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The war in Ukraine — now in its third summer — tops NATO's agenda


This week, leaders at the NATO Alliance meet in Washington. President Biden welcomes the group for a big anniversary, the 75th, and much of their focus will be on the war in Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, is not part of NATO, but the Alliance, which has been supporting it, is expected to announce a new NATO office in Kyiv. I asked the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, what's the objective?

JULIANNE SMITH: To help Ukraine modernize its forces, build out a future force, work on things like interoperability with the NATO alliance, and continue to transform its military to be able to work most closely with NATO allies.

INSKEEP: Is that a step toward making Ukraine part of NATO without quite actually doing so?

SMITH: Well, the term that we've been using here across the NATO Alliance is, in essence, we are building a bridge for Ukraine to membership to move them closer down that path to NATO membership.

INSKEEP: Are you taking other steps that essentially lock in NATO help for Ukraine regardless of any one country's election result?

SMITH: We are taking a number of steps. We will be issuing what will be referred to as some sort of financial pledge where the alliance will commit over the next year to maintain current levels of support to Ukraine and then review annually how it can continue providing that type of assistance.

INSKEEP: In your mind, does that make NATO aid to Ukraine permanent even if there is a change in administration or a change in Congress in the United States?

SMITH: I think the best word for it is enduring, and it - we will work to sustain the commitments. Of course we want the war to end as soon as possible. And Putin started this war. He could end it tomorrow if he so desired, so it's hard to predict how long this will go on. But again, allies want to make sure a simple message comes across, particularly to President Putin, that we are not distracted, we are not growing impatient and that we are ready to stay the course for as long as it takes.

INSKEEP: How do you think about the level of bipartisan support you have from the United States? And here's why I ask it this way. You're obviously working for the president. The Biden administration is all in. You have a Republican presidential candidate who said he can end the war, though it's not clear how he would do that. You also have Republicans in Congress who, after much debate, enough of them finally approve Ukraine aid. Do you consider yourself as having bipartisan support?

SMITH: I do. Most Americans - they understand that - based on history, actually - that if you do not stop someone like President Putin, you do not stop an autocrat or authoritarian leader like Putin, they keep going.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, as I'm sure you know very well, President Biden's condition has become a subject of much discussion ever since a debate the other day, and it's now seen as hanging over this summit. It's happening at a time when he's trying to demonstrate to the public in the world that he's still up to the job. I want people to know that you served under Joe Biden when he was vice president years ago. You were his deputy national security adviser, if I'm not mistaken.

SMITH: Yeah.


SMITH: That's correct.

INSKEEP: ...Different is President Biden today than he was 10 years ago, say, or even five?

SMITH: Well, I was just talking to a colleague about this. I often joke that when you go in to brief Joe Biden, whether he's vice president or the president, he often ends up briefing you. And it's hard. He asks very sharp questions. He challenges you, your core assumptions. That's what he did when I worked for him in the vice president's office. I saw him just a couple of weeks ago in Washington, and that's what he was doing again, this time in the Oval Office, peppering me with hard questions about the NATO summit. And he wanted to get it right.

I think he's looking forward to the summit. He insisted that the United States host the 75th anniversary Summit, and he's really looking forward to not only celebrating 75 years of this alliance but looking forward in terms of all that the alliance will achieve for many, many years to come.

INSKEEP: I can see a difference between some years ago. Do you?

SMITH: Of course. He has aged. And there's no question that he is older than he was when I first worked for him in the vice president's office. But in terms of engaging him and the types of questions you get and his focus, I haven't seen a change.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Julianne Smith, thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.