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Ukraine presses NATO on membership, but alliance gives no guarantees

NATO officials said their focus first is getting Ukraine through the war and the winter

Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, joins NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a news conference in Bucharest, Romania. (Andrei Pungovschi/AFP/Getty Images)

BUCHAREST, Romania — NATO nations must swiftly advance Ukraine’s proposed entry into the Western military alliance, a top Ukrainian official said Wednesday, calling the past decision to defer the country’s membership a “strategic mistake.”

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba spoke during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers held this week in the same massive Romanian state palace where NATO leaders, 14 years prior, declared they would support Ukraine’s membership but deferred it indefinitely until a host of conditions could be met.

“It is somehow unfortunate that it was exactly here in this palace in 2008 when, in our view, a strategic mistake was made by delaying Ukraine’s membership to NATO,” Kuleba told reporters as the meeting concluded. “We believe … that the discussion on Ukraine’s application should begin. And we believe that mistakes made in the past can be corrected.”

Although top NATO officials and diplomats reiterated their support for the 2008 declaration, they consistently dodged questions about when Ukraine might join the alliance, saying the focus for now is getting Ukraine through the winter and the war. Accession, officials suggested, is a discussion for another day.

“It is important now that we take it step by step,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. “The most important and urgent step is to ensure that Ukraine prevails, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

“Allies are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to what happened in this city in 2008,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a press briefing ahead of the meetings.

“We also have said many times that our focus collectively right now is on practical support to Ukrainian military forces and to the Ukrainian people.”

U.S. unveils plan to rebuild Ukraine energy grid after Russian assault

The summit in Bucharest comes more than nine months into the war in Ukraine, as Russia lashes out amid battleground setbacks and as the prospect of peace appears to be distant.

Russia on Monday announced that it was postponing a technical meeting with U.S. officials about the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, calling into question the future of the sole remaining strategic nuclear arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow.

The New START accord, which built on Cold War deals to limit nuclear arms, is not due to expire until February 2026, but regular inspections mandated by the treaty have not been held for about three years, first because of the pandemic, then because relations were poisoned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova explicitly linked the decision to postpone this week’s meeting to Washington’s weapons supplies to Ukraine, demanding that the United States “create conditions” for a meeting to go ahead next year.

The European Union on Wednesday proposed options for setting up a specialized court to try Russia’s alleged crimes in Ukraine, a potential step toward a broader, international effort to hold the country accountable for the war — but only if the United Nations is on board.

The plan, announced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is a response to Ukraine’s calls for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian leaders for the invasion. “Russia must pay for its horrific crimes, including for its crime of aggression against a sovereign state,” she said in a statement.

Pentagon sending Ukraine new air defenses as Russia pummels key cities

In Bucharest, the United States and its NATO allies are focused on Ukraine’s urgent military and civilian infrastructure needs.

Kuleba said he received new promises of military assistance, including air-defense equipment, armored vehicles and ammunition, but provided no details.

In a meeting with Kuleba, Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the United States’ “enduring commitment to Ukraine’s defense and deterrence capabilities, especially the provision of air-defense options to combat Russia’s escalating missile strikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” according to Ned Price, spokesperson for the State Department.

Securing additional air-defense systems has emerged as a top priority for Ukraine since Moscow in October began to regularly barrage Ukrainian cities with missiles and Iranian-made drones, taking a particular toll on civilians and the country’s vulnerable electricity grid. Authorities have said that at least a quarter of the power grid is now damaged, requiring scheduled blackouts and repeated attempts to repair affected stations.

The Biden administration used the NATO gathering to unveil a plan to spend as much as $53 million on purchasing energy equipment to replace items such as transformers and circuit breakers that have been destroyed by Russian strikes.

The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has elevated energy security as a key issue in talks with foreign supporters as winter deepens the effects of those attacks.

Speaking after the alliance talks, Blinken said the Pentagon was working with Ukraine with the goal of ensuring that energy infrastructure was protected, something Kuleba called paramount for his country, but the top U.S. diplomat made no new pledges of air-defense systems.

Pressed on why the alliance has not moved more swiftly on the matter of Ukrainian accession, Stoltenberg said that, without urgent aid, there would be no country to join the alliance.

“If Ukraine does not prevail as an independent, sovereign state, then of course the membership issue is not at the table at all, because then we have no candidate member anymore in Ukraine,” he said.

“Whatever you think about when Ukraine can become a member, a precondition for that issue to be at the table at all is that Ukraine prevails,” he continued. “And we are helping Ukraine to do so.”

Stoltenberg hinted that political ties between NATO and Ukraine could be strengthened, but that, for now, the alliance is focused on practical matters, such as bringing Ukraine’s Soviet-era equipment up to NATO standard.

Officials also discussed prospective members Finland and Sweden, who have made it past final hurdles in all alliance nations except two, Hungary and Turkey.

Ankara has accused Sweden of harboring Kurdish militants who pose a threat to Turkey. In recent remarks, however, Stoltenberg has made it clear that such concerns have been addressed and that it is time to move forward.

Blinken downplayed differences among NATO nations over Finland’s and Sweden’s memberships, and those over a proposed plan to cap the price of Russian oil.

“Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees,” he said. “The forest is dense, strong, substantive, and that is convergence among allies and partners on all of the critical issues.”

He said the ratification in 28 of 30 member nations had happened in “record speed” and said Sweden and Finland were engaging with Turkey to address its concerns.

“I’m very confident, and again, based on what I’ve heard these last couple of days, that Finland and Sweden will soon be formally new members of the alliance,” he said.

U.S. officials have suggested that the two countries’ accession processes might be completed by early next year.

Rauhala reported from Brussels and Dixon from Riga, Latvia.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated when Russia said it would postpone a planned meeting with U.S. officials. It was Monday. This version has been corrected.

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