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At Washington Summit, NATO allies look to the conflict with Russia

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Leaders of NATO countries gather this week in Washington to mark the alliance's 75 years of history and to chart its future. Terri Schultz explains that future looks to be dominated by conflict with Russia and the constant search for consensus among 32 members on how to respond.

TERRI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Countries outside the alliance will take center stage at the NATO summit.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: Our most urgent task at the summit will be support to Ukraine.

SCHULTZ: Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

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STOLTENBERG: I expect allies will agree that we must sustain our support in a way that ensures that Ukraine prevails, that they are able to defend against Russian aggression today and deter in the future.

SCHULTZ: Ensuring Ukraine prevails over Russia is a goal some NATO allies have been hesitant to articulate. But Stoltenberg himself has become uncharacteristically outspoken on behalf of Kyiv as his decade-long tenure nears its September 30 end. At the summit, Stoltenberg expects approval of a declaration transferring to NATO the primary role coordinating training of Ukrainian troops and the delivery of weapons.

Another initiative due to get a green light is a pledge to maintain the current level of military contributions to Ukraine, 40 billion euros annually, for at least another year, though Stoltenberg sought a longer-term commitment. Military researcher John Deni, with the U.S. Army War College, agrees this is the best way for NATO to protect itself.

JOHN DENI: Job No. 1 for the allies has to be imposing a defeat on Russia in Ukraine.

SCHULTZ: But Deni emphasizes NATO must also implement its own territorial defense plans reconfigured after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

DENI: There are, for example, shortcomings in terms of mass, in terms of the number of troops in uniform. We know there are shortcomings in some specific capability areas, for example, intelligence and surveillance, long-range fires, strategical airlift in some cases.

SCHULTZ: But upgrades are expensive, and it was a decade-long grind to get some allies to fulfill the pledge they made in 2014 to spend at least 2% of their GDP on their own militaries by this year. NATO leaders will be prominently highlighting at the summit that 23 of the 32 countries have finally achieved that. This scorecard is especially important in case Donald Trump retakes the White House, having promised to withdraw from NATO and cut off aid to Ukraine, causing shudders in Europe. Ben Tallis with the Berlin-based Democratic Strategy Initiative (ph) says, to some extent, European complacency created the dependency on the U.S. that Trump exploits.

BEN TALLIS: Allies should not let allies free ride. Ultimately, Europe needs to build the capabilities that would give a true European pillar to the alliance, and that's going to cost money. So I think we can expect to see pressure from the frontline states, from those who are already spending 3% and more of GDP on defense, for others to step up and do the same.

SCHULTZ: Watching the summit preparations from Kyiv, Ukrainian parliamentarian Kira Rudik knows her country will not get a hoped-for invitation to join NATO this year, so she's pinning her hopes elsewhere.

KIRA RUDIK: We really need to ramp up the supplies of the ammunition and of air defense systems to Ukraine, and, of course, make sure that all political promises that have been made will, in fact, become reality and become weapons in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers.

SCHULTZ: Russia issued a reminder of what's at stake as allies arrived in Washington. Moscow destroyed Ukraine's largest children's hospital. For NPR News, I'm Terri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Teri Schultz