As NATO leaders meet in Lithuania’s capital to hammer out key agreements amid a grinding war in Ukraine, John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, met with VOA to discuss the main issues at the high-stakes summit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was withholding Sweden’s NATO bid for a long time until he pivoted yesterday, as we saw. What was the breakthrough moment?
Kirby: It’s a big decision. And we’re grateful to [Erdogan] because Sweden is a modern, capable military. They will lend to the alliance a terrific suite of military capabilities that are critical for NATO’s eastern flank. I’ll let those two leaders talk about how they got to where they got to. We have long believed that Sweden had met its commitments — commitments made on the margins of the Madrid summit last year, and we were also very glad to see that the conversation and the dialogue continued between both leaders.
VOA: Was your decision to provide F-16s to Turkey somehow related to the decision made by Ankara?
Kirby: The president has long supported F-16s for Turkey, as well as modernizing the F-16s that they already have. And that’s something that we have to work out with Congress, and we know that, and we’ve had those conversations.
VOA: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance agreed to remove the requirement for a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, for Ukraine to join NATO. I’ll quote him: ‘We will issue an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO when allies agree and conditions are met.’ Speaking of these conditions, are they any different from the Membership Action Plan that we have seen before?
Kirby: Ukraine is at a point now where the alliance doesn’t really feel like a MAP is required. Because we have been now working with Ukraine so closely, particularly over the last 16 months, we have such a strong sense of awareness about their military capabilities. So, MAP may not be the best process. But what the alliance will talk about with Ukraine in Vilnius is what the process, what the path needs to look like going forward. There’s still going to be reforms that Ukraine has to meet and make — political reforms, rule of law, democratic institutions — those reforms are still required to be a member of NATO. The other thing to remember is that they’re in the middle of a shooting war right now. And the president believes strongly that we’ve got to continue to focus on their needs on the battlefield.
VOA: Let me ask you straight: Is it an open door policy but just rephrased and restructured, or is it different?
Kirby: It’s still an open door policy. Every nation that aspires to become members of NATO — Finland and Sweden, who are now the 31st and 32nd members — they still had to apply. There’s still a process. And part of that process is having a healthy, vibrant democracy and healthy, viable, sustainable democratic institutions. And Ukraine still has some more work to do in that regard. We all understand that it’s difficult to work on political reforms when you’re in the middle of a war, which is why, again, the president wants to focus on getting them what they need on the battlefield and making a commitment to Ukraine after the war’s over and before NATO membership that they’ll continue to have support from the United States and for the allies for their own self-defense.
VOA: One of the requirements that Jens Stoltenberg outlined today was having armed forces which are interoperable with NATO. What is your assessment of the armed forces of Ukraine? Are they any closer to NATO standards?
Kirby: I think, without question, they’re getting closer to interoperability with NATO, because as the war has gone on, they have shed a lot of their Soviet systems. The way they operate on the battlefield has definitely Westernized as the last 16 months have transpired. They’ve got a lot of Western equipment. They have been trained by Western militaries, including the United States, even before this most recent invasion kicked off. So clearly, they are closer to a standard of interoperability now. Are they absolutely there yet? Again, I think that remains to be seen, and our focus right now is helping them succeed on the battlefield.
VOA: President Joe Biden has said inviting Ukraine to join NATO right now is an invitation to war, but Russia has no history of attacking NATO allies. Why not extend this invitation?
Kirby: What the president said was joining NATO now would be going to war with Russia. The allies in 2008, in the Bucharest declaration, made it clear that NATO is in Ukraine’s future. The president still believes that. He still believes in the open door policy. He just believes that right now, the focus has to be on helping Ukraine succeed on the battlefield, and in making sure that Ukraine has the appropriate security commitments from the United States and from our allies for when this war is over. Because they’re still going to have a long border with Russia, and we need to make sure that Mr. Putin doesn’t believe he can buy for time.
VOA: Is there a possibility for Ukraine to join NATO in the near future?
Kirby: I wouldn’t be able to put a timeline on that. They’re in a shooting war right now. Ukrainians are fighting and dying for their country, and we’ve got to focus on helping them succeed in that effort. Then we’ll set out a pathway for eventual membership that will allow Ukraine the time and space to work on some of these reforms, at the same time, enjoying security commitments and guarantees from the West so that as they continue to work on their reforms postwar, that they can still maintain a measure of safety and self-defense.
VOA: What kind of reforms are you looking into right now?
Kirby: These are reforms that President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and Ukraine were in some measure already working on — rooting out corruption and oligarchs, working on democratic institutions, strong judiciary, rule of law. All these are key tenets that any nation who aspires to be a member of NATO has got to ascribe to and make sure that they they rise to that level.
VOA: Let’s get back to Sweden. President Erdogan has to pass this bid through the parliament of Turkey, of course, and they have to support it. Can he bail?
Kirby: As every other NATO ally is going to have to do, there’s a ratification process here. But we’re comfortable and confident that Sweden will become the 32nd member of the NATO alliance.