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Weapons for Kyiv Key Topic at NATO Summit

NATO gathering looking for unity amid global threats and a Trump return to the White House.

Marking the 75th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), this year’s NATO’s summit in Washington, DC, is addressing a more challenging world. At NATO’s inception, the world had experienced a catastrophic war that claimed between 35 and 60 million lives and destroyed countless villages, towns, and cities, changing the landscape of Europe. The alliance was brought into being to ensure such carnage never happened again.

NATO Summit Opens With High Aspirations

During the opening program at Mellon Auditorium, the location of the original signing of the Washington Treaty establishing the alliance, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Joe Biden lauded the resilience of the organization. However, the meeting comes at a time when world events are, in many ways, far more complicated. NATO is engaged in supporting a sovereign nation embroiled in a devastating war started by Russia in an unprovoked act of aggression. While the Kremlin is wreaking terror in Ukraine, it is also threatening NATO countries with tactical nuclear weapons, a real danger not as imminent in 1949. China, not a global threat in the late 1940s, is very much one now. And Iran and North Korea pose significant menace to their neighbors and the world at large.

As it was last year, Ukraine is the elephant in the room. “NATO is desperate to do more for Ukraine but is struggling to find new ways. Already, NATO allies provide 99% of the military support it gets. Soon, the Alliance will manage equipment deliveries. But two red lines remain: no NATO membership until the war is over, and no NATO boots on the ground there,” the Associated Press observed. Within those margins, though, NATO has stepped up to provide more sophisticated weaponry to Kyiv.

During remarks at the Summit Public Forum, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the audience, “I’m also pleased to announce that, as we speak, the transfer of F-16 jets is underway, coming from Denmark, coming from the Netherlands, and those jets … will be flying in the skies of Ukraine this summer to make sure that Ukraine can continue to effectively defend itself against the Russian aggression.” Then Blinken made a US policy statement missing since the Russians first illegally crossed into Ukraine more than 28 months ago:

“Let’s talk about what winning means, what success is for Ukraine. And in my estimation, at least, success is a strong, independent Ukraine, increasingly integrated with Euro-Atlantic institutions – like the European Union, like NATO – and that is able to stand on its own feet, militarily, economically, democratically. Militarily we have an incredibly robust package that will be unveiled over the next couple of days at NATO that builds a very clear, strong, robust, well-lit bridge to NATO membership for Ukraine.”

This statement is important because it provides some notion of an end state to the conflict. Unfortunately, the words come off as more aspirational than achievable. Blinken’s assertion raises the question: Doesn’t Ukraine first have to defeat militarily the Russian invaders holding a significant swath of Ukraine’s real estate? The question has plagued the Biden administration since the beginning of the hostilities.

National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby was specific during a White House press briefing on July 8. “I mean, we — we want all of Ukraine’s sovereign territory respected, which means we want no Russian forces in any part of Ukraine by the internationally recognized boundaries.” Ukrainians believe those “internationally recognized boundaries” include all territory claimed by Ukraine pre-Russian illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas and Luhansk regions. Convincing Russia to give up the territory it has fought for since its invasion will be a hard sell. Consequently, the US view of victory in Ukraine is somewhere between the boilerplate aspirations of Blinken and the questionable realism of the White House.

No Timeline for Ukraine Membership in Alliance

Left unsaid by Biden during his summit opening speech was any mention of Ukraine’s NATO membership. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will be disappointed again if he thinks the 2024 NATO Summit will bring Kyiv closer to alliance membership. Zelensky can claim a greater NATO commitment to providing military support to his beleaguered nation. Despite the ebb and flow of ground combat, the most devastating assaults on Ukraine come from Russian glide bombs, cruise missiles, drones, and ballistic missiles. Biden’s announcement during his speech that a significant increase in air defense missile systems would be part of the package being provided to Ukraine should be welcome news.

Nonetheless, as Defense News reported, regardless of US officials’ upbeat rhetoric, the watchwords for the summit’s results are “managing expectations.” The 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, concluded with Zelensky’s disappointment that a timeline for Ukraine’s NATO membership was not the result. “In order to avoid a repeat of last year, the 2024 summit in Washington has been much more closely coordinated. Multiple European officials told Defense News that planning began months earlier than usual.”

If it is any consolation, Zelensky is receiving a solid commitment of F-16 fighters from NATO countries, albeit two years after the request and one year after the transfer of the fighters received approval. NATO has established a more streamlined and efficient pipeline for ammunition and critically needed weapons. That’s the good news. The bad news is that NATO is operating in the shadow of political uncertainty among many of its members, not the least of which is the United States.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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