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A key NATO summit starts Tuesday. Here's what's at stake

Banners reading 'Ukraine' and 'NATO' are seen on the NATO Summit venue in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday.
Petras Malukas
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AFP via Getty Images
Banners reading 'Ukraine' and 'NATO' are seen on the NATO Summit venue in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday.

Updated July 10, 2023 at 4:25 PM ET

Several pressing issues will be front and center when leaders from Europe and North America gather in Vilnius, Lithuania for a key NATO summit this week, including the war in Ukraine and the makeup of the alliance itself.

The meeting, which starts Tuesday, comes amidst Ukraine's "slower than desired" counteroffensive, as described by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and its renewed bid to join NATO. Members of the alliance agree that Ukraine can join eventually — but not as soon as Zelenskyy had hoped.

After months of urging European leaders to admit Ukraine to NATO, Zelenskyy acknowledged in June that it would be "impossible" for that to happen before the end of the war. President Biden made similar comments this weekend, telling CNN that Ukraine isn't ready for membership just yet, in part because that would mean NATO countries would be at war with Russia.

"I think we have to lay out a rational path for Ukraine to be able to qualify to be able to get into NATO," Biden said. "But I think it's premature to say, to call for a vote now, because there's other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues."

Russia's invasion also prompted two of its northern neighbors, Finland and Sweden, to apply for NATO membership last year.

Finland cleared the requisite hurdles to officially join the alliance in April, making this its first summit as an official member of the alliance. But Turkey (and, to a lesser degree, Hungary) had been blocking Sweden's bid over concerns it's not doing enough to crack down on Kurdish militants and others that Turkey considers terrorist groups.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally agreed to withdraw his objection on Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced in Vilnius, after the two met with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

Previously, Erdogan had said Turkey could approve Sweden's NATO membership if European countries "open the way" for his own country to join the European Union.

"When you pave the way for Turkey, we'll pave the way for Sweden as we did for Finland," he told reporters before leaving for Lithuania, according to the Associated Press.

In response, Stoltenberg had said he supports Turkey's ambition to join the EU, but that it's not among the conditions that Sweden, Finland and Turkey signed at last year's NATO summit in Madrid, the AP reports. Sweden has met those conditions, Stoltenberg reiterated.

Christopher Skaluba of the Atlantic Council told Morning Edition earlier on Monday that Erdogan's scheduled meetings with Biden and Sweden's prime minister could signal a willingness to move ahead with ratification — though warned that even if he says so, that doesn't mean it will necessarily happen.

"So even if he says today that he'd be willing to do it, until the parliamentary ratification is done, we can't count on it being done," he said.

One of the summit's biggest questions may have been answered before the event even began. But, as Stoltenberg said at a Monday press conference, there's still plenty on NATO's to-do list for this week.

"We will strengthen our deterrence and defense, including with more investment," he said. "We will step up our support for Ukraine, and move Ukraine closer to NATO. And we will work even more closely with partners to support the rules-based international order."

Will Sweden's entry clear the path for a U.S.-Turkey arms deal?

Turkey's main justification for keeping Sweden out of NATO has been that it's harboring Kurdish separatists whom Turkey has designated as terrorists.

Stockholm has toughened its stance against the PKK (the Kurdish militant group) and lifted restrictions on arms sales to Turkey. Police have also tried to block incidents of Quran burning, but Sweden's government says it can't go any further.

"It would be politically very difficult for any government to make restrictions on freedom of speech at the sort of behest of Erdogan, who is running a country that right now does not rank well when it comes to freedom of speech," Paul Levin, head of Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies, told NPR.

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Experts saythere have likely been other issues factoring into the holdup — including Turkey's relationship with the U.S.

Turkey sees this as a moment of leverage, specifically around obtaining the F-16 fighter jets that it has long been trying to get from the U.S., NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

Biden said in May that he and Erdogan were negotiating over a possible sale, which would need to be approved by a so-far reluctant Congress.

