NATO leaders seek to support Ukraine as concerns mount

NATO leaders meet on Wednesday for their 75th anniversary, seeking ways to increase support for Ukraine as deadly Russian strikes and political uncertainty in the West raise new concerns

NATO leaders are meeting on Wednesday for their 75th anniversary, looking for ways to boost support for Ukraine as deadly Russian strikes and political uncertainty in the West raise new concerns, an AFP analysis said.

With the pomp of a summit in Washington, President Joe Biden sought to unite the West and also reassure American voters amid intense pre-election scrutiny over whether, at 81 - six years older than the alliance - he remains fit for the job. Kicking off three days of events for the 32-nation bloc with a celebration Tuesday night, Biden announced a new air defense system for Kiev and called for unity against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

"Don't be fooled. Ukraine can – and will – stop Putin,” Biden said vigorously to applause.

On the eve of the meeting, Russia fired a barrage of missiles into Ukraine, killing dozens, including in Kiev, where a children's hospital was reduced to rubble. Biden invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the summit, as well as the leaders of four key Pacific partners - Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - as he seeks to increase NATO's role in managing a rising China. But the US president himself faces a tough election challenge from Donald Trump, who has strongly questioned the utility of NATO and has considered imposing a peace deal in which Ukraine would cede land to Russia.

Zelensky in Washington thanked Ukraine's backers for pledging new air defenses — and urged the United States and others to go further to help defeat Russia. NATO's outgoing secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, acknowledged the question marks after Trump's allies in the US Congress forced a months-long delay in approving new weapons for Ukraine. "Ukraine has shown remarkable courage and NATO allies have provided unprecedented support. But let's be honest - even our support for Ukraine was not a given," Stoltenberg said. "Remember, the biggest cost and the biggest risk will be if Russia wins in Ukraine. We can't let that happen."

Other leaders attending the meeting included Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one of Putin's closest allies in the West, who before Washington went to Ukraine, Russia and China on a self-described peace mission criticized by Brussels and Washington. Another US Asian partner, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, met Putin on the eve of the NATO summit and is not part of the talks in Washington.

Leaders will formally convene the alliance's North Atlantic Council at the Washington Convention Center on Wednesday. Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will later welcome their counterparts to gala dinners in the Washington area, which is in the midst of a scorching heat wave.

Among the new NATO leaders is British Prime Minister Keir Starmer, who is visiting days after taking office in a landslide victory for his Labor Party. He will meet both Biden and Zelensky and is expected to confirm Britain's strong support for Ukraine. Ukraine is seeking firm assurances that it will one day join NATO, which considers an attack on any member an attack on all. Ukraine's membership enjoys broad support from the Baltic and Eastern European nations, still haunted by decades under the Soviet yoke.

But Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz led the opposition, concerned that the alliance would effectively go to war with nuclear-armed Russia as it occupies parts of Ukraine. Zelensky, who has achieved hero status in much of the West for his media defiance of Russia, expressed open irritation at the latest NATO summit in Lithuania at the failure to provide a clearer path to membership.

In Washington, the US has sought to downplay his expectations, talking of creating a "bridge" to membership, but making it clear that fast-track entry is not on the cards.

Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said negotiations were continuing on the final language and that he hoped a word like "irreversible" would describe Ukraine's path to NATO.

Putin has repeatedly accused the West of antagonizing Russia by offering NATO membership to Ukraine, whose separate identity he has rejected.

Ukraine is also pushing for more air defenses to protect cities that are under attack from Russia.

Biden promised an additional Patriot system on Monday in addition to two new systems provided by Germany and Romania and one that the Netherlands said it was assembling with parts from other allies. | AFP/BGNES