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At NATO summit, Biden’s caution clashed with calls to draw Ukraine closer

Tensions in Vilnius exposed the challenges Washington will face as its allies push plans that some fear could risk a wider war with Russia

President Biden delivers a speech on NATO and Ukraine at the Vilnius University in Lithuania on Wednesday. (Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images)
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VILNIUS, Lithuania — The negotiations about Ukraine’s glidepath toward NATO membership had come down to the wire, and Biden administration officials believed they had finally found a compromise: a vow to ease Kyiv’s membership process, once the wartime situation allows it.

Then Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky weighed in with a tweet blasting the draft offer as far too little. It crashed President Biden’s careful balance between two constituencies: his own conviction that a U.S. misstep in Ukraine could start World War III, and the voices channeling Kyiv’s desire to join the fast track to NATO membership.

Zelensky’s intervention midway through NATO’s high-stakes summit here made members of the U.S. delegation “furious,” one official said. And it crystallized a broader tension facing Biden as Ukraine’s counteroffensive runs up against entrenched Russian defenses: The United States is by far Kyiv’s biggest military backer. But Biden faces an increasing challenge holding together the transatlantic alliance, as other countries increasingly push plans for helping Ukraine that rush past the lines the White House believes could trigger a Russian escalation.

Now Biden needs to make a double sell to NATO allies on his strategy to help Ukraine — that the vision is ambitious enough to create a path to victory, but that there are meaningful, dangerous lines beyond which the alliance should not cross.

“President Biden has really stressed the importance of unity in the alliance in the face of Russia’s aggression, and he has noted many times that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was betting that NATO unity would crack,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday at an event on the summit’s sidelines. “We believe it will continue to be a bad bet, but unity doesn’t mean every ally sees every issue exactly the same way. What it means is that we can come together from somewhat different tactical perspectives to join in a common strategic vision and strategic approach.”

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The message of caution was difficult to convey, especially in the capital of Lithuania, which was occupied by the Soviet Union for a half-century and where many citizens believe that Ukraine is fighting the Kremlin so that Lithuania doesn’t have to. Buildings are festooned with Ukrainian flags. Ukraine’s anthem is sung alongside Lithuania’s at public events. The advertising on shuttle buses says “while you are waiting for this bus, Ukraine is waiting for F-16s,” the U.S.-made fighter jets that have been promised to Kyiv, in time. Many here are ready to find a way to speed Ukraine’s entrance into NATO even while war rages.

“You can see that every house has big banners and posters for the support of the Ukraine,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, speaking alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Even the flowers at this NATO venue are in yellow and blue,” the colors of the Ukrainian flag, she said.

The calculus of wanting to contain the conflict inside Ukraine’s borders and avoid nuclear escalation imbues every action the administration takes, including a complicated effort to distance NATO, as an organization, from the billions of dollars in lethal aid supplied to Kyiv. That insistence means that military aid is coordinated among the members nations outside of official NATO directives.

“The White House doesn’t want to link NATO to lethal aid,” said a senior NATO diplomat who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the tricky calculation between the United States, NATO’s biggest and most influential power, and other perspectives within the alliance. “The sensitivity there is different among different allies.”

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The push and pull on Ukraine’s membership had gone on for weeks as allies sought common ground, but it escalated ahead of the leaders’ arrivals in Vilnius on Tuesday. Inside the talks, American and German negotiators had taken turns as the loudest voice of caution about granting it prematurely. Biden and his team wanted to make clear that Ukraine wasn’t going to join in the middle of a war, and that even after fighting concludes, membership won’t be automatic.

“If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case,” he told CNN in an interview that broadcast Sunday.

Inside the negotiating room, the U.S. team could be terse, unwilling to be drawn out at length about their views on the word craft around how to phrase NATO’s approach to Ukraine’s membership aspirations, said diplomats who took part in the talks.

“They don’t say much about why” they take the stances they take, a second senior NATO diplomat said. “References to reforms. No unity on the issue.”

Biden administration officials say that the outcome of the summit bolsters the alliance’s readiness to fight back any Russian attack on its soil, especially now that Sweden is likely to become a member, bringing with it its robust military. They point out that the president has delivered vast amounts of aid to Ukraine. And they say that the summit moves Ukraine closer than ever to membership.

That’s why, from Washington’s perspective, there was frustration with the criticism that the United States was not doing enough.

“I think the American people do deserve a degree of gratitude, from us, from the United States, from our government, deserve gratitude for their willingness to step up,” Sullivan said.

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Zelensky launched his tweet in the final hours of negotiations before leaders formally sat down at NATO to agree on what they’d offer to Kyiv.

It’s “unprecedented and absurd” not to set a time frame for Ukraine’s NATO membership nor for an invitation to join, the Ukrainian leader wrote.

Asked about it on Wednesday, Biden’s top Europe adviser took issue with the characterization.

“I would agree that the communiqué is unprecedented, but I see that in a positive way,” said Amanda Sloat, the senior director for Europe on the National Security Council. “In our view, this is a very strong, forward-leaning message that moves significantly beyond what has been said in the past.”

The administration seemed “a little surprised” by the Ukrainian president’s tone, said Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs involved with prior efforts to expand NATO and now is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“They shouldn’t be,” he added. “They should remember that Zelensky’s position and their position are really different.”

Administration officials said they understood that Ukraine would advocate for itself as toughly as it can.

“If we were in their shoes, you can expect that we would be making the exact same requests,” Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, told reporters at a briefing.

Some senior policymakers said that regardless of the exact language agreed upon by Biden and fellow leaders, the core focus for Ukraine needed to be to help it win the war.

“We do see perspective for Ukraine in NATO as a full member one day, but when it comes to the short-term and medium-term, we just need to be constantly helping Ukraine on so many levels, and also assuring their security to the extent possible,” Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen said in an interview. “NATO membership will follow.”

Others think that vague promises miss the mark.

“The administration is, I think, overly cautious about what Russia might do. Why do we spend so much time worrying about what Russia might do?” said Ben Hodges, the retired former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “I know that the president quite literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders. But we are allowing ourselves to be part of Russia’s nuclear blackmail.”

That echoes the views of some of Ukraine’s staunchest backers inside NATO, who say that more cautious voices, including Biden’s, underestimate their power to push back against the Kremlin. Putin has long been a vocal opponent of NATO expansion.

“For many members, Russia has forfeited the right to have that concern because of the war it has conducted over the last 16 months,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and an affiliate of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

But administration allies say that Biden’s caution has justification.

“Article Five [of the NATO treaty] makes clear that if there is an attack on one ally, it’s attack on all of us. And so we have to accept that as a premise, which means that ongoing war has always been a disqualification,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who traveled to the summit as part of a congressional delegation. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t agree to the premise that Ukraine has a future in NATO, which they obviously do. And secondly, that they need to make a couple of steps in terms of their own governance and their own preparation.”

Some of Ukraine’s staunchest advocates inside NATO downplayed tensions, saying that the United States provided the backbone of support for Kyiv. Differences of opinion among allies are less important than the overall trajectory of NATO as a whole, said Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins.

“This is the power of NATO and the power of democracies,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We can be slow [out of] the starting blocks. The gun shoots, the dictator, he’s running away fast. He doesn’t have to consult. He doesn’t have to think about anyone but himself. So he’s running fast. But when you’re running fast and running alone, you get tired quickly,” he said.

“As the democratic bloc, you may be a little slow,” he continued. “The gun shoots, we’re still discussing. ‘Is this really a start? Should we start now? Should we go the left foot or the right?’ But once we get moving — and we are moving — it’s basically impossible to stop.”

What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops have intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The front line: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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