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Rishi Sunak Says West Would Be Stronger With Ukraine In NATO But Faces Pressure To "Push Harder"

Rishi Sunak joined 31 NATO leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, in a conference which was dominated by the war in Ukraine (Alamy)

5 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the West would be stronger with "Ukraine as a NATO ally", despite no clear time scale for the war-torn country to be accepted into the international alliance.

Rishi Sunak joined 31 NATO leaders in Vilnius, Lithuania, in a conference which was dominated by the war in Ukraine. 

The Prime Minister said members had taken a "big step" towards admitting Ukraine into the alliance. He added each nation has "shortened their path to membership" and moved key barriers for its submission. 

"We are strong with [Sweden] by our side. And in time, we will be stronger with Ukraine as a NATO ally," Sunak told a press conference at the summit on Wednesday.

"The summit communiqué echoes the UK's long held position that Ukraine's futurre is in NATO. And we've taken a big step this week towards bringing Ukraine into the alliance."

Ukraine's individual appliction to join NATO has continued to divide Western allies. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy applied to join in September and has been urging members to accept their submission ever since. But US President Joe Biden has said Ukraine would have to wait to join the military alliance. “I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” he told CNN earlier this week. 

The Prime Minister claimed the UK has "led the way" in supporting Ukraine after supplying them with tanks and ammunition at the start of the conflict. He announced Britain would be providing more ammunition and a new rehabilition centre for Ukranian veterans. 

But a senior Conservative MP said Sunak should have “pushed harder” to fast-track Ukraine’s membership of NATO.

“I am disappointed NATO have not created a clear pathway for Ukraine. The problem is the US is allies with Germany and this is classic Biden again,” they told PoliticsHome. “We have got to do a lot more for Ukraine. They are running out of ammunition.”

They highlighted that Western allies have remained "pretty united" in its ambition to arm Ukraine, despite inflationary problems across Europe, and the impact on the cost of living.

But the Tory MP believed that Biden was “one of the worst presidents” to govern the US and accused him of being “anti-British”.

Earlier on Wednesday Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who also attended the summit, said Ukraine must show "gratitude" to its allies after spending tens of billions on military assistance. His comments were made after Ukraine's membership to NATO appears to have stalled. 

Sunak was expected to tell Western leaders to increase defence spending over the next few years. The Prime Minister has committed to increasing it by £5billion over the next five years.

UK Defence spending remains at only £200million more since 2010/11 after it was cut by successive governments, while the EU on average spends 1.53 per cent of GDP on defence compared to health spending, according to OECD statistics.

Rishi Sunak joined 31 NATO leaders in Lithuania which was dominated by the war in Ukraine(Alamy)The NATO target is for members to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence.

Robert Courts, MP for Witney, who sits on the Defence Select Committee, defended Sunak and said he got “the tone right” after “laying out his aspirations for Ukraine’s place in NATO and helping smooth the way for Sweden’s accession”.

“But his most important message is that the alliance’s member simply have to spend more on defence in the face of the return of great power conflict and rising world tensions,” he told PoliticsHome.

Sunak met with President Zelenskyy this morning and discussed “smoothing” membership for NATO but no date confirmed. Both world leaders had agreed to lift the MAP requirement to join the bloc. This means Ukraine will not need to meet a string of political and economic targets which Eastern European countries had to meet prior to joining. 

Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, claimed Biden was right to be "cautious about NATO membership despite the popularist view that Ukraine should join" - despite being "no fan" of the US President.

"When I was in Kyiv just days before the war, all the western defence attachés were saying that Ukraine’s immature civil administration, such as it’s judiciary, meant it wasn’t suitable for membership for many years," he added.

"Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Ukraine against Russia’s illegal invasion but NATO membership is not the answer and poses serious problems that need to be properly thought through."

This week Biden flew to London to meet Sunak, where the pair agreed to maintain their current support for Ukraine. But Biden and Sunak were reportedly divided over the US' decision to arm Ukraine with cluster bombs. The Government has reiterated its position that it has signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which outlaws the use of the equipment. 

Biden defended the "difficult decision" to arm Ukraine with cluster bombs. They are percieved as dangerous as they scatter in the air and have the potential to hit civilians, according to ICRC

Western allies also used this week's NATO summit to discuss further military support for Sweden's accession to the defence bloc. Prior to the war in Ukraine, Sweden was widely perceived as a non-aligned country after remaining neutral throughout the Cold War. However, after Russia started the first European war since 1945 Sweden appplied for membership of NATO. 

Their application, which was submitted in July, was accepted by all members including Turkey, who had previously spend months blocking their bid, after accusing them of hosting Kurdish militants, the BBC reported.

In today's press conference, Sunak said NATO would "very soon" be welcoming Sweden to the international military alliance. Finland also became NATO's newest member in April after the scandanavian country was accepted into the group. 

The prime minister said he welcomed Finland to "the table as a NATO member" after the country had also been a neutral power during the 20th century. 

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