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Ukraine’s Future Ties to NATO Are Main Topic as Western Nations Meet

Debates over whether and how to guarantee the long-term security of Ukraine and possibly admit it to the NATO alliance took center stage on Thursday in two gatherings of dozens of leaders from Europe and North America.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his NATO counterparts took on the status of Ukraine at a meeting in Oslo, as well as Sweden’s application to join the 31-member alliance, following months of obstruction by alliance member Turkey. They discussed whether the standoff over Sweden could be resolved before a summit of NATO leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, scheduled for July 11 and 12.

At the same time, European leaders from countries both inside and outside the alliance met in Moldova, including President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who said there that “Ukraine is ready to join NATO” and was awaiting the alliance’s approval.

Though doubts persist about Ukraine’s membership prospects, the two meetings demonstrated how Russia’s invasion more than 15 months ago has forged closer ties among Western nations, expanding and strengthening NATO — precisely what the Kremlin wanted to prevent.

The world is watching for an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive that officials believe could reframe broader debates about the war. American and Ukrainian officials are wary about the potential for new talk of cease-fires and peace deals after the counteroffensive. Unless Ukraine makes unexpectedly large gains, a cease-fire could play to Moscow’s advantage, given that Russia is still likely to occupy large swaths of Ukraine.

As the war threatens to settle into a long-term stalemate, Western countries that have spent billions arming Ukraine are turning their focus to longer-term means of providing support, and to shaping its relationship with NATO. Mr. Blinken and other foreign ministers in Oslo discussed whether the alliance might provide long-term security guarantees to Ukraine that would be short of full NATO membership, but perhaps serve as a pathway to that outcome.

Ukrainian membership has been a stated goal of NATO since 2008, a stance that has infuriated President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Ukraine applied in September to join the alliance. But many officials and analysts see that as a distant prospect, given Russia’s partial occupation of the country, and military and political reforms Ukraine would have to undertake.

Even so, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, at the meeting in Moldova, declared in a Thursday interview with CNBC that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO.”

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, also sounded bullish on the membership question, telling reporters before the Oslo meeting that it would include “how to address Ukraine’s membership aspirations,” and adding that “all allies agree that Ukraine will become a member” of NATO “when the time is right.”

Mr. Blinken took a more cautious tone, speaking at a news conference after the NATO meeting and a sit-down with Mr. Stoltenberg. He did not explicitly mention Ukraine’s potential membership, and he declined to address the prospects for specific security guarantees.

His conversations, Mr. Blinken said, were focused on “strengthening the political relationship between Ukraine and NATO,” and shoring up military ties. He added that he expected next month’s meeting of heads of government in Vilnius to produce “a very strong package of support on both the political side and the practical side.”

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Mr. Stoltenberg’s predecessor as NATO chief, said on Thursday that NATO leaders must “define clear plans for Ukraine’s accession to the alliance” and that until that happens, “back binding, open-ended and scalable security guarantees so Ukraine can defend itself, by itself.”

Commenting by email, Mr. Rasmussen called for a binding and open commitment from several nations to provide weapons, military training, intelligence and sustained investment in Ukraine’s defense industry. He added that such guarantees should not serve as a substitute for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership.

The meeting in Bulboaca, Moldova, was only the second gathering of the European Political Community, a forum for airing political, economic and security concerns created last year in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Heads of state and government of 47 European countries were invited, but Russia and its close ally Belarus were not.

Even the choice of location could be read as a rebuke to the Kremlin, as Mr. Putin seeks to reassert Moscow’s former dominance over its neighbors. Russia has sought to destabilize Moldova, a former Soviet republic nestled between Ukraine and Romania, including by supporting and stationing troops in a breakaway region.

Last year, the European Union formally made Ukraine and Moldova candidates for membership, a move Russia opposes but that was accelerated by the war.

Mr. Blinken planned to depart Norway on Thursday evening for Helsinki, where he was expected to deliver a speech on Friday on the state of the war and to celebrate Finland’s entry into NATO.

Last year, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Sweden and Finland abandoned decades-long policies of neutrality and sought membership in the alliance. Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, became NATO’s 31st member state in April, in a strategic defeat for Mr. Putin, who has been determined to block the alliance’s expansion.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has called Sweden too welcoming of Kurdish nationalists and others he calls terrorists, and has so far refused to accept its membership bid, which must be approved by unanimous consent. Hungary, an alliance member that has maintained good relations with Russia, has also yet to give Sweden its approval.

U.S. officials are hopeful that Mr. Erdogan will drop his opposition to Sweden’s bid now that he has won another presidential term, after an election campaign in which he cast himself as a guardian against Kurdish terrorism.

Mr. Stoltenberg suggested as much on Thursday, saying that “now that the election is over, I think is important to then restart the dialogue and the process.” He said that he had accepted an invitation from Mr. Erdogan to visit Ankara.

A shift by Turkey and Hungary to allow Sweden into the alliance ahead of the Vilnius summit next month would be a boon to Western officials hoping to project unity at the gathering. Some U.S. officials believe that outcome is possible.

But given the short time frame, it will not be simple. Mr. Erdogan may also be seeking U.S. approval to purchase F-16 fighter jets and upgrade existing ones in Turkey’s fleet as a price for admitting Sweden, analysts say.

Speaking in Sweden on Tuesday, Mr. Blinken urged the U.S. Congress to approve an administration request to sell Turkey the planes and the upgrades. Some key members of Congress critical of Mr. Erdogan have vowed to block such a deal, however, insisting that Mr. Erdogan, at a minimum, first agree to stop blocking Sweden’s application.

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