President Biden wrapped up a meeting of NATO allies Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania, with an address to that country and to the world, comparing the battle to drive Russia out of Ukraine to the Cold War fight for freedom in Europe, and vowing “not to falter” no matter how long the war continues.
His speech seemed to be preparing the Americans and NATO countries for a confrontation that could last for years, placing it in the context of momentous conflicts in Europe’s war-torn past. And he presented it as a test of will with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has shown no interest in giving up an invasion that has not gone according to plan, instead locking him in a war of attrition.
“Putin still mistakenly believes that he can survive Ukraine,” Biden said, describing the Russian leader as a man who made a huge strategic mistake by invading a neighboring country and is now doubling down. “After all this time, Putin still doubts our staying power. He is making a bad bet”.
The speech, at Vilnius University, came after a series of major victories for Biden as NATO’s de facto leader, at a time of rapid change for the alliance.
His success in cajoling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey into withdrawing his objections to Sweden’s admission as NATO’s 32nd member makes it possible to turn the Baltic Sea into a region bounded almost entirely by the alliance (although Mr. Erdogan suggested that Turkey’s Parliament might not take up the issue again until October). NATO nations have pledged to increase military spending that the United States has long complained of as inadequate.
At the same time, Biden succeeded in quashing an effort by Ukraine, supported by Poland and several of the Baltic nations, to give a timetable for Ukraine to formally enter the alliance. Under NATO’s policy requiring collective defense, the president has said admitting Ukraine to the ongoing war would put the United States in direct conflict with Russia. NATO declared on Tuesday that Ukraine would be invited to join one day, but not exactly when or under what conditions.
That prompted an outburst of anger from Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, which the allies tempered with promises of more aid and the inaugural meeting on Wednesday of a new “NATO-Ukraine Council.”
Zelensky, who had to make the best of what he could get, called the move a victory on Wednesday and sat down for the first time as an official partner, if not a member, of NATO. He is essentially a non-voting member, something Zelensky is selling at home as a halfway step toward full status.
Although NATO has not given a timetable for Ukraine to join, Zelensky, in a statement, showed no such hesitation. “I think we will be in NATO as soon as the security situation stabilizes,” he said. “In simple terms, the moment the war is over.”
NATO nations also pledged to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid to Ukraine, just days after Biden made the reluctant decision to hand over the cluster munitions Ukraine is seeking. The weapons are banned by treaty by more than 100 nations, but not by Russia, Ukraine or the United States, and have been used by both sides in the war.
“One thing that Zelensky understands, whether or not he is in NATO now, is not relevant” because of the commitments made by the alliance, Biden told reporters as he was about to leave for Finland, the newest member of NATO. NATO.
Biden’s speech, on a bright summer evening amid Vilnius’ restored “Old Town” of cobbled streets, was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of some 10,000 waving Lithuanian, American and Ukrainian flags. It had strong echoes from similar speeches Biden has given in Warsaw and across Europe, praising the power of alliances, a stark if unspoken contrast to President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to dismantle NATO, which the former president repeatedly called “obsolete”. .”
As in his other speeches rallying allies, Biden celebrated the new sense of unity and purpose that the invasion of Ukraine has given NATO as it expands and faces a reality that seemed unlikely just two years ago: a ground war in Europe, mixed trench warfare and drone warfare.
But it was Biden’s explicit references to taking on the Soviet Union that set this speech apart from previous ones, even though the administration has, thus far, rejected most Cold War comparisons.
“The United States never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltics,” Biden told the cheering crowd. And he made it clear that he, in turn, would never recognize Putin’s territorial annexation.
Mr. Biden knew that such comparisons would have particular resonance in this elegant Baltic capital: Lithuania had been part of the Russian Empire since 1795, and after two decades of independence, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 and recaptured by the Soviets in 1944. It regained independence in the early 1990s and became a NATO member in 2004.
During the NATO meeting here, pro-Ukrainian messages flashed on city buses, Vilnius residents hung banners with epithets about Putin in their windows and huge crowds gathered to welcome Zelensky when he arrived. A packed crowd gathered to hear Biden speak, including children who leaned out of windows to see him.
Mr. Biden framed the Russian invasion of Ukraine as part of a global challenge facing democratic societies. He said the world was at a “tipping point” where it must choose between democracy and autocracy. The message stems from his 2020 campaign, but has been further relied on to persuade Americans that they should worry about a war thousands of miles from home.
He stressed the need to protect the Indo-Pacific, a region crucial to America’s growing competition with China, in a nod to Asian allies who have helped Ukraine and isolated Russia. And Biden said the world would need to address “the accelerating threat of climate change,” another key focus of the NATO summit.
But there was also a feeling at the meeting that NATO is entering a protracted fight with Russia. The statement issued on Tuesday outlined Russian advances in nuclear weapons, space vehicles, cyber warfare and disinformation, and committed members to new spending and new partnerships to counter them in all those areas.
Not once in their public comments did NATO leaders discuss talks with Russia for a Korean-style ceasefire or armistice, a silent acknowledgment that Ukraine insists on taking back much more of its territory before negotiating, and that Mr Putin has indicated that he is not prepared to do so. pull back.
In a press conference at the end of the NATO sessions, Zelensky reiterated his commitment to never cede an inch of land to Russia and said openly that there is no room for territorial compromises. “We will never give away our territories and we will never trade them because of any frozen conflict,” he told reporters.
Zelensky told reporters that talks were underway about whether the United States would send a missile called ATACMS, pronounced “attack ’ems,” with a range of 190 miles, much farther than other US-supplied weapons. So far, Biden has refused to deliver the missiles to Ukraine out of concern that he could goad Putin into escalation.
Such arguments have been a recurring theme of the war, with Biden at first refusing certain weapons out of fear of how the Kremlin, whose officials have repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons, might respond, eventually agreeing to send them: HIMARS rocket artillery, Patriot air defense systems, tanks and more.
Mr. Zelensky said that just as he had “started a conversation about cluster munitions many months ago”, he has been discussing ATACMS with Mr. Biden’s aides. “I am very grateful to President Biden for the results that we have received,” he said, clearly aware of criticism that his public thanks to the administration have been insufficient.
“So just wait,” he said, “not all at once.”
Zelensky appeared to go out of his way to praise the Biden administration, a day after calling it “absurd and unprecedented” not to give a timetable for NATO membership. The Ukrainian president throughout the war has often pressed the West for more weapons, funding and assistance from the alliance in an effort to sustain the fight against the Russians.
But on Wednesday, he effusively thanked the United States for its endorsement, telling a meeting with Biden: “You spend this money on our lives.”
The decision not to invite Ukraine to join NATO raised some concern that it could prolong the war, because Putin knows that Kiev could quickly join the alliance once the fighting is over.
“It is a Catch-22 for the alliance, and that is why this could have been, and the next summit may be, the opportunity to make it clear that Ukraine is invited,” William B. Taylor Jr., former US ambassador USA in Ukraine. under the Bush and Obama administrations, he said in an interview.
During a testy exchange at the NATO public forum on Wednesday, Daria Kaleniuk, director of the Center for Anti-Corruption Action in Ukraine, asked Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, what he should tell his 2-year-old son, who already experienced airstrikes in Ukraine: “That President Biden and NATO didn’t invite Ukraine into NATO because they are afraid of Russia?”
Mr. Sullivan defended the administration, saying the US had “stepped up to provide a tremendous amount of capability to help make sure Ukraine’s brave soldiers have the ammunition.”
He added: “The president simply said that he is not prepared to have Ukraine in NATO now because it would mean that the United States and NATO would be at war with Russia now.”