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Ukraine is on an 'irreversible' path to NATO. But only after war with Russia ends

WASHINGTON — (AP) — The 32-members of NATO on Wednesday formally declared Ukraine on an "irreversible" path to membership in the Western military alliance, offering a bare but more binding assurance of protection once its war with Russia ends.

NATO member countries individually and in Wednesday's joint statement from their summit in Washington announced a series of steps aimed at bolstering Ukraine's defenses. That includes the U.S., the Netherlands and Denmark announcing that the first NATO-provided F-16s would be in the hands of Ukrainian military pilots by this summer.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted his appreciation of the effort to strengthen his air force, coming soon after Ukraine saw one of the deadliest strikes of the war.

NATO on Wednesday also announced a long-term commitment of security assistance to Ukraine, and confirmed establishment of a new NATO center aimed at ensuring that Ukraine gets a more reliable flow of arms and training from members of the alliance. But the commitments still fall short of the striking power Ukraine says it needs to defeat the invading Russian forces.

The final statement called China — which the West says provides components for Russia's weapons — a "decisive enabler" of Russia's war against Ukraine.

“Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” alliance members said in their statement. “We will continue to support it on its irreversible path to full Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership.”

The alliance welcomed Ukraine's democratic, economic and security reforms needed to join and said it would get an invitation “when Allies agree and conditions are met."

While the leaders stand ready to offer Ukraine the means to defend itself in a war now in its third year, nowhere do they say that Ukraine should prevail over Russia. Indeed, their statement said that “NATO does not seek confrontation, and poses no threat to Russia. We remain willing to maintain channels of communication with Moscow to mitigate risk and prevent escalation.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underlined that Ukraine will not join the alliance's ranks immediately. But he insisted that must happen after the war is over to ensure that Russia never attacks Ukraine again.

Of the overall NATO assistance, he said, "We are not doing this because we want to prolong a war. We are doing it because we want to end a war as soon as possible.

Stoltenberg also delivered a passionate defense of the military alliance itself Wednesday when reporters asked about the possibility that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, a NATO critic, could pull U.S. support for the alliance if he wins in November.

Trump has been an unofficial but primary topic at the summit, especially among East European governments that believe their country could be targets of future Russian aggression.

The criticism of the alliance from the United States, Stoltenberg said, without naming Trump, has “not been about NATO. It’s about NATO allies not investing enough in NATO. And that has changed.”

As NATO leaders met in Washington, Trump on the campaign trail Tuesday renewed his threat not to defend any NATO members from a Russian attack if their military spending does not meet NATO's target of at least 2% of their gross domestic product. But since 2021, the number of allies meeting this target has increased from six to 23.

“The United States has been understood,” Stoltenberg said. “Allies have acted.”

Trump, meanwhile, was asked several times on Fox News Radio whether he wants the U.S. to exit NATO. He answered, “No, I want them to pay their bills.”

The U.S. and some other countries have opposed membership for Ukraine during the conflict with Russia to avoid an escalation of tensions that could lead to a larger war. They also have stressed that Ukraine must take significant steps to address corruption as well as other systemic reforms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long bitterly opposed neighboring Ukraine’s fight to join the Western alliance, declaring it an encroachment on Russia’s security and interests.

“I think it’s very important to give a message to the Kremlin from here — that Ukraine’s path and bridge towards NATO membership is now irreversible,” Finnish President Alexander Stubb told reporters.

President Joe Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine but also more broadly the importance of NATO. He noted that since he took office not only has military spending increased but the number of battle groups has doubled on NATO's eastern flank.

"We can and will defend every inch of NATO territory, and we will do it together,” Biden said.

Zelenskyy, in Washington for the NATO summit, had stressed what he called Ukraine's urgent need for the F-16 fighter jets in a speech to friendly Republican lawmakers Tuesday night. He said his country needed more than 100 to start to counter devastating Russian air attacks on Ukraine's cities, energy infrastructure and other vital targets. He said Russia was using 300 jets to carry out the attacks.

Six nations, including the United States, are training Ukrainians on the F-16s, but officials have not released precise numbers or all the locations.

Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Allvin, just returned from Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, where the U.S. training is taking place. Of the initial class of 12 Ukrainian pilots, seven completed training in May and the remaining five are expected to do so in August, Allvin said.

The pilots have learned to fly the fighter jet and will get follow-on training once they leave the U.S., but the value of getting Ukraine’s F-16 program running is more about the longer-term, he said. “I don’t know that it’s realistic to assume that it’s going to be a game-changer on the battlefield right now,” Allvin said.

Zelenskyy, meanwhile, met behind closed doors with senators for nearly an hour Wednesday and requested more defense help, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. Zelenskyy also met with the Republican speaker of the House.

Separately Wednesday, the U.S. and Germany announced they would begin “episodic deployments” of long-range missiles to Germany in 2026, including Tomahawk, SM-6 and hypersonic missiles.

The announcement is notable because land-based firing of some of those missiles from within Europe would have been banned under the former Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. They were banned because the conventional missiles could have been modified to be nuclear capable and their use on the European continent would have meant that potential targets would have had no time to react.

Kimball said while the deployment is likely being done to reassure allies, Russia may respond by deploying conventional or nuclear weapons of its own.

European and U.S. allies have announced other new arms deliveries, such as dozens of air defense systems, including Patriots, this week.

The promises of new weapons come after opposition from Republican lawmakers allied to Trump blocked a U.S. support package to Ukraine for months earlier this year, allowing Russia to make battlefield gains against Ukrainian forces who were fighting with dwindling arms and ammunition.

Europeans and NATO, as a lesson from that setback, have vowed to take on more of the responsibility for ensuring a reliable flow of military support to Ukraine.

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Cook reported from Brussels. AP reporters Tara Copp, Lolita C. Baldor, Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee in Washington and Jill Colvin in New York contributed.

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