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Diplomacy Watch: NATO membership still on the table?

Meanwhile, EU approves $54 billion funding plan, with Senate possibly voting next week

Reporting | QiOSK

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban agreed to a funding plan for Ukraine on Thursday, allowing the European Union to clear the final hurdle on its $54 billion aid package that will run through 2027.

Orban, who had pushed for an annual review of the fund so that he would have the opportunity to veto additional aid each year, had been the sole holdout on the package since it was introduced last December.. It is unclear what, if any, material concessions Orban received before agreeing to the new package. The Financial Times earlier this week reported that Brussels had itself drawn up a plan to “sabotage” Budapest’s economy if it vetoed the aid package.

“All 27 leaders agreed on an additional €50 billion support package for Ukraine within the EU budget. This locks in steadfast, long-term, predictable funding for #Ukraine,” Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, wrote on the social media platform X. “EU is taking leadership & responsibility in support for Ukraine; we know what is at stake.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed, saying it was “very important” that the funding plan had been agreed to unanimously.

“Continued EU financial support for Ukraine will strengthen long-term economic and financial stability, which is no less important than military assistance and sanctions pressure on Russia,” Zelensky wrote on X.

This development comes at a precarious time for Ukraine, as the stalling of aid from Europe and the United States had left it on the verge of an economic crisis. While the support from Brussels is welcome news, new aid from Washington remains tied up in Congress.

“The only way to preserve macroeconomic stability is support from the United States,” Ukraine’s finance minister, Serhiy Marchenko told the New York Times this week.

The fate of President Joe Biden’s national security supplemental request, which contains $60 billion for Kyiv remains unclear. Negotiations regarding the border security policy that is included in the bill have been ongoing for weeks. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday that the text of the bill is expected to be finalized by Sunday, and that the legislation will be brought to a vote no later than next Wednesday. Whether or not it makes its way through the Senate, the bill faces even longer odds in the Republican-led House.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Washington this week to try to convince notable skeptics of continuing aid to Ukraine. He met with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) and gave a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Stoltenberg struck a positive tone about his visit, saying that he was optimistic that Washington would pass another tranche of aid.

“I expect that the United States will find a way to support Ukraine, because this is in U.S. national security interests to ensure that President Putin doesn't win and that Ukraine prevails,” Stoltenberg told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday.

He also released a joint statement with Johnson saying that they had “addressed the importance of sending a clear, decisive message to President Putin that he will not win his war of aggression in Ukraine.”

But, as RS’s Connor Echols explained this week, the secretary general’s efforts are up against serious roadblocks. “[Stoltenberg’s arguments are] unlikely to satisfy concerns from budget hawks and restrainers, who fear the possibility of open-ended conflict with sky-high cost,” Echols wrote. “But, as Ukraine’s military capacity continues to degrade, only time will tell if Stoltenberg’s last-ditch effort proved persuasive.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— The U.S. and Germany are pushing back at an attempt from other NATO members — namely Poland and the Baltic countries — to formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance during an upcoming summit this July, according to Foreign Policy.

“[P]roponents of this view believe that bringing Ukraine into NATO sooner rather than later will be cheaper in the long run than the current Western strategy of funneling arms and munitions to Ukraine in perpetuity while keeping NATO membership on the back burner,” according to the report. “Letting Ukraine into NATO too soon, however, particularly as large swaths of its territory are still occupied by Russian forces, could trigger a full-scale NATO-Russia conflict, given the 31-member alliance’s bedrock collective defense clause that calls for all NATO countries to defend any one country that has been attacked.

— Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis said that there may be a window for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine at the end of 2024, as both sides continue to suffer from war fatigue. “I think toward the end of this year, probably after the U.S. elections, we’ve got a moment for potential negotiation,” Stravridis said, according to The Hill. He also laid out the broad parameters of what such a deal could look like, saying that the conflict will end “like the Korean War, meaning that Russia will probably still have control of some portion of Ukraine, Crimea, the land bridge to Russia.

“On the other hand, I see Ukraine coming into NATO,” he continued “I think the outline of that deal will probably become more clear as this year goes on.”

— Russia and Ukraine completed another round of prisoner exchanges on Wednesday. The exact figures were disputed, with the Russian defense ministry saying that each side had released 195 prisoners, while Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said that it had received 207 prisoners . This was the first prisoner exchange since a plane carrying a reported 65 Ukrainian POWs crashed while heading to a similar swap last week. Moscow accused Kyiv of shooting down the plane, calling it “a terrorist act.” Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

The Washington Post is confirming earlier reports that Zelensky is planning to fire top military commander Valery Zaluzhny at some point in the near future.

“Zaluzhny’s popularity — both within the military and among ordinary citizens — makes his removal a political gamble for Zelensky. It also poses strategic risks at a time when Russia has intensified its attacks and Western security assistance for Kyiv has slowed,” according to the Post report. “The general has built strong rapport with his Western counterparts and has often been able to advocate directly for certain materiel and seek counsel on battlefield strategy.” However, friction between the two men has continued to grow following last summer’s failed counteroffensive and ongoing disagreements over how many more soldiers Kyiv will need to mobilize this year.

U.S. State Department news:

In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller denied reports that Washington was working behind the scenes to delay Ukraine’s path to joining NATO.

“Those reports are incorrect,” Miller said. “You’ve heard the President himself as well as the Secretary say it a number of times, that Ukraine will be a member of NATO.”

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