Fight over NATO membership for Ukraine overshadows Biden’s diplomatic triumph

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Biden and NATO continue support of Ukraine, even with no plans on immediate membership

Biden ended the NATO summit by highlighting the Western alliance’s newfound unity in the face of Russian aggression. But the bloc is split over Ukraine’s membership.

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President Biden celebrated Finland’s addition to NATO — and Sweden’s impending membership — on Wednesday, but fierce arguments over when and how Ukraine should join the Western alliance overshadowed a moment the administration has hailed as a diplomatic triumph.

Capping a high-stakes summit in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius, Biden said he remained “optimistic” about NATO’s future, declaring that it was stronger and more united than ever in its history.

“We will not waver,” Biden said to a crowd of thousands in a courtyard at Vilnius University. “Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken. We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow and for as long as it takes.”


The question of Ukraine’s membership has split the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

France, Lithuania and Poland have argued that the alliance should detail exactly how and when Kyiv might join. But the U.S. and Germany have warned that a fast-tracked bid would put NATO in a direct — and possibly nuclear — confrontation with Moscow.

Turkey dropped its objection to Sweden’s bid for membership just as NATO’s annual summit kicked off on Monday, putting the bloc’s focus squarely on the Ukraine dispute.

The alliance released a heavily qualified diplomatic statement on Tuesday that declared “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” but failed to lay out a real plan for when that might occur. NATO leaders said the bloc would “be in a position to extend an invitation” once all allies agreed and Ukraine met certain unspecified conditions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bashed the proposed language as “absurd” when it was leaked ahead of its official release Tuesday, but softened his tone Wednesday. He expressed gratitude for the substantial package of aid that was announced at the summit.

During a meeting with Biden, the Ukrainian leader said unity among NATO members and security guarantees amounted to “success.”


Biden conceded Zelensky must feel “the frustration, I know,” but assured him the U.S. would be a long-term partner for Ukraine.

“I know, you’re many times frustrated about what things get to you quickly enough, and what’s getting to you and how we’re getting there,” Biden told Zelensky. “But I promise you: The United States is doing everything we can to get you what you need as rapidly as we can get it to you.”

The alliance’s communique about Ukraine is “a modest step forward but it could have been better,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of State for Europe. “The Biden administration could have gone further and been a little more forward leaning, but they ended up on the right side of an important line, which is whether Ukraine ultimately is part of the European and transatlantic family or whether it belongs to the Kremlin.”

The alliance established a new NATO-Ukraine Council to include Kyiv on security discussions and simplified Ukraine’s process to join by removing the “membership action plan,” which would have required a multiyear reform effort to meet NATO standards.

Ukraine is “now closer to NATO than ever before” after NATO leaders lifted the “membership action plan” requirement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday.

“If you look at other membership processes, there have not been timelines,” Stoltenberg said in defense of the alliance’s ambiguous language on Kyiv’s membership. “They are condition based — has always been.”


The annual NATO summit could get testy over admitting Sweden to the alliance amid Turkey’s objections.

July 9, 2023

Biden and Group of Seven leaders also unveiled a joint declaration on Wednesday to provide Kyiv with long-term security commitments to modernize its military capabilities and support training for Ukrainian forces to fend off future Russian attacks.

The declaration will launch negotiations between Kyiv and individual countries on future investment and send a message to Russia “that time is not on its side,” according to Amanda Sloat, the senior director for Europe at the National Security Council.

Earlier on Wednesday, Zelensky tweeted that although he was grateful for the security guarantees, “the absolute majority of our people expect specifics” about the conditions it must meet in order to receive an invitation.

NATO previously promised Ukraine and Georgia membership at a 2008 summit in Bucharest, but 15 years later has still failed to fulfill its pledge. That history has played a role in the bloc’s cautious approach in Vilnius, Mary Elise Sarotte, a historian and author of “Not One Inch,” a book detailing the history of NATO in the lead-up to and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said.

“There’s been a lot of damage and consequences of over-promising and under-delivering,” Sarotte said, pointing to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014. “And now we’re in wartime, not peacetime, so the cost would be even higher.”

Any quick entry would likely bring NATO to war with Russia — a scenario Biden and his foreign counterparts have been trying to avoid.


“As soon as Ukraine has fixed borders, they should be in NATO. But right now, it would fracture alliance unity, it would help divide Ukraine — which is what Russia wants — and it would undermine Article 5,” Sarotte said, referring to the NATO clause that requires collective defense of all its members.

The alliance’s internal tensions spilled into public view on Wednesday when national security advisor Jake Sullivan defended the decision to delay Ukraine’s membership in a tense exchange with Ukrainian activist Daria Kaleniuk, who accused Biden of being “afraid of Russia.”

“The American people do deserve a degree of gratitude ... for their willingness to step up,” Sullivan said.

Biden, too, has been blunt that he does not think Ukraine is ready for membership. Before leaving Vilnius, he told reporters that Zelensky understood that “whether or not he’s in NATO now is not relevant” because of the commitments made by the alliance.

The president said he had been briefed on Ukraine’s counteroffensive and would consider sending Ukraine long-range missiles.

“We accomplished every goal we set out to accomplish,” Biden said of the gathering.

The White House has touted Biden’s ability to hold the alliance together in the face of Russian aggression as a foreign policy accomplishment and a crucial argument in his bid for a second term in 2024. The president will host NATO’s 75th anniversary summit next July, four months before the election.


Since Moscow’s invasion, Washington has directed more than $75 billion in humanitarian, financial, and military support for Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. The president has also rallied other nations to provide security assistance and weaponry in Ukraine’s war effort.

As the war drags on, and with Kyiv’s month-old counteroffensive off to a slow start, Biden and NATO leaders will have to convince their respective countries that the billions’ worth of aid has not been wasted.

A last-minute decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to greenlight Sweden’s entrance into the alliance, after stalling it for more than a year, gave Biden and Western allies a tailwind before the summit kicked off.

The breakthrough came hours before Biden arrived in Vilnius, and after a pressure campaign that included a White House visit by Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson last week and a phone call to Erdogan while Biden traveled aboard Air Force One to Europe.

“I want to thank you for your diplomacy and your courage to take that on,” Biden told Erdogan in a face-to-face sitdown Tuesday.

Part of that effort also entailed working to strike an agreement to sell Ankara the F-16 fighter jets that it has long sought. That deal had been held up by Congress over concerns about Turkey’s increasingly anti-democratic policies, antagonism toward Greece and other neighbors and Erdogan’s delay of Sweden’s bid.


U.S. officials insist the F-16 sale is unrelated to the diplomatic push on Sweden’s membership, but Biden suggested in the CNN interview that an agreement could be imminent. Sullivan announced Tuesday that Washington would move ahead with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets, in consultation with Congress, but lawmakers have yet to approve the deal.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday he was working with the Biden administration on his concerns about the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, and he expected to have a decision within the next week.

Biden will end his five-day trip to Europe on Thursday with a stop in Helsinki, where he’ll take another victory lap to extol alliance unity with Finland’s addition as the 31st member of the military bloc in April.

“The defense of freedom is not the work of a day or a year. It’s the calling of our lifetime — of all time,” Biden said in his Vilnius speech. “Our unity will not falter, I promise you.”