Nato’s 75th risks being overshadowed by Biden and Macron’s domestic turmoil

While the allies will pledge continuing support for Ukraine, plans to secure long-term aid for Kyiv have stalled and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hopes of joining the alliance remain far off.

The Nato Summit will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Centre. Photo: AP

Time may be running out: Donald Trump, who leads Biden in the polls, once threatened to pull out of Nato and has pledged to make a deal with Putin to end the war.

The leader who comes to the meeting in the strongest position is the UK’s new Labour Party prime minister, Keir Starmer. But even he has sown doubts about his long-term commitment, with a pledge to boost defence spending to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product “as soon as the public finances allow”. Conservatives had pledged to do so by 2030.

“A lot of the leaders are weakened with domestic audiences,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior US intelligence official now at the Center for a New American Security. “The credibility of those statements – and the strength and the seriousness of those statements – will be undermined by what’s happening in many of the Western capitals.”

The urgency of the task ahead for Nato leaders was underscored Monday after a Russian missile struck a children’s hospital in Kyiv, part of a barrage that killed at least 31 people.

The attack was the latest in an intensified aerial assault on Ukraine this year that has shaken morale and hobbled the country’s infrastructure – and fuelled calls for more help to repel such strikes.

“We would like to see greater resolve in our partners and hear resolute responses to these attacks,” Zelensky said in Warsaw on his way to Washington. He has repeatedly called for more aid, including additional Patriot air defence batteries.

So far, indications suggest alliance members won’t give Zelensky everything he seeks. While allies are expected to offer new security guarantees and some air defence equipment, Zelensky won’t get the prize he wants most of all: a formal invitation to Nato.

Instead, Kyiv will get a reiterated pledge that it will eventually become a member, though officials are still debating language. The US and Germany initially pushed back on describing Ukraine’s path to membership “irreversible” but later agreed to allow the language, with reference to the need for more anti-corruption reforms.

A collapsed building at a hospital for children in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, following missile attacks by Russia. Photo: Kyodo

“This is not enough,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee in the Lithuanian parliament and former ambassador to Washington said of the commitments. “This is the kind of language we heard from Bucharest in 2008, 16 years ago.”

“If there is no change when it comes to inviting Ukraine to Nato and ensuring its victory, then we should be bracing for conflict soon,” he said.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg fell short in recent weeks of securing a firm multi-year funding pledge for Ukraine that would have given it clear predictability over allied aid for the coming years.

Instead, allies agreed to spend at least €40 billion (US$43 billion) per year on military aid for Ukraine but with the caveat that the target be reviewed next year.

Several officials said they were disappointed by the watered-down result, even if it was a decent compromise considering the constraints.

For all the manoeuvring over Ukraine, the focus at the summit will be on Biden, who at 81 is the only Nato leader older than the alliance itself.

At 81, US President Joe Biden is the only Nato leader older than the alliance itself. Photo: AFP

Before his debate blunder, Biden had hoped the gathering would emphasise his success in restoring allied unity after four fractious years under Trump and boost his credentials ahead of November elections.

The US even tacked on an extra day to the celebration, making it three days rather than the usual two.

That decision may now be a liability for a president facing questions about whether he’s still up to the job of the presidency. Every movement and utterance will be scrutinised for signs that he is too old to run for a second terms and world leaders who have begun to express unease about his age will have more chances to see him up close.

He’ll host a dinner at 8pm one night, meaning his day will extend well past the time he’s said in recent days he should wind down to avoid exhaustion. He’ll also hold a press conference, offering critics and supporters another moment to study every word for signs he’s slipping.

Stoltenberg played down the concerns around alliance unity. This will be his last summit before he hands off Nato leadership to former Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.

“There have been so many crossroads where people have been concerned about new governments, new political forces undermining Nato,” Stoltenberg told reporters last week. “What we’ve seen again and again is that Nato has prevailed as a strong alliance.”

The Biden administration – which announced around US$2.2 billion in security assistance ahead of the summit – is also bullish. In a call with reporters, a senior US official highlighted how 23 of the alliance’s members have now met the goal of spending 2 per cent or more of GDP on defence, up from nine in 2020.

That’s an additional US$180 billion a year, the official said.

The alliance is also expected to call out Chinese aid to Russia, officials familiar with the discussions said.

Whether any of that makes a difference given the internal divisions will be a key question of the summit.

“The key factor is the US,” said Luis Simon, Director of the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance. He said Nato can survive fractures among European nations, but internal strife in the US “is a different ballgame”.

“Nato wouldn’t collapse but there’s a chance it would become less and less relevant,” Simon said.

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