The two leaders discussed both issues — Sweden's NATO membership and the fighter jets — in a phone call on Sunday, though Erdogan denies they are connected.

Biden welcomed Turkey's pivot on Monday, saying in a statement that he would work with Erdogan on "enhancing defense and deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic area," though he did not specify whether that involved a deal on F-16 fighter jets.

Biden and Erdogan are expected to meet face-to-face on the sidelines of the summit.

Skaluba had said it would be a "setback" if the summit ends without Sweden becoming a NATO member, or at least getting a clear signal of when that will happen.

"Similarly, I think this issue of Ukraine's NATO membership can be contentious," Skaluba said. "And if we don't come out of the summit with a good understanding of what that looks like, again, it would feel like a setback."

What does Ukraine's path to membership look like?

The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO first came up in 2008, when member countries agreed in principle.

More than a decade later, Russia's invasion has made it both more urgent and more likely, Skaluba says.

"It's really, I think, the circumstances of the war that has caused Ukraine to say, 'Hey, we really want to be in as soon as possible, our future security could only be protected by NATO,'" he explains.

He says NATO hasn't done much over the past 15 years to define Ukraine's requirements for membership. If Ukraine can't join until the war ends, he adds, it would at least like to come away from the summit with a better understanding of what that pathway looks like.

Zelenskyy said over the weekend that Ukraine should get clear security guarantees in the meantime.

Biden seems to agree. He told CNN that if there is a cease fire in the war, the U.S. will be ready to provide security guarantees to Ukraine akin to what it does for Israel — "providing weapons capacity for the country to defend itself," Khalid says.

That would require the approval of Congress, and could further anger the Kremlin, she adds.

Ukrainians, for their part, feel like they've been in limbo since 2008, and want the membership question resolved sooner rather than later.

"They say this fuzzy middle ground has encouraged Russian leader Vladimir Putin to invade," NPR's Greg Myre tells Morning Edition. "He knew it would be too late to act if he waited until Ukraine actually joined NATO."

Will countries increase their defense spending?

NATO members pledged in 2014 that they would increase their minimum defense spending to 2% of their own national GDP by 2024.

Only eight of the 31 countries have hit that target so far: the U.S., Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece.

Stoltenberg, the NATO head, said during a visit to Washington last month that he expects allies to agree that the 2% target has to be the minimum. (Biden expressed his support at the same press conference.)

"At the summit, allies will set a more ambitious defense investment pledge, to invest a minimum of 2% of GDP annually on defense," Stoltenberg reiterated on Friday.

The metric isn't without controversy — especially in the U.S., where then-president Donald Trump vocally criticized other European countries for not paying more. In general, some experts question it because it evaluates countries' economic efforts rather than military capabilities.

But it appears to have widespread public support, especially in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

NATO public opinion research shows that 74% of citizens in allied nations thought in 2022 that defense spending should either be maintained at current levels or increased, up from 70% the previous year. Just 12% thought less should be spent on defense.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at an event in Lviv, Ukraine on Saturday.
Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at an event in Lviv, Ukraine on Saturday.

What will NATO do about China?

China isn't entirely missing from the conversation so far, either. For one, NATO leaders have warned that a Ukraine scenario could be repeated in Taiwan.

Beijing is "watching to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression," Stoltenberg wrote in a Foreign Affairs op-ed published Monday.

He added that NATO does not consider China an adversary, emphasizing the importance of working together to tackle global challenges like nuclear threats and climate change.

Noting that Chinese leadership has not condemned Russia's aggression and instead increased economic and military cooperation, he also called on China to to use its "considerable influence over Russia" to end the war in Ukraine.

Skaluba, of the Atlantic Council, says he thinks NATO is looking to figure out how Chinese investment in Europe is leveraging national security concerns. For instance, if China is investing in a port, could NATO somehow block military movement through that port in a crisis?

"Trying to better understand and better connect the United States and its transatlantic and transpacific allies is a big part of what we're trying to do this week in Vilnius," he added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.