Biden should lead NATO in defining a clear path for Ukraine to join

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As NATO allies converge on Washington this July, Ukraine will be top of the agenda. Despite the progress made at the Vilnius summit last year, where the alliance promised to advance Ukraine’s membership “when Allies agree and conditions are met,” the question of Ukraine’s long-term relationship with NATO remains the most pressing issue for the alliance to address.

The Biden administration has indicated that this year’s summit will offer a “bridge to membership,” but additional details remain uncertain. President Biden should not only make good on that promise but lead the alliance in defining a clear and concrete path for Ukraine to join NATO.

Multiple proposals have been floated defining the steps NATO could take to secure Ukraine’s future in the alliance. The recent report from the Rasmussen-Yermak International Task Force offers an outline of what a clear and credible path to Ukraine’s NATO membership would look like. In addition to an invitation for “accession talks” before an official invitation to join the alliance, the report recommends creating a clear timeframe for Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the creation of an international compact to unite the series of bilateral security agreements between Ukraine and its partners.

A clear step at the Washington summit that puts Ukraine on the path to NATO membership gives the United States and its NATO allies a strong and undeniable stake in Ukraine’s success on the battlefield. By beginning to move the nexus of international support away from Washington and toward Brussels, such a decision would help to guarantee support from Ukraine’s partners in NATO regardless of the policies that emanate from Washington.

This shift will be all the more important as the future of U.S. support for Ukraine hinges on the results of this year’s U.S. presidential election. In responding to Russia’s full-scale invasion, President Biden effectively rallied historic levels of international support for Ukraine and has, seemingly against all odds, sustained that support over two years of domestic debate and global crisis. That record will feature not only as a talking point in the campaign, but as a central element of President Biden’s foreign policy legacy.

U.S. presidential elections, however, are fundamentally uncertain and unpredictable. President Biden should prepare to secure his legacy in the event that he loses his bid for reelection.

Former President Donald Trump’s pronouncements on Ukraine cast doubt on whether he would continue substantial U.S. support for the country. While President Trump has said that Ukraine’s survival is important to the U.S., he has also promised to end the war in “24 hours” and made false accusations that European countries are not doing their fair share to support Ukraine. With the NATO summit taking place just before the Republican National Convention, the specter of this year’s presidential election will certainly weigh heavily on the minds of the gathering leaders.

For Biden, this summer’s NATO summit might very well be the last chance he has to institutionalize international support for Ukraine and ensure that the last two years of support can be sustained over the long term.

While Biden has not been one to prioritize politics over policy, at this year’s NATO summit he has the chance to score a victory on both counts. President Biden has already campaigned on the difference between his and President Trump’s visions of foreign policy. This message might come to naught if this year’s NATO summit fails to find consensus. A contentious summit might lead voters to wonder whether President Trump’s foreign policy is all that much different after all. But an unambiguous result on the most high-profile and important issue the summit will address will provide exactly the kind of contrast that Biden is trying to draw.

It appears that most NATO allies will not stand in the way of a clear path to NATO membership for Ukraine. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was one of the last leaders to support Sweden’s NATO membership, has endorsed Ukraine’s membership bid. France, Canada, the United Kingdom and other partners have all signed security pacts with Kyiv. German leaders are reportedly apprehensive, but strong U.S. leadership in support could make all the difference in forging consensus.

Vladimir Putin believes that democracies are fundamentally fickle, and his strategy in Ukraine and across the globe depends on that belief being true. At this year’s NATO summit, President Biden has the chance to prove Vladimir Putin wrong. By clearly defining Ukraine’s long-term future in NATO and institutionalizing long-term support for Ukraine’s struggle against current and future Russian aggression, this year’s summit can show that NATO’s commitment to Ukraine can withstand even the most contentious of elections.

Benton Coblentz is a member of the Truman National Security Project and an MPA candidate at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

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