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Vilnius Summit: Ukraine inches closer to joining NATO

By Sigurd Neubauer


Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced at the conclusion of the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, that Ukraine will eventually become a member while stressing that the Alliance had agreed to remove the requirement for a Membership Action Plan. “This will change Ukraine’s membership path from a two-step process to a one-step process. We will issue an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO when Allies agree that conditions are met.”

In an exclusive off-the-record interview, an unnamed senior NATO official who participated in the Summit told Man & Culture Magazine that “while Ukraine is on its way into the alliance, we don’t know how long it will take.”

The official emphasizes that Ukraine’s entry is not only important for Kiev, but also for Europe’s long-term stability, as well as for the United Nations’ rules-based international order that the United States created after World War II. 

Ukraine, for its part, must remain democratic, stable, and become prosperous, the official explains.

As far as a timeline for Ukrainian membership is concerned, the official points to the unity within the Alliance on the matter but reveals nonetheless that “different assessments” among members exist as it is “difficult to imagine inviting Ukraine to join in the middle of a war.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Photo credit: NATO 

It is important to send a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has lost Ukraine; he cannot win it. No matter what he does, Ukraine will join NATO

At the same time, “it is also important to send a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has lost Ukraine; he cannot win it. No matter what he does, Ukraine will join NATO.” 

The official attributes the changing conversation about Ukraine’s entry to a combination of “the cruelty exhibited by Russian forces and how Ukraine has responded to the invasion under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership,” adding that Kiev continues to strengthen its positive image.

While Washington remains by far Ukraine biggest supporter, every Alliance member contributes what it can muster, the official explains.  Immediately following the NATO Summit, Finland hosted the Third United States-Nordic Leaders’ Summit in Helsinki. It convened the Presidents of Finland and the United States, and the Prime Ministers of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. 

They are; U.S. President Joe Bide; Finnish President Sauli Niinistö; Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen; Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir; Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre; and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

Finland joined NATO in April. 

On the eve of the 2023 Vilnius Summit, Stoltenberg announced that Sweden would join the Alliance after he reached an agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, had held up Stockholm’s NATO accession process. 

Hungary has also pledged to follow suit once a Turkish decision was reached.

What’s left for Sweden to become a NATO member should now be a mere formality: its accession needs to be ratified by the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments, respectively. Both Erdogan and Orban’s political parties enjoy super majorities in their legislatures.

With Stockholm joining,  all Nordic and Baltic states  – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland as well as Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – will be NATO members. 

The Vilnius Summit was Finland’s first as a NATO member, which is also why it was granted the opportunity to host the United States-Nordic Summit where the Nordic countries came out with their own unified declaration in support for Ukraine. 

“Each of the Nordic countries enjoy a close bilateral relationship with Washington, but everyone pledged to build on what we have, especially on issues pertaining to defense and resilience.”  

The NATO official, who did not participate at the Summit in Helsinki nonetheless pointed out that “this is the first time since the Kalmar Union” – which lasted from 1397 to 1523 – that all the Nordic countries are jointly aligned. 

The Kalmar Union comprised Norway, Denmark, and Sweden – which at the time also included much of modern Finland – under a single crown.

“Through Finland’s membership and Sweden’s accession, NATO’s northern flank will be stronger through enhanced integration. Everything has to do with security and defense,” the official says.

From Helsinki, Biden traveled to Hiroshima, Japan, to participate in a meeting for the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7). It comprises the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and UK. At the G7, the leaders declared jointly their long-term support for Kiev.

From left to right: Kristersson;Frederiksen; Biden; Niinistö;Jakobsdóttir; and Støre. Photo credit: Torbjørn Kjosvold, Norwegian Ministry of Defense
A changing Republican debate on Ukraine? 

Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has emerged as a leading Republican statesman criticizing the Biden-administration for not having provided Ukraine with adequate weapons. In a Wall Street Journal on the day of the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Pence wrote: “Under…Biden’s leadership, we have been far too slow in doling out military aid to Ukraine, which has prevented its forces from capitalizing on earlier routs of Russian troops. His hesitancy allows time to be used as a weapon against the Ukrainians. As he vacillates, Russia regroups and digs in deeper, ensuring a longer, costlier and deadlier war.”

Nikki Haley, who previously served as UN Ambassador in the Trump-administration, has also sharply criticized the Biden-administration’s Ukraine policy for not having admitted Kiev into NATO. 

The America First Policy Institute, a Washington think tank closely affiliated with former President Donald Trump, has also sharply criticized the White House’s Ukraine policy

Some consider the AFPI as a de-facto administration in-waiting should Trump be elected again next year.

Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley has attacked the Biden-administration’s Ukraine policy

In contrast, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initially stumbled on Ukraine but has since moved towards his competitors on the matter. 

DeSantis, Pence, and Haley, along with Trump, are running for the Republican nomination for president.

Prominent conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, who frequently attacks Zelenskyy and praises Putin, has been unable to sway the Republican political establishment – which now includes Trump and the AFPI – from adopting his position on Ukraine. 

Commenting on the changing Republican conversation on Ukraine, the NATO official describes the debate on whether the Biden-administration could have done more towards supporting Ukraine by initially having provided it with more advanced weapons as a “fair one.” 

“If Ukraine had better weapons during the 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive, it could have been more beneficial. But this is not a debate we’re having at NATO, but it is rather one for military analysts,” the official says, then quips: “Some [Western] leaders initially read Putin differently, especially when he made his [nuclear] threats last October and they had to consider them.”

The official points out that the U.S., China, India, South Africa, and Brazil have all made clear to Putin that using nuclear or chemical weapons in Ukraine would be unacceptable. At the same time, “political leaders will have to take these threats seriously as politicians are sometimes more cautious,” the official says, declining to criticize them but emphasizes instead that it would have been better if Washington and its major European allies “had moved faster” on transferring advanced weapons to Ukraine.

Amid this debate, NATO countries are starting to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets; the fighter jet is also expected to be delivered shortly. “There has been a steady increase of what type of weapons are delivered to Ukraine,” the official explains. 

The conservative Wall Street Journal also addressed Ukraine and the F-16 in a recent editorial:

“Western allies are supposed to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16 next month. But the truth is Ukraine could have had such pilots up and flying by now. The U.S. has known from the start that Ukraine’s Soviet-era jet fleet isn’t equipped to compete with Russia’s larger and more advanced force. The Ukrainians have nonetheless used U.S. anti-radiation missiles in ingenious ways, eluding Russian air defenses to achieve pockets of air superiority.”

NATO countries are starting to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16 fighter jet
Western allies are supposed to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16 next month. But the truth is Ukraine could have had such pilots up and flying by now: WSJ

NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners 

Just like at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, the leaders of Australia, New Zealand Japan and South Korea participated.  

They are: Anthony Albanese (Prime Minister of Australia); Fumio Kishida (Prime Minister of Japan); Christopher Hipkins (Prime Minister of New Zealand); President Suk Yeol Yoon (Republic of Korea)

Both sides, a reference made to NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners, the official says, “want to increase and strengthen cooperation “but points out that “there’s still a way to go to make it more concrete but that information sharing has increased, including on cyber.” 

The agenda is being worked on, but major milestones in NATO’s partnership with its Indo-Pacific partners are expected to be hammered out prior to the 2024 NATO Summit, which will take place in Washington, D.C. There are even some speculations about NATO opening a liaison’s office in the Japanese capital of Tokyo. As of yet, no consensus has been reached on the matter.

From left to right: Albanese; Kishida; Stoltenberg; Hipkins ; and Yoon . Photo credit: NATO
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