NATO debates ways to boost ties with Ukraine as war against Russian invasion drags on

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United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, greets Ukraine's Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov during a meeting on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, June 15, 2023. NATO defense ministers are holding two days of meetings to discuss their support for Ukraine and ways to boost the defenses of eastern flank allies near Russia. A meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group will also be held to drum up more military aid for the war-torn country. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

BRUSSELS – NATO defense ministers gathered Thursday to discuss future relations with Ukraine as Russia’s war on the country thwarts its hopes of joining the world’s biggest security alliance soon.

The ministers were also due to take part in a separate meeting at NATO headquarters of the U.S.-led Ukraine Contact Group — the forum Ukraine’s supporters routinely join to try to drum up weapons and ammunition to help Kyiv fight the Russian invasion.

The NATO meeting comes just under a month before U.S. President Joe Biden and his counterparts gather for a summit in Lithuania in a symbolic show of support for Ukraine. They are expected to underscore their determination to act should Russian President Vladimir Putin try to expand the war westward.

NATO agreed in 2008 that Ukraine would join the organization one day, but did not set a date for it to start membership talks.

As the war ground on, Ukraine applied for “accelerated accession” to NATO on Sept. 30. With its Crimean Peninsula annexed, and Russian troops and pro-Moscow separatists holding parts of the south and east, it’s not clear what Ukraine’s borders would even look like.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said there is no consensus for the country to join while it is at war with Russia.

“We agree that the most urgent task now is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign independent nation because unless Ukraine prevails and can continue as a democratic state in Europe, there is no membership issue to be discussed at all,” he said, ahead of the meeting.

Stoltenberg said that he expects the 31-nation alliance to “agree (to) a multi-year program where we help to move Ukraine to transition from old standards, equipment, procedures, doctrines to NATO standards and become fully interoperable with NATO.”

NATO is also upgrading its relations with Ukraine. The NATO-Ukraine Commission, which will meet later Thursday, is set to be upgraded to a NATO-Ukraine Council, giving the country an equal seat at the table with the 31 allies.

NATO has no official presence in Ukraine and as an organization provides only nonlethal support to Kyiv, although allies individually and in groups do supply weapons and ammunition.