A day before Nato’s milestone, the alliance will discuss how to ensure support for Kyiv for the duration of the war with Russia, regardless of who wins the US election

Bruno Waterfield, Maxim Tucker and George Grylls

April 3, 2024

The Times


Nato allies are debating a five-year, $100 billion plan to “Trump-proof” western support for Ukraine as fears grow about the consequences of the former US president winning re-election to the White House.  Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, has said that European allies need “to shield against the winds of political change” in Washington, given Donald Trump’s criticism of alliance members not paying their way.  Speaking on the opening day of the Nato foreign ministers’ summit in Brussels, Stoltenberg warned European allies that Ukraine was “running out of ammunition”.

The two-day summit, marking the organisation’s 75th anniversary, comes at a time when Ukraine is suffering military setbacks because Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress are blocking $60 billion worth of US aid for Kyiv.

Stoltenberg said the need for the new funding and arrangements followed “real consequences” for Ukraine if Republicans block the cash to pay for arms. “It’s a reflection of the seriousness on the battlefield,” he said. “The fact that there has been no agreement in the US Congress has consequences,” he added.

At present, military aid is channelled via the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, and Russia is likely to regard Nato’s taking over that role as an escalation. “The idea is to make Nato’s support for Ukraine more powerful, predictable and enduring,” an alliance diplomat said.

Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, the foreign secretary, urged Nato members to meet the target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Cameron, while supportive of giving Nato a more central role in managing aid for Ukraine, is pressing allies to focus on increasing defence spending, according to diplomats, “rather than second-guessing elections”.

Diplomatic sources said that the latest figures showed that 20 Nato allies would hit a target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, a key demand of the US — and Trump. Russia poured scorn on Nato, saying it had no place in the modern world. It accused western leaders of returning to a Cold War mindset while warning former Soviet countries not to join the alliance. “Washington and their allies are waging a hybrid war with our country with the help of Ukraine,” said Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian ministry of foreign affairs. She took aim at Armenia, a former Russian ally with which relations have soured, saying that a move towards Nato membership would be a “fatal mistake”.

With ammunition shortages caused by the US political deadlock weakening Ukraine’s defences against Russia, Stoltenberg’s “shield” is a sign of how worried Nato is about Trump undermining the alliance, even as it commemorates its founding in 1949. “Nato institutionalising goes some way to protecting in case of Trump. But it is impossible to create something Trump-proof,” said one diplomat. “A fund of $100 billion looks very optimistic, knowing how difficult it was to agree on a smaller amount at EU level.”

Diplomats said overcoming objections to the agreement, which requires all 32 members to sign up, would be a “long haul” before a Nato summit in Washington in July.  The term “mission” — implying forces on the ground in Ukraine, or Nato becoming a party to the conflict — will worry some member countries. Others, such as Hungary, will be concerned about creating new obligations to fund or arm Ukraine.

Cash will be spent mainly on “future forces”, focusing on training the Ukrainian military with a view to the country eventually joining Nato. Arms shipments, while co-ordinated by the alliance, will largely remain decisions between national governments and Ukraine.

The current “Ramstein” or Ukraine Defence Contact Group is made up of 56 countries, including non-members such as Ireland and South Korea, and all 32 members of Nato. It is organised by 80 to 90 US military staff. In future, the Ukraine group will come directly under Nato’s supreme allied commander, although it will still be headed by a US general. The fund would be operated under Nato’s shared budget, meaning that Washington would not contribute disproportionately — based on an existing weighting system calculated on national wealth, the cost burden for the US and Germany would be $16 billion each, and €11 billion for the UK.

Ukraine is pressing for more air defence and Patriot missile systems to fend off Russia as it steps up aerial bombardment of the country’s power grid and other infrastructure. Last month Russian forces launched more than 4,000 strikes, President Zelensky said on Wednesday. “Seven Patriot systems would be optimal, but let me be modest,” said Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukraine foreign minister, who is in Brussels. “With five Patriot batteries we can defend the most important industrial cities against Russian missiles.” He added: “Partners did provide us with their different [air-defence] systems and we appreciate that, but it’s just simply insufficient, given the scale of the war. The solution is there. It’s just an issue of political will. So someone has to make the decision.”

The US played down concerns from Poland and the Baltic states that Putin is planning a future attack on Nato territory. “Right now we see Russia all in and engaged with this unprovoked war of aggression inside Ukraine, but we do not have indicators and warnings right now that a Russian war is imminent on Nato territory, and I really want to be clear about that,” said Julianne Smith, the US ambassador to Nato.

Discussions are also continuing about who replaces Stoltenberg, who has already extended his term, when he steps down as Nato secretary-general this spring. Cameron will back Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who has the support of 28 member countries.

One figure’s presence was felt acutely in Brussels yesterday despite not being in attendance: Donald Trump.

The former US president, leading in several polls for November’s election, has long held the view that European powers do not contribute enough to the alliance’s war chest. If he is elected, Europe will have to step up not just to keep Ukraine afloat in their fight against Russia, but to guarantee their own defence. So which nations are rising to the challenge?  In the UK, the government’s one-off defence budget rise of £11 billion over five years is almost entirely ring-fenced for the Trident nuclear deterrent.

After Russia’s invasion two years ago, Germany announced a €100 billion rearmament fund but has only decided how to spend €30 billion of it. It will meet Nato’s 2 per cent pledge this year, but the defence minister has speculated that a target of 3.5 per cent might be needed. The south of Europe is even further behind. Italian defence spending is falling as a proportion of GDP and Spain is stuck at a lowly 1.3 per cent.

France is faring better. It was not expected to hit Nato’s 2 per cent target until next year, but says it has achieved this already. President Macron has set out plans to boost French defence spending by a third in the second half of the decade.  One nation, galvanised by the threat to the east, is leading the pack: Poland. It is rapidly building one of the most impressive armed forces in Europe, hitting defence spending of 4 per cent of GDP.

Meanwhile Putin, emboldened by waning western support for Ukraine, has increased Russian defence spending to a record 6 per cent of GDP this year.