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As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues with no end in sight, NATO’s much-celebrated cohesiveness confronts new challenges as leaders meet this week in Vilnius, Lithuania, for their annual summit.
The world’s largest defence alliance is unable to achieve an agreement on Sweden becoming its 32nd member. Military spending by member countries continues to fall behind long-term targets. In addition, the present secretary general’s tenure was extended for an additional year due to an inability to reach an agreement on who should serve as NATO’s next leader.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is how Ukraine should be eased into the alliance. Some argue that admitting Ukraine to NATO would be a fulfilment of a long-standing pledge and an essential step in deterring Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Others are concerned that it may be perceived as a provocation, perhaps escalating into a larger confrontation.
Bickering among friends is usual, and the current list of disagreements pales in contrast to previous worries that Donald Trump might abandon the alliance during his administration. The difficulties, however, arise at a time when President Joe Biden and his colleagues are strongly involved in displaying unity among members.
“Any fissure, any lack of solidarity provides an opportunity for those who would oppose the alliance,” said Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to NATO during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
NATO on Ukraine Crises
Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to exploit differences as he tries to gain momentum in Ukraine and confronts domestic political issues, notably the fallout from the Wagner mercenary group’s short uprising.
“You don’t want to present any openings,” Lute said. “You don’t want any gaps or seams to show.”
By some accounts, the Ukraine crisis has reenergized NATO, which was established at the start of the Cold War as a bulwark against Moscow. NATO members have sent military weapons into Ukraine to aid in its ongoing counteroffensive, while Finland has ended a long period of nonalignment to become NATO’s 31st member.
The United States declared on Friday that it will provide Ukraine with the contentious cluster bombs. Because it opens in the air, unleashing tiny “bomblets” across a large area and striking numerous targets at the same time, such a bomb provides a higher danger of civilian injury. Ukraine has vowed to use it with caution.
In a statement issued Saturday evening, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — one of Western Europe’s most ardent supporters of Ukraine in the conflict — reiterated her country’s condemnation of Russian aggression while calling for the “universal application of the principles” of the international convention prohibiting the production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
Farhan Haq, the UN’s deputy spokesperson, stated that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “wants countries to abide by the terms of that convention and, as a result, he does not want there to be continued use of cluster munitions on the battlefield.”
However, the continuous conflict has allowed other issues to fester or bubble to the surface.
NATO officials, in particular, stated in 2008 that Ukraine will eventually become a member, although little progress has been made towards that aim. Putin captured portions of the nation in 2014 before attempting to conquer Kyiv in 2022, sparking the present conflict.
“A grey zone is a green light for Putin,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland who is now an Atlantic Council distinguished fellow.
The US and Germany say that rather than issuing a formal invitation to join NATO, the focus should be on sending weapons and ammunition to assist Ukraine win the current fight.
However, NATO’s Eastern flank countries – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland — demand tougher assurances about future inclusion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is also advocating for this. During a visit to Prague on Thursday, he stated that an invitation to join the alliance would be the “ideal” outcome of the Vilnius meeting.
NATO might utilise the occasion to strengthen its connection with Ukraine by establishing the NATO-Ukraine Council and granting Kyiv a seat at the table for talks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the primary impediment to Sweden’s efforts to join NATO with its neighbour Finland, will also be in the limelight in Vilnius.
Erdogan accused Sweden of being too sympathetic towards anti-Islamic protests and violent Kurdish parties fighting a decades-long insurgency in Turkiye.
Sweden has amended its anti-terrorism law and lifted its arms ban against Turkiye. However, a guy burnt a Qur’an outside a mosque in Stockholm last week, and Erdogan indicated that this would be an additional barrier. He conflated “those who permitted the crime” with “those who committed the crime.”
Turkiye and the United States are also at odds over the sale of F-16 fighter planes. Erdogan wants the improved jets, but Biden insists that Sweden’s NATO membership come first.
Sullivan stated that the US believes Sweden will join NATO “in the not-too-distant future,” but it is uncertain if the issue will be settled during the summit.