Hurdle to Ukraine NATO membership dropped as leaders gather

VILNIUS (AFP/APP): A key hurdle to Ukraine’s membership of NATO was lifted Monday as leaders of the bloc, gathered for a summit in Lithuania and Kyiv, claimed it had made advances near Bakhmut.
A Western official told AFP that the allies “are set” to drop the Membership Action Plan required for Ukraine’s application to join the alliance.
The breakthrough comes amid rare glimmers of disunity over Washington’s controversial decision to supply cluster bombs to Kyiv.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said the diplomatic move — which Moscow said would have serious consequences for European security — would shorten Kyiv’s path to NATO membership, even though Ukraine must still undertake reforms before joining.
“NATO allies have reached consensus on removing MAP from Ukraine’s path to membership,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. It came as Kyiv said its troops captured key heights around the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said they had established fire control over the “entrances, exits and movement of the enemy around the city”.
Its military had earlier claimed to have recaptured 14 square kilometres from the Russians in the past week amid “heavy fighting” near Bakhmut.
But Russian shelling Sunday of a humanitarian aid hub in the frontline Zaporizhzhia region killed four people, the local governor announced Monday.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had voiced hope that Tuesday’s NATO summit in Vilnius would provide a “clear signal” that Kyiv could join the alliance once its war with Russia is over.
Ahead of the meeting, the Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that “MAP is just one of the steps in the NATO accession process… so even with its removal, Ukraine will still need to complete further reforms before joining NATO.”
Ahead of the summit, US President Joe Biden met with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a stopover in London on Monday, with British concern over the cluster munitions deal a key subject for discussion.
Britain is one of more than 120 countries that have signed an agreement banning the production, storage, sale and use of cluster bombs, which rights groups say pose a danger to civilian populations long after they are deployed. Biden said the decision to send the weapons was “very difficult” but Ukrainian forces were “running out of ammunition”.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday played down any rift between the two leaders and in NATO, saying that Biden and Sunak were “on the same page strategically on Ukraine”.
China on Monday denounced the move as “irresponsible” and said it could lead to “humanitarian problems”.
“We should fairly manage humanitarian concerns and legitimate military and security needs, and maintain a prudent and restrained attitude towards the transfer of cluster munitions,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.
Another key goal of the NATO summit is to pressure Turkey to drop its opposition to Sweden’s membership bid.
Sweden’s prime minister will meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday afternoon in a last-gasp effort to bridge the diplomatic impasse.
Erdogan has voiced repeated frustrations with what he calls Sweden’s failure to keep its promises to deal with suspected Kurdish militants allegedly “roaming the streets” of Stockholm.
He told Biden on a call Sunday that though Sweden had taken “some steps in the right direction” over Turkey’s concerns, it had “nullified those steps” by allowing pro-Kurdish groups to hold demonstrations “freely praising terrorism”, Erdogan’s office said.
And Erdogan dramatically upped the ante just hours before his meeting with Sweden’s Ulf Kristersson, saying he would relent on Stockholm’s candidacy if the European Union re-opened long-stalled membership talks with Ankara.
“First, open the way to Turkey’s membership of the European Union, and then we will open it for Sweden, just as we had opened it for Finland,” Erdogan told Turkish television before leaving for Vilnius.
Turkey formally launched membership negotiations with the bloc in 2005, but the talks stalled in 2016 over European concerns about Turkish human rights. “Almost all the NATO members are EU members. I am now addressing these countries, which are making Turkey wait for more than 50 years, and I will address them again in Vilnius.” Turkey and Hungary remain the only NATO members still standing in the way of the unanimous ratification needed for Sweden to become the bloc’s 32nd member.
Hungary has strongly signalled it will follow Erdogan’s lead and approve Sweden’s membership should Ankara give it the green light.
Meanwhile an aid hub in the town of Orikhiv in southern Ukraine was hit by Russian shelling, which killed three women and a man, regional governor Yuriy Malashko said on social media.
“They hit a humanitarian aid delivery spot in a residential area… Four people died on the spot: women aged 43, 45 and 47 and a 47-year-old man,” Malashko said, calling the attack “a war crime”.