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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Allies pressure Biden to hasten NATO membership for Ukraine

President Joe Biden meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

By David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger

President Joe Biden has taken every opportunity over the past 16 months to celebrate NATO’s unity on Ukraine. But on one key topic, Biden finds himself somewhat isolated within the alliance: when and how Ukraine would join.

Biden, who has been cautious about getting NATO into a direct fight with Russia, has sought 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 broken out among the allies that is putting pressure on Biden to support a significantly faster and more certain path to membership for Ukraine. For Biden, all the options carry considerable risks, pitting his desire not to allow any fractures to appear in NATO against his standing instruction to his staff to “avoid World War III.”

Many of the allies, especially from countries bordering Russia, want to provide Ukraine with a strong political commitment on membership ahead of a NATO summit next month in Vilnius, Lithuania. Some want a timetable and specific goals to meet for true membership, though only after the war is no longer 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 will be in NATO.” Speaking Wednesday at a strategy conference in Riga, he said that any other outcome means inevitably “Russia will come back.”

The hope in the push is that once Ukraine is a full member of the alliance, Russia would not dare to try to topple the government in Kyiv because an attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on them all. Ukrainian membership has become a “consuming debate,” both in Europe and inside the Biden administration, according to one senior U.S. official who is deeply involved in the discussions.

Only Germany has sided fully with Biden, though some of the other 29 allies have their own quiet doubts about Ukraine’s readiness to fully join the alliance — and the risks that NATO nations could get sucked directly into a conflict with Russia in the future.

In a blur of memos and meetings, several U.S. officials, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appear 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 can be agreed upon in the middle of a war that has no clear end in sight.

Blinken’s view was reinforced during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Oslo, Norway, two weeks ago, when many of the allies — led by Poland and the Baltic States — insisted that Ukraine’s status had to be clarified when Biden and other world leaders meet.

While there was no consensus on how to bolster the 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 into the fold — and closer to full membership. The move would be partly intended as a message to President Vladimir Putin of Russia that he will not be able to wait for support for Ukraine to lag, and partly as a concession to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has long called for Ukrainian entry into NATO.

U.S. officials say that no proposal to alter the current American position is formally circulating in the White House, though they expect that to come in the next few weeks. While the Biden White House is loath to discuss internal policy debates, in this case many details have seeped out, including the argument that Biden should get out ahead of the curve, rather than appear to be catching up with the Europeans. Already this year, Biden has agreed to send M1 Abrams tanks and said he would allow Ukrainian pilots to be trained on American-made F-16s, in significant reversals.

The issue of Ukraine’s path to membership was expected to be central in a meeting Biden held with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday in the Oval Office. The alliance official made what is assumed to be his last such visit, unless a last-minute push emerges to again extend his tenure.

Stoltenberg was bringing a compromise proposal to Biden, in which NATO would agree that Ukraine, battle-tested with NATO equipment and training, would not need to go through the standard process for aspiring members before it can join, according to a senior U.S. official.

Other officials said that would raise questions about what would replace that process, including obtaining assurances that Ukraine, which has a history of corruption and is under wartime martial law, does not turn authoritarian.

But NATO is a military alliance first and foremost, and it includes numerous countries with patchy democratic credentials, including Turkey and Hungary.

In brief remarks to reporters at the White House, Stoltenberg did not address NATO membership for Ukraine directly. He said there would be new commitments to spend more on defense at the NATO summit, and noted that new equipment and training for Ukrainian forces “is making a difference on the battlefield as we speak,’’ insisting Ukraine was making progress with its long-awaited counteroffensive.

“President Putin must not win this war because that will not only be a tragedy for Ukrainians, but it will also make the world more dangerous,” he said. “It will send a message to authoritarian leaders all over the world, also in China, that when they use military force, they get what they want.”

In Vilnius, NATO will present Zelenskyy with a set of commitments from member states to continue to supply Ukraine with weapons, ammunition and money in the medium term — not subject to the fate of the current counteroffensive or the electoral calendar.

NATO is also expected to elevate its relations with Ukraine from a NATO-Ukraine Commission, founded in 1997, to a NATO-Ukraine Council, a higher level of engagement and integration.

The symbolism is clear: In 2002, a dozen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was given exactly the same treatment — complete with an office inside the NATO compound in Brussels. At the time, Russia was termed an “equal partner” with NATO members, but it all ended after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Now, Ukraine could be playing the role inside NATO that Russia once did.

The issue of how to define Ukraine’s future in the alliance has overtaken a second question, how to come up long-term security assurances for Ukraine. 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 10-year-long security commitment with the United States.

While Ukraine’s would almost certainly be shorter, the idea, administration officials say, would be to convince Putin that the flow of arms and training to Kyiv will not flag — and to bleed some of the politics out of episodic debates about how much aid to commit to Ukraine in the next six months or a year.

But those are not security “guarantees” of the kind Zelenskyy seeks. Those pushing for a stronger commitment to Ukraine argue that only NATO membership, and protection by its vow of collective defense, can guarantee the country’s security.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary-general who is now an adviser to Zelenskyy, told the Guardian last week that “if NATO cannot agree on a clear path forward for Ukraine, there is a clear possibility that some countries individually might take action.” He argued that “the Poles would seriously consider going in,” among others.

Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, said in a recent interview with The New York Times that she understood that Ukraine would not be invited to join the alliance at next month’s summit meeting. But Ukraine must be offered membership, she said, “when conditions are right” — when the fighting stops.

But others argue more quietly that a stronger commitment to Ukrainian membership only plays into that Russian narrative that the war is a NATO effort to destabilize Russia’s government. And it could give Putin more incentive to continue the war, or to escalate it. When Brazil’s highway police began holding up buses full of voters on election day, he ordered them to stop.

When right-wing voices spread the baseless claim that Brazil’s election was stolen, he ordered them banned from social media.

And when thousands of right-wing protesters stormed Brazil’s halls of power this month, he order

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