NATO deems Russia its ‘most significant and direct threat’

MADRID (AP) — NATO declared Russia the “most significant and direct threat” to its members’ peace and security on Wednesday and vowed to strengthen support for Ukraine, even as that country’s leader chided the alliance for not doing more to help it defeat Moscow.

The military organization’s condemnation was not wholly surprising: Its chief earlier said Russia’s war in Ukraine had created Europe’s biggest security crisis since World War II. But it was a sobering about-face for an alliance that a decade ago called Moscow a strategic partner.

NATO also issued a warning about China, accusing it of bullying its neighbors and forming a “strategic partnership” with Moscow that poses a challenge to the West.

Set up some 70 years ago to counter the Soviet Union, NATO held its summit in Madrid in a world transformed by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. The war drove the alliance to pour troops and weapons into eastern Europe on a scale unseen in decades and pushed Sweden and Finland to seek the safety of NATO membership.

The two formerly nonaligned nations were formally invited to join on Wednesday, as Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the war had brought “the biggest overhaul of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.”

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented that NATO’s open-door policy to new members did not appear to apply to his country.

“The open-door policy of NATO shouldn’t resemble the old turnstiles on Kyiv’s subway, which stay open but close when you approach them until you pay,” Zelenskyy said by video link. “Hasn’t Ukraine paid enough?”

He also asked for more modern artillery systems and other weapons and warned the leaders they either had to provide Kyiv with the help it needed or “face a delayed war between Russia and yourself.”

“The question is, who’s next? Moldova? Or the Baltics? Or Poland? The answer is: all of them,” he said.

Zelenskyy has acknowledged that NATO membership is a distant prospect. Under NATO treaties, an attack on any of the 30 members would trigger a military response by the entire alliance, so it is trying to strike a delicate balance, letting its nations arm Ukraine without sparking a direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.

At the same time NATO has moved quickly to ensure that its members are protected, dramatically scaling up military force along its eastern flank, where countries from Romania to the Baltic states worry about Russia’s future plans.

It plans to increase almost eightfold the size of the alliance’s rapid reaction force, from 40,000 to 300,000 troops, by next year. The troops will be based in their home nations but dedicated to specific countries in the east, where the alliance plans to build up stocks of equipment and ammunition.

U.S. President Joe Biden, whose country provides the bulk of NATO’s military power, vowed the summit would send “an unmistakable message … that NATO is strong and united.”

“We’re stepping up. We’re proving that NATO is more needed now than it ever has been,” said Biden. He announced a hefty boost in America’s military presence in Europe, including a permanent U.S. base in Poland, two more Navy destroyers based in Rota, Spain, and two more F35 squadrons to the U.K.

Still, strains among NATO allies have also emerged as the cost of energy and other essential goods has skyrocketed, partly because of the the war and tough Western sanctions on Russia. There also are tensions over how the war will end and what, if any, concessions Ukraine should make.

Money remains a sensitive issue — just 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 in the decade ahead.”

At the summit, the leaders published NATO’s new Strategic Concept, its once-a-decade set of priorities and goals.

The last such document, in 2010, called Russia a “strategic partner.” At the time, the idea of Russia waging a land war on NATO’s borders would have sounded far-fetched.

Now, NATO accused Russia of using “coercion, subversion, aggression and annexation” to extend its reach.

The document also set out NATO’s approach on issues from cybersecurity to climate change — and the growing economic and military reach of China. For the first time, the leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand attended the summit as guests, a reflection of the growing importance of Asia and the Pacific region and NATO’s desire to counterbalance China.

“China is not our adversary, but we must be clear-eyed about the serious challenges it represents,” Stoltenberg said.

“We see a deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing, and China’s growing assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences for the security of our allies and our partners,” he added.

The alliance said, however, that it remained “open to constructive engagement” with Beijing.

NATO also stressed the need to address political instability in Africa’s Sahel region and the Middle East — aggravated by “climate change, fragile institutions, health emergencies and food insecurity” — that is driving large numbers of migrants toward Europe. Host Spain and other European countries pushed for this new focus.

The summit, which ends Thursday, opened with one problem solved, after Turkey agreed Tuesday to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

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

After talks with leaders of the three countries, Stoltenberg said the impasse had been cleared.

The two countries’ accession has to be ratified by all nations, but Stoltenberg said he was “absolutely confident” Finland and Sweden would become members quickly.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said his country was eager to get out of the “gray zone” of having applied for membership but not yet fully covered by NATO’s collective defense guarantee.

“Our aim is that that period should be as short as possible,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Madrid contributed.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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