President Biden closed a meeting of NATO allies Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania, with an address to that country, and the world, comparing the fight to expel Russia from Ukraine to the Cold War struggle for freedom in Europe, and promising “we will not. falter” however long the war lasts.
His speech seemed to prepare Americans and NATO countries for a confrontation that could last years, placing it in the context of major conflicts in Europe’s war-torn past. And he pitched it as a test of wills with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who showed no interest in giving up on an invasion that didn’t go according to plan, but locked him in a war of attrition.
“Putin still mistakenly believes he can survive Ukraine,” Mr Biden said, describing the Russian leader as a man who made a huge strategic mistake in invading a neighboring country and is now doubling down. “After all this time Putin still doubts our residual power. He’s making a bad bet.”
The speech, at the University of Vilnius, took place after a series of important victories for Mr. Biden as the de facto leader of NATO, at a time of rapid change for the alliance.
His success in hounding Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to drop 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 has suggested that parliament of Turkey may not address the issue until October). NATO nations committed to boosting military spending, which the U.S. has long complained was inadequate.
At the same time, Mr. Biden succeeded in canceling an effort by Ukraine, with the support of Poland and several of the Baltic nations, to provide a timetable for Ukraine to formally enter the alliance. Under NATO’s policy of collective defense, the president said recognizing Ukraine with the ongoing war would put the United States in direct conflict with Russia. NATO said on Tuesday that Ukraine will be invited to join at some point, but not when or under what conditions.
This led to an angry outburst from Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, who the allies smoothed over with promises of more aid and the inaugural meeting on Wednesday of a new “NATO-Ukraine Council”.
Mr Zelensky, faced with making the best of what he could get, called the move a victory on Wednesday, and sat for the first time as an official partner – if not a member – of NATO. It is essentially a non-voting member, something Mr Zelensky is selling at home as a half-way step to full status.
Although NATO has not given a timetable for Ukraine to join, Mr. Zelensky, in a statement, showed no such hesitation. “I believe we will be in NATO as soon as the security situation is stabilized,” he said. “In simple terms, the moment the war ends.”
NATO nations have also committed to funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid to Ukraine, just days after Mr Biden made a reluctant decision to grant cluster munitions sought by Ukraine. The weapons are banned by treaty by more than 100 nations, but not by Russia, Ukraine or the United States, and both sides in the war have used them.
“One thing that Zelensky understands is whether or not he’s in NATO now, it doesn’t matter” because of the commitments made by the alliance, Mr. Biden told reporters as he was about to leave for Finland, NATO’s newest member.
Mr. Biden’s speech, on a bright summer evening in the middle of the restored “Old Town” of cobblestone streets of Vilnius, was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of about 10,000 people waving Lithuanian, American and Ukrainian flags. It had strong echoes of similar speeches Mr. Biden has given in Warsaw and around Europe, extolling the power of alliances — a clear, if unspoken, contrast to President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to dismantle NATO, which the former president has repeatedly called “outdated”. .”
As in his other speeches rallying the allies, Mr. Biden celebrated the new sense of unity and purpose the Ukraine invasion has given NATO as it expands and faces a reality that seemed unlikely just two years ago: a ground war in Europe, mixing a trench warfare and drone warfare.
But it was Mr. Biden’s explicit references to confronting the Soviet Union that set this speech apart from past ones — though the administration has so far rejected most Cold War comparisons.
“The United States never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltics,” Mr. Biden told the cheering crowd. And he explained that it, in turn, will never recognize Mr. Putin’s territorial annexation.
Mr. Biden knew those comparisons would have particular resonance in this graceful Baltic capital: Lithuania had been part of the Russian empire since 1795, and after two decades of independence, it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, captured by Nazi Germany in 1941 and recaptured. from the Soviets in 1944. It regained independence in the early 1990s, and became a NATO member in 2004.
During the NATO meeting here, Ukrainian messages were flashed on city buses, Vilnius residents put posters with epithets about Mr. Putin in their windows, and a huge crowd gathered to welcome Mr. Zelensky when he arrived. A packed crowd gathered to hear Mr. Biden speak, including children leaning out of windows to watch him.
Mr Biden framed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a global challenge facing democratic societies. He said the world was at a “tipping point” where it had to choose between democracy and autocracy. The message has origins in his 2020 campaign, but he has bent it even further to persuade Americans to worry about a war thousands of miles from home.
He emphasized the need to protect the Indo-Pacific, a region crucial to America’s growing competition with China, in a nod to Asian allies who helped aid Ukraine and isolate Russia. And Mr Biden said the world would have to deal with “the accelerating threat of climate change”, another key focus of the NATO summit.
But there was also a sense at the meeting that NATO was entering a protracted struggle with Russia. The communique issued on Tuesday described Russian advances in nuclear weapons, space vehicles, cyber warfare and disinformation, and committed members to new spending and new partnerships to counter it in all those areas.
Not once in their public comments did NATO leaders discuss negotiations with Russia for a ceasefire or a Korean-style truce – a tacit acknowledgment that Ukraine insists on taking back much more of its territory before negotiations, and that Mr Putin has shown no willingness. pull back
In a press conference at the end of the NATO sessions, Mr. Zelensky doubled down on his commitment never to cede an inch of land to Russia, saying bluntly that there was no room for territorial compromise. “We will never give away our territories and we will never trade them for any frozen conflict,” he told reporters.
Mr. Zelensky told reporters that negotiations were on whether the United States would send a missile called ATACMS, pronounced “atack’ems,” with a range of 190 miles — much farther than other U.S.-supplied weapons. Mr. Biden has so far refused to give the missiles to Ukraine over concerns that it might encourage Mr. Putin to escalate.
Such arguments have been a recurring theme of the war, where Mr. Biden first refused certain weapons for fear of how the Kremlin – whose officials have repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons – might respond, and eventually agrees to send them: a HIMARS missile. artillery, Patriot air defense systems, tanks and more.
Mr. Zelensky said that just as he “started a conversation about cluster munitions many months ago,” he discussed ATACMS with Mr. Biden’s aides. “I’m very grateful to President Biden for the results we got,” he said, clearly aware of the criticism that his public thanks to the administration were insufficient.
“Then just wait,” he said, “not all at once.”
Mr Zelensky appeared to come out to praise the Biden administration, a day after it called it “unprecedented and absurd” not to provide a timetable for NATO membership. The Ukrainian president throughout the war often pressed the West for more weapons, funding and help from the alliance to continue the fight against the Russians.
But on Wednesday, he thanked America profusely for its support, saying in a meeting with Mr. Biden, “you’re spending this money on our lives.”
The decision not to invite Ukraine to join NATO, however, has led to some concern that it could prolong the war, as Mr Putin knows that Kiev may quickly join the alliance after the fighting ends.
“It’s a Catch-22 for the alliance, and that’s why this could be, and the next summit can be, the opportunity to make it clear that Ukraine is invited,” William B. Taylor Jr., former US ambassador to Ukraine. under the Bush and Obama administrations, said in an interview.
During a tense exchange at NATO’s public forum on Wednesday, Daria Kaleniuk, the director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, asked Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, what she should tell her 2-year-old son, who has already experienced airstrikes in Ukraine: “That President Biden and NATO did not invite Ukraine to NATO because he is afraid of Russia?”
Mr. Sullivan defended the administration, saying that the United States “has stepped up to provide a tremendous amount of capacity to help ensure that the brave soldiers of Ukraine have the ammunition.”
He added, “The president said simply that he is not ready to have Ukraine in NATO now because that would mean that the United States and NATO would be at war with Russia now.”