NATO aims to safeguard commitment to Ukraine amid concern about rising right-wing populism

The far right has been on the rise across Europe, and former President Donald Trump has seen his poll numbers tick up as European leaders prepare to gather in Washington, D.C., for the NATO summit, where they’ll be working to safeguard their commitment to Ukraine. The exact messaging out of NATO and President Biden will be closely monitored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who last year criticized the group’s joint statement as „unprecedented and absurd,“ for its lack of a concrete timeline for Ukraine’s admission to the alliance. 

Biden administration officials, in particular, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said this summit, which is taking place on the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding, will be a „bridge“ to eventual NATO membership for Ukraine, which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought. What they did not say was that if Trump wins the presidency, that bridge could fall.

„Sure there’s a bridge, but is there really going to be NATO membership for Ukraine on the other side of the bridge? We don’t know,“ says James Goldgeier, a professor of international relations at American University.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO sent military equipment to Ukraine and expanded the alliance to include both Finland and Sweden. One of the major obstacles to bringing Ukraine into NATO is the requirement under Article 5 that any member of the alliance, including the U.S., must send its troops to defend an attack on another NATO member. 

„Ukraine is going to come out of this war having a very powerful army – battle-tested army, we should want that army connected to NATO,“ says Karen Donfried, senior fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.

NATO allies have agreed to 40 billion euros in funding Ukraine in the next year, according to Reuters. NATO also plans to set up a new command structure for training and assisting Ukraine that will largely eventually take over the responsibilities that the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group has executed for the past two years. NATO troops would not go into Ukraine for training, but instead would be trained in NATO countries.

Some analysts have seen these steps as an effort to „Trump-proof“ NATO. President Trump has sent mixed signals about what he would do with the U.S. involvement in NATO — and Ukraine. He previously said he would encourage Russia to do „whatever the hell they want“ to any NATO member country that does not meet spending guidelines on defense. 

„I don’t think there’s such a thing as Trump-proofing — or presidential proofing in general,“ says Goldgeier. „The president of the United States is extremely powerful in the U.S system and really is very unconstrained in terms of foreign policy.“

Congress has passed legislation to keep Trump from walking away from the alliance: in its defense bill last year, lawmakers included a provision that prohibits a president from withdrawing the U.S. from NATO without approval by a two-thirds majority in the Senate or a separate act of Congress.

The June European parliamentary elections, often seen as a protest vote by politicians, showed strong support for far-right parties in France, Germany and Italy. French President Emmanuel Macron, stunned by the results, challenged his people to empower the far right, dissolving his parliament and calling for a snap election. The result of the first round of votes found the right’s National Rally party winning by nearly a third of the vote, but in the end, a coalition of the far left and center right came together to stop the right from winning a majority.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party, has in the past advocated removing French troops from NATO’s integrated military command. But recently,  the far-right party seemed to moderate its stance, quietly removing this position from the defense policy description on its website, along with a section that proposed deepening diplomatic ties with Russia, according to POLITICO Europe. 

Meanwhile, Hungary is taking control of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and it’s coming into power with a slogan that has a familiar ring to it – „Make Europe Great Again.“ Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country is a NATO member, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Moscow to discuss a peace settlement in Ukraine, sparking disapproval from both Ukraine and NATO members. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday on CBS News‘ „Face the Nation“ that Orban’s trip doesn’t change NATO’s position on assistance to Ukraine.

Generally, the platforms of populist parties tend to advocate for a departure from international institutions. But the far-right parties in Europe are not monolithic on the topic of defense policy, particularly in the context of a ground war in Europe. 

„We know that LePen in France is more sympathetic to Russia. But then you have someone like Meloni in Italy, who’s very popular in Italy right now,  and she has had a very stiff spine in terms of supporting Ukraine in this war,“ Donfried said. „So it’s hard to generalize on that issue about the far right because Russia is one of the issues that divides the far right in Europe.“

The most important goal at this summit should be to show cohesion amongst the allies, said Donfried. 

But even with the rise of the far right in European parliamentary elections, the center appeared to hold — the largest political groupings in the European Union parliament will be the center left and center right. 

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, in a conversation with Foreign Policy, argued that while military deterrence is a costly endeavor, it is far cheaper than waging war. Sikorski gave voice to the perspective of many former Soviet bloc countries that fear that if Ukraine falls,  Russian President Vladimir Putin could invade them next.

„It feels far away to us Americans, but for any NATO ally bordering Ukraine, this is so real,“ said Donfried. 

Eleanor Watson contributed to this report 

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