By John Irish, Sabine Siebold and Steve Holland
VILNIUS (Reuters) – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Ukraine would get a “positive message on the path to membership” on Tuesday, as leaders of the alliance meet to address the repercussions of Russia’s invasion that brought war to their doorstep.
Divisions among the Western military alliance’s 31 members on allowing Ukraine in mean there will not be a straightforward invitation for Kyiv to join, something the country’s Soviet-era overlord Moscow says would threaten its national security.
But Stoltenberg said Kyiv would get more military aid and an easing of formal conditions to join in a new format of cooperation with the alliance, with the so-called NATO-Ukraine Council due to hold its first session on Wednesday.
“I am confident it will be a positive and strong message on Ukraine and the path forward for membership,” Stoltenberg said hours before hosting a summit in the Lithuanian capital.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also said the gathering would send a “positive signal” about Kyiv’s membership bid. Diplomats were upbeat as negotiators were drawing close on the final agreement.
The summit is also set to approve NATO’s first comprehensive plans since the end of the Cold War to defend against any attack from Russia.
Moscow criticised the two-day summit in advance. According to the RIA news agency, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova predicted it would be “a colourful spectacle in the worst traditions of Western manipulation”.
While NATO members agree Kyiv cannot join during the war, they have disagreed over how quickly it could happen afterwards and under what conditions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is due to attend the Vilnius gathering, has been pressing NATO to give his country a clear pathway to membership so that it can join soon after the war is over.
NATO members in Eastern Europe have backed Kyiv’s stance, arguing that bringing Ukraine under NATO’s collective security umbrella is the best way to deter Russia from attacking again.
Countries such as the United States and Germany have been more cautious, wary of any move that they fear could draw NATO into a direct conflict with Russia and potentially spark a global war.
SWEDEN ON WAY IN
While the summit was due to focus on Ukraine, another country secured a breakthrough on its way to membership before the NATO gathering even began.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan late on Monday agreed to forward Sweden’s bid to join to his parliament for ratification, appearing to end months of opposition that strained the bloc.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was what prompted Sweden – and its Nordic neighbour Finland – to abandon decades of military non-alignment and apply to join NATO.
Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April but Sweden’s accession has been held up by a dispute with Turkey.
Turkey had accused Sweden of not doing enough to crack down on militants that Ankara sees as terrorists, mainly members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the United States.
But Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Erdogan agreed to further steps on Monday evening, including establishing a new “Security Compact” on fighting terrorism.
The United States also promised to move forward with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, Sullivan said, without giving any specific timing.
All members must agree to let a new country in and Hungary, which has also dragged its feet on Sweden, said on Tuesday morning its ratification of Stockholm’s membership was now a formality.
Back in Kyiv, Ukraine’s military said Russia launched drone attacks on the southern port of Odessa and the country’s capital itself in early hours on Tuesday.
(Writing by John Irish, Andrew Gray, Sabine Siebold, Steve Holland, Justyna Pawlak, Andrius Sytas, Krisztina Than; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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