Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will stress this week that there is an “open door to NATO” for Ukraine and Georgia, the two nations on the front lines of Russian aggression, Pentagon officials said over the weekend.
Mr. Austin will visit those two countries and Romania in the coming days before traveling to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. Pentagon officials cast the trip as a clear signal to Moscow that the U.S. and its NATO allies stand firmly behind Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty in the face of Russian provocations and military expansion over the past decade.
“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior defense official said.
Russian forces occupy pieces of Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow’s most high-profile and controversial move in the region came in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. The U.S. and many of its allies do not recognize that annexation and still consider Crimea to be a part of Ukraine.
Against that backdrop, defense officials said Mr. Austin will tell Ukrainian and Georgian leaders that there is an open door to NATO membership and that each country should take steps to qualify for membership.
Neither Georgia nor Ukraine is a member of the 30-nation alliance. Fully integrating either nation into NATO would spark fierce resistance from Russia, which has long opposed NATO expansion toward its borders.
Even if neither nation formally joins NATO in the near future, alliance leaders say more must be done to help them resist Russian aggression.
“We should provide more support, more training, more capacity-building, help them implement reforms, fight corruption, build their security and defense institutions,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a speech in Washington earlier this month.
“We need to establish there is a lot in between nothing and full membership.”