BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) - NATO doubled down Tuesday on its commitment to one day include Ukraine, a pledge that some officials and analysts believe helped prompt Russia's invasion this year. The world's largest security alliance also pledged to send more aid to Ukrainian forces locked in battle with Russian troops.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with NATO foreign ministers in Romania to drum up support for Ukraine as Russia bombards energy infrastructure going into the frigid winter. Russia cannot stop the alliance's expansion, NATO leaders said.
“NATO's door is open,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said before chairing the meeting in the capital, Bucharest.
He highlighted that North Macedonia and Montenegro had recently joined NATO, and said Russian President Vladimir Putin “will get Finland and Sweden as NATO members” soon. The Nordic neighbors applied for membership in April, concerned that Russia might target them next.
“Russia does not have a veto” on countries joining, Stoltenberg said. “We stand by that, too, on membership for Ukraine.”
When they met in Bucharest in 2008, NATO leaders said Ukraine and Georgia would join the alliance one day.
Some officials and analysts believe that declaration - pressed on the NATO allies by former U.S. President George W. Bush - was partly responsible for the war that Russia launched on Ukraine in February. In justifying his invasion on Feb. 24, Putin cited threats to Russia's security from Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO.
Stoltenberg said NATO expansion would not be hindered.
“President Putin cannot deny sovereign nations to make their own sovereign decisions that are not a threat to Russia,” the former Norwegian prime minister said. “I think what he's afraid of is democracy and freedom, and that's the main challenge for him.”
Ukraine applied for “accelerated accession” to NATO on Sept. 30 but will not join anytime soon.. With the Crimean Peninsula annexed, and Russian troops and pro-Moscow separatists holding parts of the south and east, it's not clear what Ukraine's borders would even look like.
Many of NATO's 30 members believe the focus now must solely be on defeating Russia, and Stoltenberg stressed that any attempt to move ahead on membership could divide them.
“We are in the midst of a war and therefore we should do nothing that can undermine the unity of allies to provide military, humanitarian, financial support to Ukraine, because we must prevent President Putin from winning,” he said.
Beyond Ukraine's immediate needs, NATO wants to see how it can help the country longer-term, by upgrading its Soviet-era equipment to the alliance's modern standards and providing more military training.
Slovak Foreign Minister Rastislav Kacer said the allies must help Ukraine so “the transition to full membership will be very smooth and easy” once both NATO and Kyiv are ready for accession talks.
In a statement, the ministers vowed to help Ukraine rebuild once the war is over, saying: “we will continue to strengthen our partnership with Ukraine as it advances its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
Ukraine, for its part, called for more supplies of weapons to defend itself with, and quickly.
“Faster, faster and faster,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “We appreciate what has been done, but the war goes on.”
“In a nutshell,” he said, “Patriots and transformers is what Ukraine needs the most.” Stoltenberg confirmed that deliveries of such sophisticated missile systems are under consideration.
The U.S. is open to providing Patriots, said a senior U.S. defense official who briefed Pentagon reporters on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. While Ukraine has asked for the system for months, the U.S. and it allies have been hesitant to provide it to avoid further provoking Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday that his country's offer to send Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Poland remains on the table, despite Warsaw's suggestion that they should go to Ukraine instead.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said Tuesday on his Telegram channel: “If, as Stoltenberg hinted, NATO supplies the Kyiv fanatics with Patriot complexes along with NATO personnel, they will immediately become a legitimate target of our armed forces. I hope the Atlantic impotents understand this.”
At the Romania meeting, ministers made pledges of military support for Ukraine, others for financial and nonlethal aid.
Slovakia said it was providing 30 armored personnel carriers and more artillery.
The U.S. announced $53 million to buy electrical parts for Ukraine's electrical grid. The network has been battered countrywide since early October by targeted Russian strikes, in what U.S. officials call a Russian campaign to weaponize the coming winter cold.
Estonia's foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu, went a step further than most, calling on his NATO partners to pledge 1% of their GDP to Ukraine in military support, saying it would make “a strategic difference.”
Most NATO allies, however, are struggling to spend 2% of GDP on their own defense budgets.
The foreign ministers of NATO candidates Finland and Sweden are joining the talks. NATO is eager to add the two Nordic nations to the defensive forces lined up against Russia. Turkey and Hungary are the holdouts on ratifying their applications. The 28 other member nations have already done so.
Tara Copp in Washington and Andrew Katell in New York contributed to this report.