Questions we must ask before the NATO summit

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School

My grandmother fled Lithuania with her mother on Feb. 6, 1921, aboard the SS Ryndam bound for America. She was 20 years old.

A year before her departure, Lithuania had signed the Moscow Treaty, which recognized Lithuanian independence from the Bolsheviks. But for Jews like my grandmother, the combination of antisemitism and a beleaguered economy made staying in Europe an uncertain fate, and she left Lithuania behind.

Fast forward to today.

Here we are, a bit more than a century later, and Lithuania is hosting a major gathering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at a critical time when the fate of Europe, again, hangs in the balance.

This could be the most important summit in history — but not because of the question of when Ukraine will formally join NATO. President Biden, in a bid to keep unity, has signaled that this is not the moment.

The real question is, wither Europe?

Can Germany withstand another winter with diminished oil supplies from Russia, and can it continue to provide military support to Ukraine?

Can France emerge from weeks of civil domestic unrest over policing to focus on the broader international issues surrounding Ukraine and Russia?

What does the collapse of the Dutch government mean for migration policies within Europe?

Can the British economy recover from the disastrous effects of Brexit, leaving it the bandwidth to support Ukraine?

America is carrying a heavy load on Ukraine, especially with the Biden administration’s recent decision to provide cluster munitions — a decision not all the NATO allies agree on, given that there is an international convention banning them (and even some Democratic members of Congress have voiced concerns).

Where there is concrete allied agreement is on the topic of Russia.

The NATO meeting in Vilnius takes place with political uncertainty in Moscow. Recent events, including an armed threat to President Vladimir Putin’s rule by the leader of the infamous Wagner Group, put a giant question mark over Russian politics. This could be Ukraine’s moment.

Sixteen months after a brutal invasion by Russia, Ukraine has shown itself to be brave and unrelenting in its counteroffensive. But it needs its American and European allies to be strong at home and abroad.

There are a few positive signs that Europe will remain united in the struggle against Russia.

The news that NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, will remain in his post an extra year after initially saying he would leave in September bodes well for the alliance’s stability.

The growth of NATO to include Finland and Sweden, which just got the nodfrom Turkey to join, shows the dexterity of the alliance.

Citizens of European countries seem to know that they need to beef up security to keep the Russians at bay. The public messaging has been good. It must continue.

Almost all stakeholders in this NATO debate, including Ukraine, acknowledge that the war must end before Ukraine can formally join the alliance. But there is a growing consensus that the time will come, and that concrete steps need to be taken now to lay out the path to membership.

Europe’s long-term stability is key. That is what is at stake right now in a continent that is absorbing refugees from Ukraine while taking care of its own populations. After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, over 23.5 million border crossings from Ukraine to other countries were recorded as of June 26, 2023.

Imagine Poland, where most of the refugees fled, handling such a huge influx of people, and providing a hopeful life in exile.

Europe is rising to the challenge. But its long-term security is critical.

We are in a different Europe than the one my grandmother fled: a better, stronger, more united Europe inclusive of the Baltic nations and Ukraine. It is a Europe that people run to, not away from.

Now we must ensure that Ukraine can retain its sovereignty and its rightful place in the Europe it chose.

(This post is republished from The Hill.)

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