NATO Nations See Differing Paths as Ukraine War Enters Uncertain Stage

BRUSSELS — Faced with the prospect that the war in Ukraine will be long and grinding, NATO countries are divided on how best to manage the next stage of the conflict and the uncertain period that promises to follow.

Central European members like Poland and the Baltic states want a total break with Moscow and an effort to bring Russia to its knees, two senior Western officials said. They worry that anything that Russia can present as a victory will do serious damage to European security.

But other nations believe that Russia cannot be easily subdued and that the war’s outcome is likely to be messy — more exhausting cease-fire than resounding victory. Countries like France, Germany and Turkey want to keep contacts with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, regardless of the allegations of war crimes committed by his troops, the officials said.

NATO foreign ministers, meeting this week to discuss how to help Ukraine prosecute the war, do agree on one major point: The war is far from over and — as badly as Russia’s forces have performed and despite their retreat from areas around Kyiv, the capital — they are making slow and brutal progress in Ukraine’s east.

“Moscow is not giving up its ambitions in Ukraine,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said this week. “We now see a significant movement of troops away from Kyiv, to regroup, rearm and resupply. And they shift their focus to the east.”

That will take several weeks, officials believe, as Russian troops move back into Belarus to be resupplied and reorganized, and then must make their way with their equipment through Russia toward eastern Ukraine.

“In the coming weeks, we expect a further Russian push in the eastern and southern Ukraine to try to take the entire Donbas and to create a land bridge to occupied Crimea,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “This is a crucial phase of the war.”

In response to the scenes of corpses in Bucha, the United States and the European Union are preparing more sanctions against Russia, but without much expectation that they will hasten the end of the war.

But at the NATO meetings, the talk will be of weapons and matériel, not sanctions.

There is a general agreement that Russia is no longer a strategic partner of the alliance, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is no longer bound by the troop limits of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, and that its military posture must be sharply enhanced to deter a confrontational Russia, so long as Mr. Putin and his allies retain power there.

There is also a commitment to continue aiding Ukraine — some two-thirds of NATO members have already provided lethal weaponry, including the Czechs’ contribution of Soviet-era tanks and armored personnel carriers.

But some stocks are running low in the West — U.S.-made Javelin antitank missiles, for example. And Ukraine is also going to need different weapons for the next phase of the war in the east, officials suggest, including longer-range artillery and more sophisticated armed drones, if they hope to push the Russians back, let alone drive them out of Ukraine.

The amount of matériel arriving in Ukraine remains a secret, but officials say that the overall flow is very large and has made an enormous difference to the war. But what sort of weapons are most useful, and how to think through the possible conclusion to the war, is preoccupying alliance leaders.

“On a number of fronts, we obviously have some changing battlefield dynamics,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who is in Brussels for the NATO meetings, told reporters this week.

Mr. Blinken said the NATO meetings would focus on new ways to support Ukraine and to “put pressure on Russia,” and on Mr. Putin. More evidence of atrocities is likely to emerge, he said on Wednesday, as Russia pulls out of territories it controlled, “like a receding tide.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Blinken announced a further $100 million worth of weapons and equipment from American stockpiles. Total U.S. military aid to Ukraine is worth some $2.4 billion since President Biden took office and more than $1.7 billion since the war began on Feb. 24, he said.

How the war might finally end is an important issue not just for Ukraine but for the entire alliance.

U.S. officials are skeptical that Russia is prepared to make real concessions in ongoing peace talks with Ukraine, although they do not rule out the possibility and want to ensure Kyiv’s leverage in the negotiations.

That is a key discussion. While Ukraine will decide for itself how and when to try to end the war and what it will negotiate with Moscow, President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government are in regular discussion with NATO country leaders, including the Americans.

“We believe that our job is to support the Ukrainians,” Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, said this week. “We are not going to define the outcome of this for the Ukrainians.”

Some countries, especially in Central Europe and including Britain, are anxious that any sort of Russian expansion into Ukrainian territory, let alone a Russian victory, would embolden Mr. Putin, undermining overall European security and values such as the adherence to international law, respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. They want Russia to be seen as the loser.

Even if the war ends with a new line of contact between Russian and Ukrainian forces, NATO aims to work with Kyiv to make Ukraine indigestible to Russia, as another senior Western official said. The point is to arm and train the Ukrainians so well that Mr. Putin would not wish to try again.

The foreign ministers will also begin a deeper discussion of NATO’s new strategic concept, the first since 2010, now in early draft. It is much tougher on Russia, and foresees a longer period of confrontation and expensive deterrence.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting.

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