicles and ammunition from Britain, the Czech Republic, Finland, France and Germany.)

Stoltenberg added that NATO's top military commander, US Army General Christopher G. Cavoli, had been asked to come up with a blueprint for providing reliable and predictable aid to Ukraine for years to come.

“If NATO allies deliver what we should, then we are absolutely confident that the Ukrainians will be able to achieve new results,” Stoltenberg said. “This is why we need to do more, why allies need to dig deeper and provide more military support more quickly, and why we also need stronger, more robust structures for the long haul.”

A hidden element of this urgency is NATO's desire to “Trump-proof” – as it has been called in recent months – Western support for Ukraine should former President Donald J. Trump be re-elected in November . Trump has long disdained NATO, deriding its members for not paying a “fair share” of security costs and, in February, suggesting that if a European member of the alliance were attacked by Russia, it would not help defend him if he hadn't paid his dues.

In Brussels on Thursday, Blinken said he had heard “from one ally after another” that “our commitment, our commitment, is indispensable to this alliance” and its support for Ukraine. He said Ukraine was working on the governance and security changes needed to join NATO, and noted without detail various efforts within the alliance to offer the war-weary country new guarantees when the leaders meet in Washington in July.

From his comments, however, it seemed clear that the world should not expect an abrupt departure from the status quo.

“The conversations over the last couple of days have been focused on exactly what we're going to do at the summit,” Blinken said. “We have started a process between all the countries and with all the experts to make it happen. We will use the time between now and the summit to do exactly that.”

Steven Erlanger contributed a report from Berlin.

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