By John Irish, Steve Holland and Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) -NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Ukraine would get a “positive and strong message” on its path to membership on Tuesday, as leaders of the Western military alliance meet to discuss the fallout from Russia’s invasion that brought war to their doorstep.
Divisions among NATO’s 31 members mean there will not be a straightforward invitation for Ukraine to join, something its 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, as well as a new format of cooperation with the alliance, the so-called NATO-Ukraine Council.
“I am confident it will be a positive and strong message on Ukraine and the path forward for membership,” Stoltenberg said 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.
U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking alongside Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, whose country in extremely wary of consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine for eastern Europe, reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the alliance.
“Our pledge to be with you has not wavered,” he said.
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 has criticised the two-day summit. Russia’s state RIA news agency quoted a Vienna-based senior Russian diplomat as warning that Europe would be the first to face “catastrophic consequences” should the war in Ukraine escalate.
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, due to attend the Vilnius gathering, has been pressing NATO for a clear path for Ukraine to join once the war is over. On Tuesday, he said Ukrainian troops were keeping Russian aggression from Europe.
“The eastern border of Ukraine, the border of our state and the positions of our warriors are the line that the Russian dictatorship… will never cross again,” he said on Twitter.
UKRAINE WAITS, SWEDEN ON ITS WAY IN
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.
NATO was formed in 1949 with the primary aim of countering the risk of a Soviet attack on allied territory.
The NATO-Ukraine Council, due to hold its first session in Vilnius on Wednesday, is not dissimilar from a coordination platform NATO had with Russia from 2002. That stopped after Moscow annexed Crimea from Kyiv in 2014 and then went on to back rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Stoltenberg said Ukraine could now skip a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – a process for meeting political, economic and military goals before becoming a NATO member.
Lithuania’s NATO ambassador said the summit would commit 500 million euros a year in non-lethal help to Ukraine, including medical supplies and de-mining. Norway said it would increase military aid to Kyiv.
“It’s important that they win. It’s important for our common security,” Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt told Reuters.
While Ukraine was set to be kept waiting, another country seemingly secured a breakthrough on its path to NATO membership.
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, where Erdogan had accused Sweden of not doing enough to crack down on militants that Ankara sees as terrorists.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Erdogan agreed to step up cooperation on fighting terrorism. The United States also promised to move forward with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, Sullivan said.
Biden said he was “not at all” surprised Turkey ended up lifting its veto.
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.
(Reporting by John Irish, Andrew Gray, Sabine Siebold, Steve Holland, Justyna Pawlak, Andrius Sytas, Krisztina Than, Niklas Pollard; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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