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US must back Ukraine joining NATO in 2023, say European delegates

Eastern European delegation says 'all stars are aligning' for this year, before 2024 might bring another change in U.S. leadership

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds an American flag gifted to him by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after he addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Dec. 21, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds an American flag gifted to him by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after he addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Dec. 21, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Concerned about the potential for a change in U.S. leadership after the next presidential election, a visiting delegation of Eastern European lawmakers this week called on the Biden administration and Congress to move this year to bring Ukraine into NATO.

Ahead of the NATO summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius this summer, a faction of member states, led by the Baltic countries and Poland, is campaigning for the gathering to be used to begin the official process of admitting Ukraine to the Western military alliance.

“This is it. This is the year when all stars are aligning,” said Žygimantas Pavilionis, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, at a Wednesday roundtable with journalists in Washington. “We have bipartisan unity on freedom, democracy, and victory of Ukrainians, on our values. We have huge strategic unity of Europeans, who recognized American leadership. So let’s do it like we did it in times of [Ronald] Reagan.”

Pavilionis was traveling as part of a joint delegation that included his foreign affairs counterparts in the Polish and Ukrainian parliaments. They were making the rounds this week of Washington think tanks and Capitol Hill to make their case for why the Biden administration and lawmakers should continue to generously fund security assistance to Ukraine. They also are arguing for the imposition of secondary sanctions on foreign countries like China and India that are buying up large quantities of heavily discounted Russian oil and gas exports.

And perhaps most politically sensitive of all? The Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Polish parliamentarians are pressing for Washington to discount the strong fears of the American public about engaging in a head-to-head armed conflict with Russia and move to admit Ukraine into NATO this year.

“We want to implement, to start to give our American partners the idea that Ukraine as a member of NATO is something that is inevitable in the future,” said Radoslaw Fogiel, chairman of the Polish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “In Europe, we understand … that it’s only a question of how and when. We know that this idea needs to sink in within the U.S. establishment, within the U.S. public, but that’s part of our job.”

While the European lawmakers did not state what specifically they want Congress and the Biden administration to do, the U.S. president’s endorsement of Ukraine membership would give their quest important heft. And the Senate would need to sign off on Ukraine joining the military alliance.

January survey findings released from the Pew Research Center on Tuesday found a growing partisan gap in the way Americans view aid to Ukraine.

Some 40 percent of Republican voters now believe the United States is providing too much assistance to Ukraine, an increase from the 32 percent in September. Meanwhile, Democratic support for maintaining current aid levels to Ukraine fell five points to 40 percent, while those thinking support is too high increased from 11 percent to 15 percent since the fall. However, 23 percent of Democrats want to see even more support given to Ukraine, an increase from 20 percent holding that view in September.

There also has been a widening divide in the last year in how the two parties view the seriousness of the national security threat to the United States that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents. The parties were essentially tied last March, with approximately 50 percent of both Republicans and Democrats viewing the largest land war in Europe since World War II as a major threat to U.S. interests. Now only 43 percent of Democrats and just 29 percent of Republicans feel that way.

Aware of that softening of American political support, the Eastern European lawmakers said they view 2023 as the year to lock in a NATO membership invitation for Ukraine. That’s because 2024 will likely be consumed in the states by the next presidential contest. And there is a real chance that if a Republican is elected to succeed President Joe Biden, he or she will move to end or significantly curtail defense assistance to Ukraine. For instance, former President Donald Trump, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, has advocated for lessening American support.

“Our goal is simple: to liberate our whole territory, including Crimea, from Russian occupation and to join NATO as soon as possible because NATO is the only and the best guarantee of security in the contemporary world,” said Oleksandr Merezhko, chairman of the Ukrainian Committee on Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation.

Merezhko argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin is essentially a bully who will pick fights with those he sees as weaker but would withdraw from Ukraine if threatened with war by the full might of the 30-member NATO alliance. That Putin hasn’t moved against either Finland or Sweden since the two Nordic countries announced their plans to join NATO last summer is evidence he is not “suicidal,” the Ukrainian lawmaker said.

“If Ukraine becomes, right now, a member of NATO, it will stop Putin’s war,” Merezhko said.

‘Never surrender’

But if the current trajectory of U.S. and European support is maintained, enabling Ukraine to continue fighting, but not to decisively push Russia out of all captured Ukrainian territory — including the Crimean Peninsula — then the United States could be looking at a proxy military quagmire, Pavilionis said.

“Are we ready for victory or are we turning Ukraine into Afghanistan again, where we have no strategy and know how it ended,” he asked. “It might turn into it because [the Ukrainians] will never surrender and we [Lithuania] will never surrender because we will be next. Vilnius will be Bucha in six to seven years if we do nothing, if we just continue with this current policy.”

Bucha is a suburb of Kyiv, where ample evidence has been gathered that Russian troops carried out massacres and other atrocities of Ukrainian civilians when they occupied it last year.

“We don’t know what kind of leader will be elected here [in 2024] so this is a very narrow window of opportunity to make a very right decision,” the senior Lithuanian parliamentarian continued.

In addition to supporting NATO membership for Ukraine, Congress should also push for the imposition of secondary sanctions on Beijing, said Merezhko.

“China is not afraid of Ukraine, China is afraid only of American sanctions, which means the United States can and should deter China from helping Russia and preferably introduce secondary sanctions to stop China from financing the Russian economy and Russian military machine by buying Russian oil and gas,” the Ukrainian lawmaker said.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Russia last week, Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called for the Biden administration to slap “robust sanctions” against Chinese companies that are selling dual-use technology to Russia that is allowing its military to maintain “missile capabilities that we should not let them have.”

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the panel, added: “China seems to be acting with impunity and we really need to ratchet up our sanctions in that regard.”

Menendez and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, are both slated to meet with the Eastern European delegation this week.

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