NATO Looks to Bridge Gaps on Ukraine Membership Bid

Communal workers evacuate damaged cars covered with dust and rubble at the bottom of a partially destroyed building after an overnight drone attack in Kyiv on May 30, 2023. Photo by Genya SAVILOV / AFP

Oslo, Norway-- NATO foreign ministers meeting in Oslo Thursday will try to narrow divisions on Ukraine's push to join, upping spending and finding a new alliance chief, ahead of a July summit.

Russia's war on Ukraine has galvanised the Western military alliance set up almost 75 years ago to face off against the Soviet Union.

But with just over five weeks to a meeting of leaders in Lithuania's capital Vilnius there are splits on key issues.

Chief among them is Kyiv's push to join NATO, an organisation that requires consensus to take decisions.

"There will be some challenging discussions among allies in the run-up to Vilnius, including on security guarantees or assurances for Ukraine and their desire for NATO membership," alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday.

"I cannot anticipate the outcome of the discussions, but what is clear is that all NATO allies agree that NATO's door is open."

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, backed by NATO countries in eastern Europe, is calling for a "clear message" at the July summit that Kyiv will join once the conflict with Russia ends.

Ukraine concedes it will not become a member while fighting rages on its territory. But it wants the alliance to move beyond a vague 2008 pledge that it will one day be in NATO.

Diplomats from NATO countries say its dominant military power, the United States, is reluctant to go further than that vow on membership made 15 years ago.

Joining NATO would mean that Ukraine would be covered by the alliance's Article 5 collective defence clause that obliges all allies to help defend it if attacked.

Despite the divisions, diplomats at NATO remain relaxed that a compromise can be found in the intense negotiations planned before the Vilnius summit.

One option is countries offering Ukraine bilateral security assurances outside the alliance's framework.

France has said it could be ready to provide some form of guarantee.

But there are major questions how any commitments to Ukraine could work.

On a practical level, Stoltenberg is pushing for a decade-long programme worth 500 million euros ($530 million) per year to help Ukraine's military switch to Western standards.

That would be on top of the tens of billions of dollars in arms that allies have already sent.

- New NATO head? -

Another hot potato for the Vilnius gathering is a new pledge to boost NATO's current target for each member to spend at least two percent of gross domestic product on defence.

Only seven members hit that figure last year, and the allies agree on the need to make the two-percent goal "a floor, not a ceiling".

But Eastern European members, which have already boosted defence spending beyond that, are disappointed by the lack of ambition shown by some allies.

On the other side, members such as Canada and Luxembourg are reticent to make any greater ambition too concrete.

One issue to be discussed by ministers on the sidelines of the meeting will be finding a successor to Stoltenberg as NATO secretary general.

The former Norwegian premier has held the post since 2014. Last year, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, his tenure was extended to September this year.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has emerged as a possible frontrunner and is heading to Washington next week for a meeting with US President Joe Biden.

She has bolstered her case by promising to triple Denmark's defence budget over the next decade.

But newer NATO members from the eastern part of Europe complain that it is time one of their politicians get the top slot, and argue the job shouldn't be dominated by just one region.

Other names being mentioned are Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, and British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

Diplomats say that if no clear choice emerges then Stoltenberg -- who says he won't put himself forward -- may be asked to stay on still longer, into next year.

© Agence France-Presse

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