By Andrew Gray and Sabine Siebold
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO leaders are meeting in Vilnius next week in a bid to overcome divisions over Ukraine’s desire to gain access to membership and end a deadlock on the Turkey on Sweden’s membership of the transatlantic military alliance.
As the war in Ukraine still casts a dark shadow over Europe, the summit in the Lithuanian capital next Tuesday and Wednesday will be guarded by Germany’s Patriot missile batteries, fighter jets and forces from 17 nations.
US President Joe Biden, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be among 31 NATO leaders attending the summit in the tiny Baltic state.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is also expected to attend and push for Ukraine to be admitted into NATO soon after the end of the war sparked by the Russian invasion.
“We are talking about a clear signal, concrete things going in the direction of an invitation,” Zelenskiy said during a visit to Prague on Thursday. “We need that motivation.”
NATO members in Eastern Europe have expressed strong support for Ukraine’s position, saying bringing Kyiv under the alliance’s collective security umbrella is the best way to prevent another war by deterring Russia from attacking again.
But others, like the United States and Germany, have been far more cautious, wary of any move they believe could draw NATO into direct conflict with Russia, potentially triggering a global war.
“I expect our leaders to reaffirm that Ukraine will become a member of NATO and to unite on how to bring Ukraine closer to its goal,” NATO Secretary General Jens said on Friday. Stoltenberg, whose term was extended for a year before the summit.
NATO is expected to present a package of support measures for Ukraine at the summit, including an enhanced cooperation body, the NATO-Ukraine Council, and a package of non-lethal military aid to help Kiev’s armed forces reform and achieve NATO standards.
But Zelenskiy insisted that Ukraine also wants membership assurances that go beyond a vague promise, made in Bucharest in 2008, that Ukraine would become a member of the alliance.
Negotiators are trying to find language acceptable to all NATO members for the summit’s final declaration but had not finalized the text by Friday, diplomats said.
“I am convinced that we will find a united way (…) to solve the specific problem of membership,” Stoltenberg said.
One option being discussed would be to declare that Ukraine could ignore a procedure used by many countries to become NATO members, known as the Membership Action Plan (MAP).
Some major NATO countries, such as the United States, Germany, France and Britain, have held parallel talks on providing long-term security commitments to Ukraine, focusing on focusing on pledges to continue supplying arms and ammunition.
It was unclear whether a statement to serve as the basis for those assurances would be agreed before the summit, officials said.
Türkiye, SWEDEN TALKS
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February revitalized NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded in 1949 to deter and defend against the Soviet Union.
The invasion prompted Finland and Sweden to abandon decades of military non-alignment and apply to join NATO. In Vilnius, Finland will participate in its first NATO summit as a member. But Sweden’s membership was blocked by Turkey.
Turkey accuses Sweden of not doing enough to crack down on Kurdish militants, but Stockholm says it has honored its commitments under a deal with Ankara – a view endorsed by Stoltenberg.
In Istanbul, Erdogan said in a thinly veiled reference to Sweden on Friday that Turkey would not trust a country that harbors “terrorists”, adding that he would adopt “any favorable decision” for Ankara at the summit.
In a university graduation speech, Erdogan said Turkey had always supported NATO’s “open door” policy “but we have not been shy about showing our position against those who harbor terrorists.”
On the eve of the summit, Stoltenberg will host Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson for talks aimed at overcoming their differences.
At the summit, NATO leaders are also expected to agree that they should all spend at least 2% of national GDP on defense – an upgrade from a 2014 pledge to reach that figure.
Currently, only 11 of NATO’s 31 members meet the target.
Leaders are also expected to approve NATO’s first comprehensive military plans since the end of the Cold War to defend against any attack from Russia, setting out detailed tasks and requirements for forces across the alliance.
Turkey has also delayed passing plans on the names used for certain geographical areas – reflecting long-running disputes with Greece and Cyprus – but officials say they are confident the plans will be approved in Vilnius.
NATO leaders will also meet their counterparts from Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as Washington urges the alliance to play a bigger role in the fight against China.
(Additional reporting by John Irish, Andrius Sytas and Huseyin Hayatsever and Burcu Karakas in Istanbul, editing by William Maclean)