Ukraine, NATO defense spending likely to divide as Biden, leaders meet

Lithuania NATO Summit 75820

In a surprise move, Turkey on Monday dropped its objections to Sweden’s bid to join NATO, opening the way just hours ahead of a major NATO summit in Lithuania for the alliance to move forward with its second historic expansion in response to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

President Biden swiftly praised the development, which is likely over the coming months to see Sweden become NATO’s 32nd member nation, following Finland, which officially became a member in April. The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also removes what could have been a major divisive issue as the alliance tries to coordinate its response to the Russian war in Ukraine.

“This is an historic step which makes all NATO allies stronger and safer,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted after the Monday evening meeting in Vilnius that produced the breakthrough. The formal timing is Sweden’s accession remains uncertain as it still must be approved by the Turkish parliament.

But Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, who met with President Biden in Washington just last week to discuss his country’s stalled application, called Turkey’s decision a “very big step”, telling reporters in Vilnius,  “This feels very good. This has been my aim for a long time, and I believe we … took a very big step towards membership.”

The announcement came just as Mr. Biden and other NATO leaders were arriving Monday in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius for a two-day summit that U.S. and European officials hoped would showcase deepening NATO unity in the face of Russia’s nearly 18-month-old invasion.

The war in Ukraine — and Kyiv’s hopes to one day join the Western alliance — are expected to dominate the summit that officially begins Tuesday, although a slate of other tricky issues will also be discussed, including whether an emboldened NATO should have its sights more broadly set on countering warming ties between Russia and China, as well as threats from Iran and even North Korea.

SEE ALSO: Turkey drops objection to Sweden’s NATO membership on eve of summit

While the prospect looms of a global division pitting those autocratic forces against the world’s biggest democratic security alliance, NATO sources say the focus in Vilnius will center on the more immediate reality that, despite the Ukrainian military’s surprisingly effective performance to date, there is still no end in sight to Russia’s 17-month-old invasion.

President Biden, resisting pressure at home and from some inside NATO to offer Ukraine immediate membership, is expected to call for an expansion of NATO training and equipment for Ukrainian forces. NATO leaders will also discuss how to bring Ukraine closer into the fold of the alliance without actually making it a member — a move Russian President Vladimir Putin has said would cross a red line.

Moscow, eager to exploit the NATO summit to distract from Russia’s failures in Ukraine, underscored the red line Monday: “Ukraine’s membership in NATO will have very, very negative consequences,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow, adding that “it will be an absolute danger, a threat to our country, which will require from us a sufficiently clear and firm reaction.”

For the time being, NATO has signaled it is not ready to open formal membership talks with Ukraine. Allowing Kyiv in would require unanimous agreement among the alliance’s 31 member nations, and such unity has yet to materialize.

However, several members, including the United States, are openly arming and training Ukraine’s military to push Russian forces out of the country. And, officials say this week’s summit in Vilnius is likely to feature the official creation of a new “NATO-Ukraine Council.”

The council could become a forum for discussions on future Ukrainian membership. But its immediate focus would be more likely to center on how the U.S. and others can provide security guarantees for Kyiv to prevent Russia from invading again in the future.

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Internal tensions

While NATO hopes to project an image of unity over Ukraine in Vilnius, the alliance is dealing with a range of tensions internally. The announcement of a deal between Sweden and Turkey thus will be even more welcome.

NATO had struggled for months to reach an agreement on admitting Sweden, which would also require unanimous consent from member nations.  

Prior to Monday, Turkey’s Mr. Erdogan had stood in the way, arguing that Stockholm has a history of harboring Kurdish militants that Ankara views as terrorists and has imposed economic and other sanctions on Ankara for alleged past rights abuses.

In response, Sweden changed its anti-terror laws and lifted an arms embargo that it had in place on Turkey. But Mr. Erdogan had continued to hold out, with analysts saying the Turkish leader sought to use the Sweden issue to gain leverage over other powerful NATO members — most notably the United States — who’ve eagerly backed Swedish ascension.

Mr. Erdogan has reportedly sought upgraded F-16 fighter jets from Washington, as well as relief from U.S. sanctions leveled against Ankara over its purchase of advanced S-400 missile defense systems from Moscow before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a surprise twist Monday, Mr. Erdogan publicly linked Turkey’s once-heralded pursuit of European Union membership to his current resistance to Sweden. Prior to departing for Vilnius, Mr. Erdogan said the EU should stop blocking Turkey’s entry before the Turkish parliament approves Sweden’s membership in NATO.

Hours later, Mr. Stoltenberg announced from Vilnius that Turkey was dropping its resistance to Sweden.

Mr. Biden then issued a statement saying he welcomed “the commitment by President Erdogan to transmit the Accession Protocol for Sweden to Turkey’s Grand National Assembly for swift ratification.”

“I stand ready to work with President Erdogan and Turkey on enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area,” Mr. Biden said. “I look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Kristersson and Sweden as our 32nd NATO ally.  And I thank Secretary General Stoltenberg for his steadfast leadership.”

It was not clear what concessions Mr. Erdogan was able to secure in exchange for changing his stance, but Mr. Stoltenberg in his statement Monday said the alliance would be stepping up its counterterrorism efforts and creating a new NATO “special coordinator for counterterrorism.”

Hungary has also not formally endorsed Sweden’s NATO application, but officials in Budapest have said they would not stand in the way if Turkey dropped its opposition.

Sticky issues

But there are still a range of sticky issues at play in Vilnius, including a longstanding complaint that many NATO members aren’t meeting the target numbers for defense spending.

NATO leaders agreed as a whole in 2014 that 2024 would be the deadline for each member nation to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense annually. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inspired spikes in spending overall, several members remain under the 2% threshold.

There is also an embarrassing internal dispute over who should serve as NATO’s next leader, reflecting differing perspectives in Western and Eastern Europe over how strongly to support Ukraine and how fiercely they should oppose Russia.

Following the recent failure of member nations to agree on a replacement ahead of this week’s summit, Mr. Stoltenberg — a Norwegian who has held the position since 2014 — agreed to stay on until at least October.

Perhaps the most difficult questions this week are over how Ukraine should be eased into NATO. Some argue that admitting Ukraine would fulfill a promise made years ago by the George W. Bush administration and is a necessary step to guarantee Kyiv’s protection against future Russian attacks. Others fear it would be seen as a provocation at a time when Russian forces occupy a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and Kyiv has yet to carry out a number of internal reforms.

“I don’t think [Ukraine] is ready for membership in NATO,” Mr. Biden told CNN in an interview that aired on Sunday. He said joining NATO requires countries to “meet all the qualifications, from democratization to a whole range of other issues.”

The president added, however, that the United States is prepared to provide long-term security assistance to Ukraine — “the capacity to defend themselves” — as Washington has long done with other close allies, such as Israel.

By some measures, the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO, which was created at the beginning of the Cold War as a defensive alliance aimed at countering the Soviet Union. Some analysts argue that the alliance has broader potential in the current world and a clear sense of mission given the rising challenges from Russia and China.

“Today, in many ways, NATO is back to its roots as a bulwark of the transatlantic West against an expansionist Kremlin,” according to Stefan Theil, the deputy editor of Foreign Policy.

But the alliance today is also operating in “a very different world, where Moscow is just one challenge of many,” Mr. Theil wrote in a recent analysis for the publication. “As allies of Russia, China and Iran now impact European security directly; NATO, in turn, is eyeing new threats to the east.”

U.S. military officials have characterized those threats as increasingly tethered to rising military cohesion between Russia, China and Iran.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified to the House Armed Services Committee in March that Russia and China are “getting closer together” and that they, along with Iran, will present problems to global security for years to come. 

“I wouldn’t call it a true full alliance in the real meaning of that word, but we are seeing them moving closer together, and that’s troublesome,” said Gen. Milley, testifying alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. 

“Iran is the third,” Gen. Milley said. “So those three countries together are going to be problematic for many years to come I think, especially Russia and China because of their capability.”

The extent to which NATO aligns with this view is debatable, although a “Strategic Concept” produced by the alliance last year state that “the deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”

Some analysts say NATO should focus more on China. “NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept took an important first step by recognizing China as a security challenge, but now the alliance needs to translate that into concrete actions,” A. Wess Mitchell, who served under former President Trump as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, wrote in a recent analysis also published by Foreign Policy.

“That won’t be easy: China is not an accustomed object of NATO concern, and allies differ on how to deal with Beijing,” he wrote. “But forging a coherent approach is vitally important for improving the West’s collective resistance to China and bolstering the United States’ ability to deter and — should it be necessary — fight a war in the Indo-Pacific.”

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
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