The United States is giving tentative backing to a plan that would remove barriers to Ukraine’s entry into NATO without setting a timeline for its admission, a modest step that American officials hope can bridge divisions among member nations over Kyiv’s path to joining the transatlantic military alliance.

A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration is “comfortable” with a proposal from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that would permit Ukraine to forgo a formal candidacy process that has been required of some nations, a move that could hasten its entry.

“This is a potential landing zone in this debate,” said the official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions.

The NATO chief’s proposal, if accepted by all 31 members, would cap a polarizing debate about what to offer the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky — which has demanded Ukraine’s swift inclusion in NATO as it battles Russian invaders — when alliance leaders gather for a major summit next month in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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Under the plan, NATO would declare that Ukraine can circumvent the alliance’s Membership Action Plan, a process in which candidate countries receive assessments and advice as they take steps to meet NATO criteria on defense and other matters. That would put Ukraine in a category with new member Finland, which skipped that step. North Macedonia, in contrast, took part in a two-decade MAP program before its 2020 entry.

But the proposal would still require Ukraine to carry out reforms and, contrary to the wishes of NATO members in Eastern Europe, it would not attach any time frame for Ukraine’s accession. U.S. officials said the proposal goes beyond the preferred course of NATO countries that fear that Ukrainian membership could intensify the West’s standoff with Russia. The senior official declined to name those countries, but officials from France, Germany and the United States have urged caution in the past.

Biden’s ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, echoed widespread concerns this month when she said that Ukraine would probably be unable to join while it is locked in an existential battle with Russia.

Consultations are underway to see if there is wider backing for the plan, the official said. “This is a middle-ground approach, and we are for an approach that can build a consensus” ahead of the summit, he said. “So we’re testing this proposition.”

Officials also said the administration is trying to build support for keeping Stoltenberg in place for another year. The former prime minister of Norway has led NATO since 2014 and has been expected to step down this fall.

The twin positions underscore President Biden’s desire to maintain cohesion within NATO at a perilous moment for the alliance and the military campaign it supports in Ukraine. The strength of the pro-Ukraine coalition also will be important for Biden as he touts his foreign policy credentials in next year’s presidential campaign.

Ukrainian troops’ struggle to reclaim territory from Russia’s much larger military has raised questions in NATO capitals about the future of Western support — most importantly, the generous flow of weapons to Kyiv and the sanctions that Western nations have imposed on Moscow.

At a recent NATO meeting in Norway attended by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, alliance foreign ministers voiced support for doing more than reiterating the vague promises about membership that NATO first made to Ukraine in 2008, U.S. officials said.

The talks on Ukraine’s path into NATO come to a head as speculation intensifies about the bloc’s future leadership and the Biden administration seeks to avoid what could be a troublesome impasse over selecting Stoltenberg’s replacement.

Biden, NATO chief meet at turbulent moment for the alliance

Months of closed-door talks about selecting a new leader have highlighted regional and factional differences within the alliance. Officials from NATO nations say some countries in Eastern Europe, including Poland and the Baltic nations, have pushed for a secretary general from the alliance’s eastern flank, on the front lines in the showdown with Russia.

Others have argued it is time for a NATO leader from southern Europe after a series of leaders from northern Europe. Many nations have called for appointing the alliance’s first female secretary general; others say the leader must come from a European Union nation or a country that meets NATO’s benchmark for spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

Leading candidates include Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whom Biden welcomed at the White House this month; Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas; and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. But each has met resistance because they fall short in meeting other countries’ criteria.

U.S. officials said that while Biden had positive views of all chief candidates, the administration believes that Stoltenberg’s extension would provide continuity at a time of turbulence in Europe and assurance that differences among member states can be managed.

Welcoming Stoltenberg to the White House this week, Biden praised his handling of the alliance response to the conflict, which has injected NATO with renewed purpose after two decades on the margins of U.S.-led counterinsurgency wars. “You’ve done an incredible job,” the president said.

Although the process for selecting a NATO secretary general — a position typically held by a European while the alliance’s top military role is occupied by an American — is based on consensus, Washington carries special weight given its huge military-contributions might.

Senior NATO diplomats said Stoltenberg agreed with the Biden administration on an early, public call for him to stay, avoiding a potentially messy succession struggle that could overshadow the summit.

Turkey, for instance, has long been skeptical of Danish candidates because it associates Denmark with cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that offended some Muslims, and it could move to block Frederiksen’s appointment if she emerged as the consensus pick.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, it’s anticipated that officials will “kick the can down the road” and look anew at the same pool of candidates in a year, one NATO diplomat said. Stoltenberg appeared uninterested in being seen as a fallback candidate, preferring to preempt the conversation with backing from the United States, the diplomat said.

Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.


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