NATO summit takeaways: Biden affirms Ukraine support, Sweden's membership OK'd

Ukraine wins G7 security pledges but its NATO membership remains elusive

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U.S. President Joe Biden and his NATO counterparts wrapped up a two-day summit Wednesday with pledges of long-term support for Ukraine but no offer of the country's protection under the alliance's security umbrella.

Results from the meeting in Lithuania, a nation on NATO's eastern flank that borders Russia, were mixed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky was grateful for the pledges of more arms and ammunition but disappointed that his country has no clear time frame for joining the world's biggest security alliance.

After an evening of pre-summit intrigue, Sweden took a big step toward becoming NATO's 32nd member country when Turkey signaled it would give its approval but not before October.

The allies also launched sweeping changes to their defense plans in case of an attack from Russia or by terrorists. They agreed to step up defense spending, too, but set out no timetable for meeting the targets.

Ukraine's future in NATO

NATO allies offered more weapons, ammunition and other support to Ukraine but could not agree to allow the country to join their organization while a war with Russia is raging. They removed a major hurdle most countries must clear to join – completing a membership action plan – but its accession is still conditional. “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met,” the leaders said, without elaborating. Instead of an action plan, Ukraine will get “multiyear programs” for bringing its armed forces and security institutions up to modern standards. A new NATO-Ukraine Council was launched, upgrading political ties and allowing all sides to call crisis talks if needed. Zelenskyy said it was “absurd” that Ukraine received no proposed time for membership.

Security guarantees for Ukraine

The best security guarantee for Ukraine would be NATO membership. But the Group of Seven industrialized democracies did offer other assurances to dissuade Russia from attacking again once the war is over. Should it do so, the powers would send “swift and sustained security assistance, modern military equipment across land, sea and air domains, and economic assistance.” President Joe Biden told a crowd of cheering thousands, “our unity will not falter — I promise you.” They also vowed to slap more sanctions on Russia. For now and into the future, they said they will provide weapons and military equipment, including combat airpower, as well as more military training for Ukraine’s beleaguered army. Zelenskky asked that these assurances last at least until Ukraine joins NATO.

NATO plans to counter any Russian attack

The leaders endorsed the biggest shakeup since the Cold War of the way NATO would respond to any attack on its territory by Russia. The revamp of the highly secretive defense plans, inspired by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lay out which of the 31 member countries would be called on to respond to an attack anywhere in Europe and the North Atlantic area. NATO commanders will know what troops and equipment they can use and how long it would take to get them into action. “Peace in the Euro-Atlantic area has been shattered,” the leaders said, laying out the twin threats posed by Russia and terrorism. One part of the process that wasn’t streamlined is the need for all allies to approve launching the new plans in case of attack. Political decisions at NATO require consensus and can be time-consuming.

Sweden's NATO membership

Sweden took a big step toward NATO membership. It’s still not in, though. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan relented after Sweden promised to help Turkey join the European Union, but his biggest prize was securing new fighter jets from the United States. Biden said both developments had nothing to do with Sweden’s NATO prospects. The deal was secured at the summit venue the night before the meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, officially started, in a series of talks involving Sweden, Turkey, a top EU official and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan agreed to submit Sweden’s accession protocol to the Turkish parliament and work to ensure its ratification. “This is not a NATO issue,” Stoltenberg said. “Sweden agreed today as an EU member to support actively the efforts to reinvigorate Turkey’s EU accession process.”

Defense spending

Sending weapons and ammunition to Ukraine and bolstering security on NATO’s eastern flank near Russia means more defense spending. The allies pledged to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on their national military budgets, and least 20% of that amount on new military equipment, research and development. But they set no time frame for reaching the targets. After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the organization agreed to halt spending cuts member nations made after the Cold War and move toward spending 2% of GDP within a decade. Now, that percentage will be the floor, rather than a ceiling. Getting there will be a challenge. Only 11 of the 31 member countries are likely to reach the goal this year, according to NATO estimates. It’s unlikely to end U.S. demands that allies do more. Former President Donald Trump threatened to abandon NATO countries that failed to boost their budgets, raising deep concern about the U.S. commitment to the alliance's collective security umbrella.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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