Front-line nations sound alarm at NATO summit: Get tougher on Russia

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Ukraine and its most ardent supporters within NATO are airing frustrations that the bloc can do more to confront Russia, even as the alliance’s summit in Washington focuses largely on Western efforts to rein in Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and leaders of other countries on the front line with Russia warned against the alliance watering down language, self-imposing red lines, and holding back concrete commitments to deter and push back Russian aggression in Ukraine and surrounding countries. 

At the top of the list is getting President Biden to lift restrictions on the use of U.S.- and allied-provided weapons to strike military targets up to 300 miles inside Russian territory. Biden, in May, said Ukraine can hit inside Russia near the area of Kharkiv.

“If we have this very special weapon, some of them we have, and if we can use it on the territory of Russia, especially on these military targets, if we can do it, of course we can defend civilians, hospitals, schools, children, we can do it,” Zelensky said in conversation at the Reagan Institute in Washington on Tuesday night. 

“But we can’t. Somebody, except us, has to say yes.” 

The urgency of the demand was illustrated by a Russian strike against a children’s hospital in Kyiv this week, part of a wave of attacks across the country. More than 300 people were reported injured, including eight children. Two adults died, including a young doctor.

Images of the aftermath showed doctors with bloodied scrubs and scores of volunteers helping clear rubble from the strike to reach those buried underneath, and pediatric cancer patients lined up outside attached to monitors and IV fluids. 

Some officials from NATO-allied countries said the strike was a clear signal from Russia displaying its impunity in attacking Ukraine. 

“We see what Russia is doing — in Kyiv, just last night a children’s hospital was bombed,” said Latvian Speaker of Parliament Daiga Mieriņa in Washington. “Perhaps we could say it was a mistake or a coincidence, but I think it is a definite signal that Russia is sending: that you can talk all you want, but look at us, we can do whatever we want.” 

While allies have largely agreed on new pledges of military and financial support for Kyiv that have taken months to develop, countries on Russia’s border, in particular, are saying the alliance needs to do more. 

They are critical of Congress’s six-month delay in delivering aid for Ukraine, want stronger language on commitments for Ukraine’s pathway to NATO, call for tripling financial commitments for Kyiv and want to confront head-on Russia’s sabotage on NATO territory. 

Baltic countries have for months raised alarm that acts of sabotage allegedly sponsored by Russia are a growing threat to Europe and the alliance. These allegations include GPS jamming, removing border lines, hacking hospitals and attacks on political dissidents.

“Maybe the most important question as NATO countries is, are we going to accept it? Are we going to accept that they are attacking us every day now in Europe with different missions? And I don’t think we should accept it,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. 

In a signal that NATO is responding to these criticisms, text of the joint declaration out of this week’s summit committed the alliance to “develop” recommendations to counter Russian hybrid threats by the next summit.

NATO allies have largely aligned on issuing weapons and financial commitments for Ukraine, to include more air defense systems and promises for allies to contribute a total of more than $43 billion in aid for Ukraine through 2025.  

Text of the joint communique described Ukraine’s pathway to membership as “irreversible,” with the alliance unwilling to grant immediate membership, in part for fear of provoking Putin. 

Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs said it “was a very bad message” that Congress took six months to pass Biden’s more than $60 billion supplemental request for Ukraine in April. 

He further called for a lifting of “red lines” on allowing Ukraine to strike inside Russia. 

“When we give weapons, equipment, ammunition, Ukraine must be able to use it without restrictions,” said Rinkēvičs. “This is not NATO’s decision, but if we have an honest and frank discussion, and if those countries that still have restrictions are going to lift it, then probably we would be closer also to this kind of strategic outlook … and that’s winning this war.” 

It’s a restriction that the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, Keir Starmer, has reportedly lifted on Britain’s Storm Shadow missiles. 

And Estonia’s defense minister, Hanno Pevkur, is further raising alarm over uncertainty about the U.S. election and whether former President Trump may cease assistance for Kyiv — calling on allies to raise $120 billion in aid for Ukraine in 2025. 

“I would like to see what the new administration will do, because today the $61 billion is there and this will help Ukrainians to fight this year, but that’s only this year,” he said. “What will happen next year? We will see in November and in January when the new president steps into the office.”

Concerns over Trump’s resurgence, his threats to exit NATO or inviting Putin to do “whatever the hell he wants” to ally countries that have yet to reach domestic defense spending quotas are also top of mind at the summit. 

“I can’t tell you what he will do, if he will be the president of the United States … we need answers,” Zelensky said during a conversation at the Reagan Institute.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sought to reassure allies on Wednesday, saying during a panel discussion that the U.S. is committed to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense pact. 

“Article 5 means exactly what it says, I make that commitment now for the United States and the United States is there to meet that commitment,” he said.

Still, even he was out of the loop on Trump’s plans for Ukraine, having repeatedly said he will end the war within a day of returning to the White House. 

“At least one of the candidates has said that they’re going to end the war, never got an explanation as to how that’s going to happen,” Risch said. “But the candidate who says that generally gets done what he says he’s going to get done. So I’ll be anxious to see that.”

The Biden administration has for months prepared Kyiv and its allies in NATO not to expect a formal invitation to join the alliance by the end of the summit, seeking to avoid a public conflict like what happened at the Vilnius summit in 2023. 

“There was a huge amount of daylight between what Ukraine wanted and what NATO had to offer; it meant both sides walked away unsatisfied and frustrated,” said Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

“This year, Ukraine and NATO are better aligned with reality, which is that membership is not on the table, but there’s more of an appetite to institutionalize NATO to support Ukraine, something the alliance was still grappling with last year.”

Much of these actions are viewed as the alliance “Trump-proofing” support for Ukraine. Steps include moving the U.S.-led system of coordinating weapons donations among 50 countries under the banner of NATO; having the alliance take over training of Ukrainian forces; and establishing a NATO civilian outpost in Kyiv. 

These efforts are being described as building Ukraine’s “bridge” to NATO membership.

Still, allies are taking the opportunity of the summit to speak out on the imperative for Ukraine to eventually become a member. 

“We’ve already decided that the future of Ukraine is in NATO … and now we have to make practical steps to show that it’s credible, that the way to membership is getting shorter, not longer,” said Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs Thórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir.

“They are literally fighting with their lives to get that future. And we say it’s an open-door policy, we say your fight is our fight, it’s about [delivering] what we’ve already said, and they show every day that they’re ready.”

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