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A preview of tomorrow's NATO annual summit


On Tuesday, the 31 members of the NATO alliance will meet for their annual summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. It's the second summit the alliance has held since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been invited this week. Though, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, he will likely not get an invitation for his country to join the alliance immediately.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I met a key member of the NATO alliance at its fortress-like headquarters outside of Brussels last month.

TOMASZ SZATKOWSKI: Tomasz Szatkowski, ambassador of Poland to NATO.

BEARDSLEY: Szatkowski says until recently, the Transatlantic Defense Alliance was more like a political discussion club.

SZATKOWSKI: Twelve years ago in this organization, we would have problems to actually initiate a serious discussion on Russia because some of the delegations would say, we cannot talk about Russia without Russia. That was, you know, the mindsets.

BEARDSLEY: That mindset has since seen a sea change. Today, NATO has designated Russia as its top threat, part of its new strategic concept adopted at the Madrid summit last year, which also sets out a strategy of forward defense to deter Russian aggression. Eight new multinational battalion battle groups, an enhanced forward presence, were formed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and after last year's full-scale invasion.


BEARDSLEY: Last month, NPR watched while 8,000 soldiers from 13 nations took part in maneuvers on NATO's eastern flank in Romania. Brig. Gen. Nicolaescu Constantin of the Romanian Army said they're focused on collective defense.

NICOLAESCU CONSTANTIN: Together we are stronger. And to be able to work together, we need a certain level of interoperability and, the most important, trust amongst each other.

BEARDSLEY: Yet even as they exercise and train and gain each other's trust, the question of Ukraine and whether and when it should join the alliance looms large. Szatkowski, the Polish ambassador, says his country would be ready to issue Ukraine a formal invitation to join NATO tomorrow, though he knows other countries are not prepared to do so.

SZATKOWSKI: It doesn't mean that we want to drag ourselves and NATO to this war - no, by no means. Yes, we all understand the consequences.

BEARDSLEY: But he says Russia should not be given what amounts to veto power over Ukraine joining the alliance either. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has admitted the war keeps Ukraine from getting a formal invitation to join NATO in Vilnius. But Ukraine is looking for other strong signals of support. Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, says there's a whole array of options.

JULIANNE SMITH: We expect to be able to deliver a package of both practical and political support that will signal that the alliance will not only maintain its support for Ukraine now, but we want to have a relationship with Ukraine after this war ends and that we will continue to stand with them until the bitter end.

BEARDSLEY: Ukraine was first offered a path towards NATO membership along with Georgia in 2008. That process never started, and since then, there's been much rethinking in Europe. Martin Quencez is head of the Paris office for the German Marshall Fund. He says today we're seeing a reversal of the situation from 2008.

MARTIN QUENCEZ: When the Americans pushed for Ukraine to integrate NATO, the French were very much against it. And there were a lot of tensions at the time between Washington and Paris. Now what we see is that the Biden administration is much more cautious about Ukraine's accession to NATO. And Macron started to change the position of France.



BEARDSLEY: In a security speech last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said Ukraine had now become one of Europe's strongest militaries.


MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "So we need to include Ukraine in our security architecture," said Macron. "It's the only way to build a credible peace and to be strong in front of Russia." Not absorbing Ukraine into security structures means individual countries will have to continue financing Ukraine's military, which will become a challenge down the road, says the German Marshall Fund's Quencez.

QUENCEZ: The security guarantees that would be provided to Ukraine outside NATO could be quite expensive to the West - to France, to Germany, to the U.K.

BEARDSLEY: He says absorbing Ukraine into NATO is not only the most credible security solution in the long run, it's also the most cost effective. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.