President Biden has seized every opportunity over the past 16 months to celebrate NATO’s unity over Ukraine. But on one key issue, Mr. Biden finds himself somewhat isolated within the alliance: when and how Kiev would join.
Mr Biden, who has been careful to get NATO into direct combat with Moscow, has tried to maintain the status quo of more than a decade: a vague promise that Ukraine, now arguably the most powerful military force in Europe, will eventually join the alliance, but with no set timetable.
Now a debate has erupted among the allies that is pressuring Mr Biden to support a significantly faster and surer path to membership for Ukraine. For Mr Biden, all options carry significant risks, with his desire not to allow rifts to appear in NATO contrasted with his firm instruction to his staff to “avoid World War III”.
Many of the allies, especially from countries bordering Russia, want to make a strong political commitment to Ukraine on membership ahead of a NATO summit next month in Vilnius, Lithuania. Some want a timetable and specific goals for true membership, but only after the war stops raging, Biden administration officials said.
Krisjanis Karins, the American-born Prime Minister of Latvia, argued that “the only chance for peace in Europe is when Ukraine joins NATO”. Speaking at a strategy conference in Riga on Wednesday, he said any other outcome inevitably means “Russia will come back”.
The hope in the push is that once Ukraine is a full member of the alliance, Russia would not dare try to overthrow the government in Kiev, because an attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on them all. Ukrainian membership has become a “consuming discussion” both in Europe and within the Biden administration, according to a senior US official closely involved in the discussions.
Only Germany has fully sided with Biden, though some of the other 29 allies have their own quiet doubts about Ukraine’s willingness to fully join the alliance — and the risks that NATO countries will be directly involved in a future war. conflict with Russia.
In a blur of memos and meetings, several US officials, led by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, seem to have taken the position that the Biden administration will be forced to be more specific about Ukraine’s path to membership, even if no date to be determined. are agreed in the middle of a war whose end is not yet in sight.
Mr Blinken’s view was strengthened at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Oslo two weeks ago, when many of the allies – led by Poland and the Baltic states – pushed for Ukraine’s status to be clarified when Mr Biden and other world leaders meet. .
While there was no consensus on how to strengthen commitment to Ukraine, it was clear that some NATO members are desperate for ways to show that 16 months of war have brought the country closer to the group – and closer to full membership. The move is said to be partly a message to Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin that he will not be able to wait for support for Ukraine to fall behind, and partly as a concession to President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has long called for Ukraine to join NATO. . .
US officials say there is no formal proposal circulating in the White House to change the current US position, though they expect that to come in the coming weeks. While the Biden White House hates discussing internal policy debates, many details have seeped out in this case, including the argument that Mr. Biden should lead the way rather than catch up with the Europeans. Already this year, Mr Biden has agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks and said he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on US-made F-16s, in major reversals.
The issue of Ukraine’s path to membership was expected to be at the center of a meeting Biden held with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office on Tuesday. The alliance official was presumably on his last visit unless there is a last-minute attempt to renew his term.
Mr Stoltenberg brought a compromise proposal to Mr Biden in which NATO agrees that Ukraine, challenged with NATO equipment and training, will not have to go through the standard candidate-member process before it can join, according to a senior US official. officer.
Other officials said this would raise questions about what would replace that process, including getting assurances that Ukraine, which has a history of corruption and is under martial law, will not become authoritarian.
But NATO is primarily a military alliance and includes many countries with patchy democratic credentials, including Turkey and Hungary.
In short remarks to reporters at the White House, Mr. Stoltenberg not directly about NATO membership for Ukraine. He said there would be new commitments to spend more on defense at the NATO summit, noting that new equipment and training for Ukraine’s armed forces “are making a difference on the battlefield right now”, insisting that Ukraine made progress with its protracted struggle. awaited counteroffensive.
“President Putin must not win this war, because it will not only be a tragedy for the Ukrainians, but it will also make the world more dangerous,” he said. “It will send a message to authoritarian leaders around the world, including in China, that when they use military force, they get what they want.”
In Vilnius, NATO will present to Mr Zelensky a series of commitments from member states to continue supplying Ukraine with arms, ammunition and money in the medium term – regardless of the fate of the current counter-offensive or the electoral calendar.
NATO is also expected to elevate its relationship with Ukraine from a NATO-Ukraine Commission, established in 1997, to a NATO-Ukraine Council, a higher level of engagement and integration.
The symbolism is clear: in 2002, twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia received exactly the same treatment – complete with an office at the NATO compound in Brussels. At the time, Russia was referred to as an “equal partner” with NATO members, but that came to an end after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Now Ukraine could play the role in NATO that Russia once did.
The question of how to define Ukraine’s future in the alliance has overtaken a second question, namely how to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security. Biden’s aides are telling members of Congress they want to move to something akin to what they call “the Israel model,” which has a ten-year security commitment to the United States.
While Ukraine’s would almost certainly be shorter, the idea, government officials say, would be to convince Putin that the flow of weapons and training to Kiev will not abate — and to leave some of the politics out of episodic debates. bleeding over how much aid to commit to Ukraine in the next six months or a year.
But those are not “security guarantees” of the sort Mr. Zelensky is looking for. Those pushing for greater involvement in Ukraine argue that only NATO membership and protection through the vow of collective defense can guarantee the country’s security.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former NATO Secretary General who is now an adviser to Mr Zelensky, told The Guardian last week that “if NATO cannot agree on a clear path forward for Ukraine, there is a clear opportunity that some countries take individual action. .” Among other things, he argued that “the Poles would seriously consider going in”.
Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister of Estonia, said in a recent interview with NewsMadura that she understood Ukraine would not be invited to join the alliance at next month’s summit meeting. But Ukraine should be offered membership, she said, “when the conditions are right” – when the fighting stops.
But others more quietly argue that a stronger commitment to Ukrainian membership only plays into the Russian narrative that the war is a NATO attempt to destabilize the Russian government. And it could give Mr. Putin more incentive to continue or escalate the war.