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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

NATO countries are divided over giving Ukraine membership, officials say

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, during a meeting of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Brussels on Wednesday.

By Steven Erlanger

NATO countries are divided over what kind of political reassurances they might give Ukraine at the next NATO summit meeting, in mid-July, with the United States, Germany and France resisting pressure from central and Eastern European allies to provide any detailed “road map” toward membership, Western officials said following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers this week.

On some level, they said, the debate is notional, given that Ukraine is at war and a major part of its territory is occupied by Russian invaders. And much will depend on how successful Ukraine is in its long-heralded counteroffensive, expected later this spring or early summer.

The debate was one focus of the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels this week, as it was for the previous such meeting, held in Bucharest, Romania, in November, when the United States also resisted making any political promises to Ukraine about accelerated membership.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that he would only come to the midsummer NATO summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, if he is given some concrete path or enhanced steps toward NATO membership. Ukraine applied to join the alliance in September, but NATO officials understood the application to be a question for a more peaceful future.

Ukraine would also like some concrete assurances about security guarantees NATO could offer it once peace is established. The kind of assurances and longer-term partnership NATO might have with Ukraine, short of full membership, is another divisive issue.

NATO members will continue to discuss what they are collectively prepared to offer to Ukraine in Vilnius, but it will not be easy to find a compromise that is more than symbolic and that will satisfy Kyiv.

“We’ve got several weeks of hard negotiations ahead to close those gaps and craft a political outcome,” one Western official said. But some of Ukraine’s neighbors have been pushing for a path to membership, including Poland, the linchpin of NATO’s eastern flank. While on a state visit to Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday, Zelenskyy won strong backing for a rapid entry into NATO from President Andrzej Duda.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked Wednesday about whether some proposal about membership might come at the meeting in Vilnius, said that it was more important to concentrate on “the very practical steps” to get Ukraine’s military trained and equipped for the counteroffensive.

“Our focus right now is relentlessly on doing what needs to be done to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian aggression, and indeed to put it in a position to retake more of the territory that’s been seized from it by Russia,” he said. “That’s our intense focus.”

Blinken added that NATO was “also looking at what we can do, over a longer period of time, to build up Ukraine’s capacity to deter aggression, to defend against aggression and, if necessary, again in the future to defeat aggression.

“And a big part of that is bringing Ukraine up to NATO standards, and to NATO interoperability. And I suspect that you’ll see that focus continue at the Vilnius summit.”

In 2008, NATO leaders promised Ukraine and Georgia eventual membership, but without setting a date. Russia went to war against Georgia that year, and Russian troops remain in parts of Georgia, as they do in large sections of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

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