The most memorable part of last year’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania happened before it even began.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, upset that his country wouldn’t get a timeline for membership, scolded the alliance online.

“Ukraine also deserves respect,” he wrote.

In order to avoid a repeat of last year, the 2024 summit in Washington has been much more closely coordinated. Multiple European officials told Defense News that planning began months earlier than usual. And many delegations are using the same slogan: “Managing expectations.”

Now that the summit has arrived, the events around it are proving difficult to manage.

French President Emmanuel Macron, a persnickety but dogged NATO advocate in Europe, is facing political gridlock after parliamentary elections left the National Assembly, the lower house, fractured from the extreme left to the extreme right.

And while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv last week, he went on to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow shortly thereafter. Orban, who has previously slow-walked European aid to Ukraine, framed his visits as a peace mission but his suggestion that Ukraine order a truce before peace negotiations drew a frosty response from Kyiv.

Even more concerning for NATO is the state of its main backer. U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to contain a crisis at home after a catastrophic debate two weeks ago. Supporting the alliance has been one of Biden’s signature issues. Now, many in his own party say he shouldn’t even be the nominee — making the return of a NATO-skeptic Donald Trump to the presidency more likely.

The upshot is a split 75th birthday for NATO. By some measures, like membership and spending, the alliance is stronger than ever. And yet, many members are searching for ways to “Trump proof” its support for Kyiv while trying to protect their own security. Despite a more unified message this year, and a large package for Ukraine, European officials acknowledge the political situation is a major distraction.

“Right now the policy is support Ukraine,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official focusing on European security. “Could it change? Sure. But right now, the big affirmation is going to be NATO at 75 years and look what we’re doing to help Ukraine.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters on Friday that allies “will reaffirm that Ukraine’s future is in NATO, will make significant new announcements about how we’re increasing NATO’s military, political and financial support for Ukraine.”

“The Washington summit will send a strong signal to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that if he thinks he can outlast the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine, he’s dead wrong.”

Three-part package

As has been the case since Russia’s full-scale invasion over two years ago, the biggest part of this NATO summit will be backing Ukraine.

Heading into the meetings, officials and analysts outlined a three-part package.

The first piece will be equipment, likely including urgently needed air defense batteries and interceptors for Kyiv.

NATO will also take a larger role in the process. To this point in the war, the U.S. has led the effort, with a monthly meeting convened by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. This Ukraine Defense Contact Group has helped raise and direct around $100 billion in aid.

The alliance is now taking on some of those tasks. In June, NATO announced a command of 700 personnel in Germany that would also help steer aid to Ukraine moving forward. Speaking with reporters on the condition of anonymity before the summit, a European official predicted this group would take on more authority over time.

“We are crossing that line,” the official said. “We are giving NATO greater role in terms of assistance to Ukraine.”

Biden will host an event at the summit with Zelenskyy and nearly two dozen allies and partners who have signed bilateral security agreements with Ukraine.

A final part of the package is what the final communique will say about membership for Ukraine. The delegations are still haggling over how to word it — a “bridge,” an “irreversible” path or some combination of the two. Whatever the language, the same European official said it needs to be firmer than the conditional phrasing of the Vilnius communique.

To many in Ukraine, though, this back and forth misses the point.

“We know we will probably not get an invitation to joint NATO,” said Oleksandr Merezhko, chair of the Committee on Foreign Policy Committee in Ukraine’s parliament. “The question is what we will get instead.”

Parsing the words in the communique when Ukraine has known membership isn’t on the table ignores more important questions: like the alliance’s readiness and Russia’s threat beyond Ukraine, argued Maksym Skrypchenko, who leads the Transatlantic Dialogue Center, a think tank in Kyiv.

“People [in Ukraine] are very frustrated with NATO,” he said. “They feel like NATO isn’t working and Russia can invade the Baltic states and nothing will happen.”

‘Done this before’

Despite that mood, there are signs that the Washington summit is more unified than last year’s.

In a post last week, Zelenskyy predicted “there are good things to come” on air defense, membership and security agreements.

NATO will also have a clutch of good news to celebrate. It’s hit a record number of members spending at least 2% of GDP on defense — expected to hit 23 this year compared to only three a decade ago. It has a new member, with Sweden ending a long accession process in March. And there’s a new secretary general coming, now that former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte earned enough support in June.

That said, the political malaise surrounding the summit will make the work harder, multiple analysts and officials said. Asked whether the optics of a weakened American and French president would distract from the real policy discussions, another European official was terse.

“Yes,” the official said.

Hence, despite the carefully coordinated messaging, many members of the alliance will arrive in Washington looking for reassurance, or even trying to hedge against the whiplash of a second Trump term by meeting with his campaign or conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.

Others are skeptical such an approach could work.

“I find this notion of future-proofing or even Trump-proofing the alliance, to be frank, a little bit laughable,” John Deni, a former adviser to American military leaders in Europe, said on a press call hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Deni’s argument was two-fold.

One, there is no country in NATO with the ability to replace a more distant United States, economically or militarily.

And two, NATO has been through these political transitions in the past, including with American leaders thought to be insufficiently committed to Europe.

Every expert on the call with Deni argued that second point: An alliance doesn’t last 75 years without learning how to survive.

“What I say to Europeans all the time is stop freaking out about Trump,” said Rachel Rizzo, an expert at the Atlantic Council. “You’ve done this before.”

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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