NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2024.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2024. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

NATO leaders pledge ‘well-lit bridge’ to Ukraine membership

Kyiv's path to becoming an ally isn’t yet clear. But there is movement.

NATO leaders have pledged a “well-lit bridge” to Ukraine’s eventual membership in the organization, the top U.S. diplomat said at the alliance's summit on Wednesday, where leaders have also highlighted efforts to better prepare for a Russian attack. 

“We have an incredibly robust package that will be unveiled over the next couple of days at NATO that builds a very clear, strong, robust, well-lit bridge to NATO membership for Ukraine,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the audience at the Washington Convention Center, which is hosting the publicly accessible portion of the summit. 

Still, a “well-lit bridge” is a far cry from the commitment of full membership Ukraine has been seeking since 2008.  

And how exactly will this “bridge” be built? Outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg broke it down into a series of commitments NATO allies are ready to make to Ukraine, short of extending full Article 5 collective defense protections. 

The first is the establishment of a new NATO Ukraine Command, staffed with some 700 people, to be based in Germany but with logistical support elements elsewhere in Europe. Stoltenberg said it “will take over much of what the U.S. have done so far” to train Ukrainians and coordinate reinforcements.  

The second element is a new security package that includes F-16 fighter jets and dozens of new air defense systems, including at least four Patriot missile systems. 

“As we speak, the transfer of F-16 jets is underway” from Denmark and the Netherlands, Blinken said to applause. 

But more than the jets themselves, the allies must also make sure there are training and maintenance personnel and equipment to care for them. 

Blinken called the package essential to Ukraine's economy and therefore its war effort.

“I'm convinced that Ukraine has tremendous capacity for us to develop a strong defense industrial base for itself and for other countries, but also because of the extraordinary innovation of Ukrainian entrepreneurs, the Ukrainian economy to develop a strong robust economy,” he said.

The third element of the bridge is a series of bilateral security agreements with more than 20 countries, including the United States. The fourth element will be a pledge for long-term institutional support for Ukraine to help it strengthen its own democratic and financial institutions, and the fifth is new investment to help Ukraine build military interoperability with NATO members. 

“We have a new joint training lesson center…in Poland…We will have the comprehensive assistance package to help Ukraine implement reforms in the defense and security institutions to ensure that the armed forces are more and more interoperable with NATO,” Blinken said. 

Russia, Ukraine, and NATO readiness 

While much of the summit’s focus is Ukraine, the alliance itself has undergone a series of changes to streamline and strengthen its response against the threat of a Russian attack on an alliance member, said Gen. Chris Cavoli, Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the commander of U.S. European Command.

Cavoli said that since NATO's implementation of its 2022 strategic concept, the alliance has implemented a series of reforms to harden its defenses. One of the most important is incorporating aspects of the concept into individual nations’ defense plans, rather than keeping them in a document in Brussels that leaders only pull out in case of an Article 5 event. That’s freed up a lot more potential military power.

“Instead of a cyclically available brigade or two, we’ve got … 300,000 [troops] or even more [at the higher levels of readiness], depending on how you count," he said. "That's because we've been able to amalgamate and incorporate national defense plans into the NATO defense plan so they complement each other, and it's produced an ability to be forward postured. As you know, we've got eight battle groups on the ground for posture that blend with national host nation forces in their article responsibility.”

And it’s not just manpower, but also equipment and missiles that individual nations are ready to contribute to a NATO fight that they weren’t before. “We've had to turn the system around. Instead of ‘What will you make available?’ The question is ‘If we got into a large-scale fight, what would you not make available?’ We assume you'll make most of your military available,” Cavoli said. 

That enables much better weapon-sharing between nations. “Several allies have contributed their entire military force structure, save just a tiniest amount, to NATO's plans as a result of this for the most part.” 

One other big change is a building out of the supreme commander’s authority to move troops. Before, Cavoli said, simple things like moving forces required an “incredibly arcane manual.” Now, “We've bundled authorities together, and we've attached those to certain alert states … So I have the authority to do everything I need to do right now, I believe, in the run up to a period of conflict, to include deploying forces to deter the conflict, and then to be in position and be ready if the alliance should invoke Article 5.”

None of the leaders at the summit mentioned the potential effects of a Donald Trump presidency, despite the fact that the former president has said he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to countries that weren’t living up to their 2 percent GDP commitment. 

However, one foreign senior military leader told Defense One on background that while Russia’s advance appears stalled on the battlefield, the country is likely to continue to hammer Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and economic centers of activity to slowly erode the viability of Ukraine as an independent nation, and will increase hybrid attacks across Europe,—and European leaders have little confidence Trump would attempt to stop it. 

Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, on Tuesday emphasized that while Europe has made important gains in standing up its own defenses, particularly its industrial military capacity, American leadership is still essential to secure the best possible outcome for Ukraine. 

Speaking at a Hudson event, Borrell said the several months Congress spent stalling on Ukraine aid has “come with a bill in terms of human lives lost, has come with a bill in terms of weakening the capacity of Ukraine. We have to overcome this kind of discussion. All of us on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Separately on Wednesday, the United States announced that it will deploy SM-6, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and hypersonic weapons to Germany to bolster Europe’s defense against Russia.