NATO faces greatest challenge since WWII, Secretary General Stoltenberg says

NATO leaders were on Wednesday to invite Finland and Sweden to join after Turkey dropped its objections to their membership. The alliance wanted to renew its defenses during a summit dominated by the war in Ukraine.

NATO leaders met on Wednesday to try to translate into action an urgent sense of purpose caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and to fill any gaps in their unity over money and mission.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance met in Madrid “amid the most serious security crisis we have seen since World War II”.

The Russian invasion of its neighbor has disrupted European peace and prompted NATO to dump troops and weapons into Eastern Europe on a scale not seen since the Cold War.

Alliance members have also sent billions in military and civilian aid to Ukraine. The 30 NATO leaders will hear directly from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is likely to ask them to do even more when he addresses the meeting via video link.

US President Joe Biden, whose country supplies most of NATO’s military power, said in Madrid on Tuesday that the alliance was “as united and galvanized as I think we’ve ever been”.

But NATO allies are showing signs of tension as the cost of energy and other essential goods has skyrocketed amid the war and harsh Western sanctions against Russia. There are also tensions over how the war will end and what concessions Ukraine would have to make to stop the fighting.

Money can also be a sensitive issue – only nine of NATO’s 30 members currently meet the organization’s target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose country does hit the target, urged NATO allies to “dig deep to restore deterrence and ensure defense over the next decade”.

The war has already resulted in a major increase in NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and the allies are expected to agree at the summit to increase the strength of the Alliance’s rapid reaction force nearly eightfold, from 40,000 to 300,000 troops against next year. The troops will be stationed in their home countries, but dedicated to specific countries on NATO’s eastern flank, where the Alliance plans to stockpile equipment and ammunition.

Biden made plans to bolster the US military presence in Europe, with more US troops in the east and two more naval destroyers in Rota, Spain.

Stoltenberg said NATO was undertaking “the biggest overhaul of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War”.

Leaders also plan to publish NATO’s new Strategic Concept, the set of priorities and goals set once every decade.

The latest document, in 2010, called Russia a “strategic partner” for NATO. Now Russia will be declared the greatest threat to the alliance. The paper will also set out NATO’s approach to issues from cybersecurity to climate change — and China’s growing economic and military reach.

For the first time, leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand attend the summit as guests, reflecting the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region.

Stoltenberg said China was not NATO’s adversary but “challenged our values, our interest and our security”.

Biden would hold a rare joint meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on the sidelines of the summit, focusing on North Korea’s nuclear program.

The summit started with one problem solved, after Turkey agreed on Tuesday to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. In response to the invasion, the two Nordic nations gave up their long-standing non-aligned status and asked to join NATO as protection against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Russia — which shares a long border with Finland.

NATO operates by consensus, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to block the Nordic pair and insisted on changing their stance on Kurdish rebel groups that Turkey considers terrorists.

After urgent top-level talks with leaders of the three countries, alliance secretary Stoltenberg said the deadlock had been broken.

Turkey hailed Tuesday’s agreement as a triumph, saying the Scandinavian countries had agreed to crack down on groups that Ankara views as threats to national security, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Syrian expansion. It also said they agreed to “not impose any defense industry embargo restrictions” on Turkey and to “take concrete steps for the extradition of terrorist criminals”.

Stoltenberg said the leaders of the 30-nation alliance will send a formal invitation to the two countries to join on Wednesday. The decision must be ratified by all individual countries, but he said he was “absolutely certain” that Finland and Sweden would join.

Stoltenberg said he expected the process to be completed “quite quickly”, but had not put a time on it.