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As Finland joins its ranks NATO ponders Ukraine's prospects


BRUSSELS (AP) — As Finland joined NATO this week, casting aside a history of military nonalignment, a small but noisy group of Ukraine supporters outside the security fence at the alliance’s headquarters used a loudspeaker system to chant “Ukraine needs NATO,” “Ukraine in NATO,” and “Ukraine needs fighter jets.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven Finland into NATO’s ranks to benefit from its security guarantee that an attack on any one of the now-31 member countries will be met with a response from them all. Sweden, Bosnia, Georgia and — most urgently — Ukraine, want in, too.

At their summit in Lithuania on July 11-12, U.S. President Joe Biden and his counterparts want to offer Ukraine something more, something stronger, in line with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s expectations more than a year into a war that has killed tens of thousands and driven millions from their homes. The question, NATO diplomats say, is: What, exactly?

The problem is simple. Most of NATO’s bigger member nations believe that a country should not be brought into the fold while it is fighting a war. What Ukraine would join? What would its borders look like? Would Zelenskyy agree to join without the occupied Crimea and Donbas?

Some countries, closer to Russia’s borders and all too aware of their own troubled histories with their giant neighbor, would back Ukraine’s membership application now.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who walks a wobbly plank as he attempts to speak for 31 allies with diverse positions that only take decisions unanimously, says the equation is simple: There is no point in talking about joining if Russia takes Ukraine.

“Ukraine will become a member of the alliance,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday. “At the same time, we all realize that to make any meaningful progress on this issue, the first step is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent nation.”

According to the organization's estimates, NATO and its allies have delivered close to 150 billion euros ($164 billion) in support to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. That ranges from financial backing to field assistance including generators, fuel, tents and medical aid.

Some of the members, bilaterally or in groups, have supplied around 65 billion euros' ($71 billion) worth of military equipment: air defense systems, anti-tank weapons, artillery shells and tanks. Poland and Slovakia have even agreed to send Soviet-era jets that Ukrainian pilots are trained on.

NATO, as an organization, does not provide weapons to Ukraine. It’s a line the 31 allies refuse to cross together. They are wary of being drawn into a wider war with nuclear-armed Russia. Instead, they defend NATO’s own borders, to dissuade President Vladimir Putin from expanding his war.

The latest thinking is to better use a “comprehensive assistance package” set up for Ukraine in 2016, years before the war, to help the country provide for its own security and, according to the official description, “to implement wide-ranging reforms based on NATO standards, Euro-Atlantic principles and best practices.”

The idea is to create a fund that could, according to diplomats, total around 500 million euros ($548 million) and would run for about 10 years. Almost 200 million euros is believed to have been pledged so far. The amount seems small in comparison with other support, but it specifically targets reforms to help Ukraine help itself.

Stoltenberg has been hesitant about publicly stating a figure or a time frame. Doing so could create expectations in Kyiv that the allies might not ultimately be able to meet.

“I think we will have a substantial amount of money and also commitment to support for many years,” he said, but added: “I think I’ll be careful going into this specific announcement.”

Barring any major surprises — some unfathomable development in the war, or perhaps its end — this package, and an official declaration of some kind appear to be the most that NATO leaders will be able to offer Ukraine when they meet in Vilnius in July.

As things stand, Sweden’s membership bid could have more luck by then. Seeking the same protection as Finland, Sweden also applied to join NATO last May, but its path has been temporarily blocked by Turkey.

Publicly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Sweden must do more to crack down on extremists — primarily pro-Kurdish groups. Privately, NATO diplomats think the problem will be solved in a couple of months. Turkey is in campaign mode for May elections. The sense at NATO is that this should all blow over once the elections have been held, in time for the summit.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine