US offers ‘to build a Ukrainian military of the future’ as push for NATO stalls

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers his speech at the Helsinki City Hall, Finland Friday, June 2, 2023. (Emmi Korhonen/Lehtikuva via AP) Emmi Korhonen/AP

US offers ‘to build a Ukrainian military of the future’ as push for NATO stalls

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President Joe Biden intends to equip Ukraine with a military “that can deter and defend against” long-term threats from Russia, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who outlined the plan amid Western hesitation to advance Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO.

“The United States — together with our allies and partners — is firmly committed to supporting Ukraine’s defense today, tomorrow, for as long as it takes,” Blinken said Friday while traveling in Finland. “And precisely because we have no illusions about Putin’s aspirations, we believe the prerequisite for meaningful diplomacy and real peace is a stronger Ukraine, capable of deterring and defending against any future aggression.”

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Ukrainian officials have regarded such pledges with uncertainty, as Kyiv and even officials in some NATO capitals privately have perceived the Biden administration taking care not to commit to a specific end goal for the war. Blinken pledged in Helsinki that Biden will not try to pressure Ukraine into “a Potemkin peace” that allows Putin to consolidate control over occupied Ukrainian territory.

“A just and lasting peace must end Russia’s war of aggression,” he said in Helsinki. “A ceasefire that simply freezes current lines in place and enables Putin to consolidate control over the territory he’s seized, and then rest, re-arm, and re-attack — that is not a just and lasting peace.”

The problem of how to forestall a future Russian invasion has fueled controversy across the alliance in recent months. NATO leaders promised in 2008 that Ukraine eventually would be admitted into the alliance, but that statement was a fig leaf for Germany and France blocking U.S. efforts to join the bloc. Putin’s ill-starred attempt to overthrow the Ukrainian government spurred a new debate over extending a formal invitation to Ukraine, but Central and Eastern European officials have made little headway with the largest members of the alliance.

“I’m not sure we will have a consensus [at the] Vilnius summit for a full-fledged membership, let’s be clear,” French President Emmanuel Macron said this week at a GLOBSEC security forum in Bratislava. “I think we need strong and concrete and tangible security guarantees.”

An even more frank message came this week from the United Kingdom, the top European state in military aid to Ukraine.

“We have to be realistic and say, ‘It’s not going to happen at Vilnius; It’s not going to happen anytime soon,’” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the Washington Post. “But what can those powers that want to be more forward-leaning do to help Ukraine, and to give it not 100 percent but a similar effect to what NATO delivers?”

Blinken outlined an answer to that question in Helsinki, just days after the White House confirmed that Biden will allow European allies to give U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine if they so choose.

“Today, America and our allies and partners are helping meet Ukraine’s needs on the current battlefield while developing a force that can deter and defend against aggression for years to come,” Blinken said. “That means helping build a Ukrainian military of the future, with long-term funding, a strong air force centered on modern combat aircraft, an integrated air and missile defense network, advanced tanks and armored vehicles, national capacity to produce ammunition, and the training and support to keep forces and equipment combat-ready.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to strike a balance between embracing the military aid and signaling his government’s antipathy for any long-term blockade of Ukraine’s candidacy to join NATO.

“We are not looking for a replacement for NATO, and it is very important that our partners hear this,” he said Friday during a press conference with Estonian President Alar Karis. “And if we want to have guarantees on paper, it should be clearly stated that these security guarantees are valid for Ukraine until the country receives the main security guarantees, namely, NATO membership.”

Blinken sent a subtle signal that Ukraine’s place in the alliance will depend as much on its ability to constrain corruption as it does its performance in the war.

“The path to peace will be forged not only through Ukraine’s long-term military strength, but also the strength of its economy and its democracy,” he said. “To be strong enough to deter and defend against aggressors beyond its borders, Ukraine needs a vibrant, prosperous democracy within its borders . . . We are committed to working with allies and partners to help Ukrainians make their vision a reality . . . We’ll continue to bolster Ukraine’s independent anti-corruption bodies, a free and vibrant press, civil society organizations.”

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As Blinken outlined his vision of Western support for Ukraine in the absence of NATO membership, he held out the prospect of negotiations with Russia — in the context of both the war in Ukraine and the wider balance of power in Europe.

“A just and lasting peace can open a pathway to sanctions relief connected to concrete actions, especially military withdrawal,” he said. “If and when Russia is ready to work for true peace, the United States will respond in concert with Ukraine and other allies and partners around the world. And along with Ukraine and allies and partners, we would be prepared to have a broader discussion on European security that promotes stability and transparency and reduces the likelihood of future conflict.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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