NATO leaders have convened in Lithuania for a pivotal summit that holds the potential to shape the trajectory of the Ukrainian conflict and the future of the Western alliance.
The 31 member nations aim to demonstrate to Russia their unwavering commitment to providing long-term military support to Ukraine. This gathering is fortified by Turkey's withdrawal of its objections to Sweden's accession to the alliance.
However, discord lingers regarding Ukraine's aspirations for future membership. It is anticipated that some allies will pledge new security assurances to Kyiv, aimed at deterring future Russian aggression. Discussions will also encompass the provision of additional weapons and ammunition.
Regarding membership, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky desires NATO to affirm that Ukraine can join soon after the cessation of hostilities, delineating a clear process and timeline for achieving this goal.
Nonetheless, certain NATO nations exhibit reluctance to make extensive commitments, fearing that the prospect of near-automatic membership could incentivize Russia to escalate the conflict and prolong the war.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, stated that the definitive wording of the final communiqué remains undecided but asserted, "I am absolutely certain that we will have unity and a strong message on Ukraine."
Following discussions late Monday, Stoltenberg announced Turkey's endorsement of Sweden's NATO membership application. The news was met with approval from the United States, Germany, and Sweden itself.
Turkey had obstructed Stockholm's application for months, citing its alleged harboring of Kurdish militants. Stoltenberg mentioned that both parties worked together to address Turkey's "legitimate security concerns."
During the two-day meeting, NATO leaders are expected to agree on new plans to deter and defend against future Russian aggression by bolstering their forces in the east.
Furthermore, an increase in financial commitment is anticipated, elevating the target of spending 2% of national wealth on defense from a general ambition to a minimum requirement. The spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that the prime minister would personally urge allies to fulfill this target.
Security measures are stringent in Vilnius, with NATO forces, including Patriot air defense missiles, safeguarding a summit situated in close proximity to Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
The overarching objective of this meeting is to convince President Vladimir Putin of Russia about NATO's long-term military dedication to Ukraine. Officials hope that this could initiate a shift in the Russian leader's perspective, casting doubt on his belief that he can outlast the Western nations.
Consequently, some NATO members will pledge new security guarantees to Ukraine. US President Joe Biden has suggested that Ukraine could receive long-term military support akin to what the United States provides to Israel, with the intention of deterring potential aggressors.
Additionally, the alliance plans to strengthen its institutional ties with Ukraine. The existing Ukraine-NATO Commission will be elevated to a Ukraine-NATO Council, granting Ukraine the ability to convene meetings with the alliance as an equal partner. An official remarked, "The right to consult is not insignificant."
Most crucially, certain members are expected to outline Ukraine's pathway to NATO membership with greater clarity.
During the 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO agreed that Ukraine "will" become a member and supported its application. However, the alliance did not specify the process and timeline for this occurrence. Critics argue that providing Ukraine with a destination but no itinerary allowed Putin to instigate invasions in both 2014 and 2022.
According to a US official, Biden will meet with Zelensky at the summit, although the Ukrainian president has yet to officially confirm his attendance.
Kyiv acknowledges that NATO cannot formally extend an invitation to Ukraine while the conflict rages on. Doing so would risk plunging the alliance into war with Russia, as NATO is obligated under Article 5 of its treaty to defend any member under attack.
Instead, Kyiv seeks a clear commitment of post-war membership accompanied by a timeline, ensuring that victory will entail the security guarantee of NATO's nuclear umbrella.
One way for NATO to express its desire to welcome Ukraine into its ranks would be to expedite the membership application process, known as the Membership Action Plan (MAP). This formal procedure assesses whether a country meets NATO's stringent military and governmental standards, which can often take decades.
However, the crucial point of contention within the alliance pertains to the language used to address Ukraine's prospective membership.
Baltic states and Eastern European nations advocate for maximal clarity. They desire the alliance to elucidate Ukraine's progress towards membership, particularly in terms of its interoperability with other NATO forces, given their shared weaponry and strategies. They also urge NATO to specify the additional conditions Ukraine must meet to achieve membership.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda asserts that NATO should avoid making Ukraine's membership an elusive horizon, stating, "The more you walk towards it, the farther it is."
Yet, some allies, including the United States and Germany, exercise caution in making extensive promises to Ukraine. They demand that Ukraine take further steps to combat corruption, strengthen its judiciary, and ensure civilian control over its military.
Some allies also harbor concerns about NATO being dragged into direct conflict with Russia. They fear that the promise of membership after the war could provide Putin with an incentive to escalate and prolong the conflict, thereby thwarting Ukraine's accession.
Other allies are apprehensive about losing negotiating leverage in post-war discussions. They aim to employ the promise of NATO membership as both an incentive for Ukraine and a deterrent for Russia but only once hostilities have ceased.