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Lithuania hosts NATO's summit as Ukraine and Sweden aim to join the alliance

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. Let's go to Vilnius, Lithuania - scene of that NATO summit. That's where we find former Pentagon official Christopher Skaluba. He heads the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Christopher, President Biden told CNN it's premature to let Ukraine join the NATO alliance right now, even though some alliance members are allied with Ukraine. What's the logic there?

CHRISTOPHER SKALUBA: Yeah, to be honest with you, A, the logic is a little bit puzzling - right? - because NATO famously said in 2008 at its Bucharest summit in Romania that Ukraine would one day be a member of NATO. Of course, right now the stakes are very high. Ukraine is suffering from this Russian invasion, and all they really want from NATO is an understanding of what the pathway for membership looks like.

So if you talk to people in the administration or some of the allies, what they're hearing from the United States is the concerns about further escalation of the war, understanding that the issue of NATO is very much a difficult one for Putin, not wanting to complicate a more complicated situation, and as Biden said over the weekend, thinks that Ukraine still has some work to do. So that's the basic thing that you're hearing from the White House.

MARTÍNEZ: If Russia had not invaded Ukraine, Christopher, how close would Ukraine be to being a NATO member?

SKALUBA: It's a great question and I think actually less close than it is now because the issue of NATO membership wasn't really on the table. As we said, the promise was made in 2008, and for the better part of 15 years, NATO hasn't done much to define the requirements for membership.

Now, Ukraine and NATO are close partners. Obviously, NATO allies and the alliance itself are supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. But it's really, I think, the circumstances of the war that has - causing Ukraine to say, hey, we really want to be in as soon as possible. Our future security is - could only be protected by NATO.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, now to Sweden. President Biden wants Sweden in NATO. Turkey is objecting. Any sense that Turkey may drop that objection?

SKALUBA: It's really hard to know, and I think, as the last report said, this is all in the hands of one person, which is President Erdogan. If you recall, last year at the Madrid summit, the issue of inviting Finland and Sweden to NATO were on the table. Turkey was objecting. They had some dramatic meetings in the margins of Madrid, and then he ultimately agreed. So it's possible that this meeting with President Biden or a meeting with the Swedish prime minister here in Vilnius could signal a willingness to move ahead on the ratification.

But as one of your last guests said, until this is done, it's not going to be done. 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.

MARTÍNEZ: If this summit ends without Sweden becoming a member, is it a success or not a success?

SKALUBA: I think it's a setback, right? I think I want to see the ultimate outcomes at the end of the summit. NATO will issue a communique that will talk about dozens and dozens of issues. And most of them, I think there'll be agreement on. But I think if Sweden isn't in or there's not a clear signal when Sweden will be in, it will be a setback.

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

MARTÍNEZ: And NATO leaders have warned that a Ukraine scenario could be repeated in Taiwan. So let's move to China. What could NATO do to confront the growing China challenge?

SKALUBA: I think what NATO is trying to do with respect to China is understand how Chinese investment in Europe is leveraging national security concerns, right? So if China is investing in a port, could they somehow block, you know, military movement through that port in a crisis?

There's also interest at NATO thinking about how Sweden and Russia are working together. Obviously, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is being supported, at least economically and politically, by China. So trying to better understand and better connect the United States' trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific allies is a big part of what we're trying to do this week in Vilnius.

MARTÍNEZ: Christopher Skaluba of the Atlantic Council. Christopher, thanks.

SKALUBA: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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