NATO vows lasting support for Ukraine, but won’t promise membership

NATO leaders will unveil new steps to train and arm Ukraine at an alliance summit this week but will stop short of concrete advances toward its membership in the Western bloc, underscoring questions about how Kyiv can prevail in its grinding war against Russia.

President Biden will host leaders from more than 30 nations in the U.S. capital for a gathering marking the 75th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as he and other leaders try to refocus attention away from Ukraine’s gloomy battlefield outlook and their own domestic challenges by highlighting ongoing alliance support for Kyiv.

The urgency of NATO’s task was starkly visible on Monday when Russian missiles slammed into a pediatric hospital and other sites in Kyiv, illustrating the need for air defense assets and other military hardware Ukraine requires to hold off a much larger, better-armed adversary.

Russia has managed to defy a barrage of Western sanctions imposed following President Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion, instead surging troops and military production in its quest to cement control over vast swaths of Ukraine.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the gathering would highlight how NATO, with its two new members, Finland and Sweden, had risen to the challenge of rebuffing the Kremlin’s assault on international norms.

“The Washington summit will send a strong signal to Mr. Putin that if he thinks he can outlast a coalition of countries that are supporting Ukraine, he’s dead wrong again,” he told reporters on Monday.

Against the backdrop of Ukraine’s struggle to sustain its military effort — along with European anxiety about the potential for upheaval under a second Trump presidency and a rise in far-right parties in some alliance members — NATO leaders are expected to announce a package of modest deliverables for Ukraine.

They include shifting from U.S. to NATO control elements of the effort to arm and train Ukraine, and other measures officials are depicting as a “bridge” to Ukraine’s future accession to the alliance. More direct action to admit Ukraine, such as setting a timeline for entry, remains a contentious subject among NATO members, some of whom fear absorbing a country mired in conflict with a nuclear superpower.

Ivo Daalder, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration, said the new measures constituted a “significant step forward” that would thrust the alliance more directly into the day-to-day actions supporting Ukraine’s military effort.

“It does bring Ukraine and NATO closer together on the practical and operational sense,” Daalder said. “What it doesn’t do is solve the strategic issue, which is: When will Ukraine become a member of NATO?”

Officials were still racing to finalize the summit’s communiqué on Monday, the eve of the summit. The latest proposal would offer Ukraine an “irreversible” path toward NATO membership, but it would also include extensive language about the need for Kyiv to make anti-corruption and good governance reforms before it can join, nine officials familiar with the conversations said, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.

That language was the result of an agreement struck by Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the officials said, one that reflected Biden’s ongoing reservations about Ukraine’s path to NATO membership.

NATO members that favor a faster membership track for Ukraine had sought to include the word “irreversible” to demonstrate that Kyiv has moved closer to alliance entry since last year’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Some acknowledged the word was more symbolic than substantive.

Biden, who has remained more resistant on the subject than many of his senior aides, initially rejected the plan to include the irreversibility language, and declared in more than one Oval Office meeting that much work remained to be done to combat corruption before Ukraine could gain membership, two U.S. officials and one former official said.

In an interview in May, the president said he was “not prepared to support the NATOization of Ukraine,” appearing to rule out the country’s membership altogether and contradicting the U.S. government’s official stance.

Biden continued to express skepticism in talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington last month, the officials said, saying that the more cautious “bridge to NATO” language U.S. officials were already using would suffice.

When Biden’s top advisers once again pitched the president on the “irreversible” wording after the Stoltenberg talks, Sullivan was able to secure his support on the condition the United States would also require language citing the need for Ukraine to make extensive progress on corruption and political accountability before gaining membership, the officials said.

The discussions were a sign of Biden’s concern that admitting Ukraine before it is ready could eventually saddle the alliance with corruption challenges that would be hard to root out, the officials said.

“Ukraine is not a teeny-tiny Balkan country that we’re talking about,” one official said. “It’s huge and it will have a sizable impact.”

NATO diplomats said that while Biden’s approach is backed by Germany and some southern and western European members, it has also led to frustrations among others — particularly France and some eastern European countries — that the conditions risk conveying a message that the alliance would rather Ukraine not join at all.

Even if Ukraine were to solve all of its corruption problems tomorrow, there is a more fundamental challenge with inviting the country into NATO now, said Eric Ciaramella, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former White House aide with the Eurasia portfolio.

“The real issue is we don’t know how to provide a security guarantee to a country that’s at war with Russia,” he said. “We can’t articulate the conditions [for such a guarantee] other than for the war to be over, and saying that would just incentivize Russia to continue the war.”

For now at least, top Ukrainian officials appear publicly focused on what their country will gain, rather than what remains elusive.

“We’re looking for some serious and strong decisions from the Washington summit about concrete systems of air defense because it’s one of the most critical moments,” Yermak told reporters in Washington ahead of the summit.

U.S. and NATO officials sought to portray the deliverables, following a recent peace summit, as proof of unshakable Western commitment. They also highlighted a new Group of Seven decision to unlock $50 billion in proceeds from frozen Russian assets for Ukraine and recent U.S. moves to send additional air-defense interceptors and to permit Ukraine to use American weapons to strike certain sites inside Russia, even though some key targets remain out of reach.

But the summit’s offerings for Ukraine remain less ambitious than Kyiv and some within the alliance had hoped. In the months leading up to the summit, grander plans to “Trump-proof” Ukraine aid have been watered down as allies have differed over details.

This spring, for instance, Stoltenberg raised the idea of creating a multiyear fund to lock in commitments from allies and protect Ukraine aid from the winds of political change. Some allies, including the United States, balked at the idea of a years-long obligation. Instead, the alliance is expected to announce a plan to sustain the current level of military aid — roughly $40 billion — for next year.

A chief deliverable this week will be the establishment of a new NATO structure that will take over some duties of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a body that has been coordinating military aid to Kyiv since 2022 under the leadership of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, including the training for Ukrainian troops.

Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official for Europe, said that while Ukraine would not be getting a near-term invitation to join NATO, the summit would still send Putin a message that the alliance is not walking away from the fight.

“What they will get are some things that are more than just window-dressing, that are improvements in how we will assist Ukraine in coming years,” he said. “So it’s glass half-empty, or glass half-full.”

U.S. officials are seeking to highlight the improving trajectory for Ukraine after Congress passed a major aid package following a months-long delay. While the battle lines have barely shifted in more than a year, they say Moscow is likely to face increasing challenges in maintaining its battlefield advantages.

“Ukraine remains under pressure; this remains a very active conflict; we shouldn’t look with rose colored glasses,” a senior administration official said. “But the lines have stabilized and Russia is suffering extraordinary costs in such a manner that that forces them to rely on poorly trained forces, which actually plays into Ukraine’s hands.”

U.S. officials also sought in the lead-up to this week’s talks to temper Ukrainian leaders’ expectations about its path to membership, hoping to reduce the chances they will erupt in public frustration about the lack of a swift accession plan, as Zelensky did during last year’s summit.

“[Zelensky] will be told, ‘Please don’t do it again,’” said a senior NATO official.

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