Biden sets off on a trip Sunday that will center on the NATO summit in Lithuania, a meeting now scheduled for a turning point in Russia’s encroachment on its neighbor. Held in Vilnius, just a few hundred miles from the fighting, the alliance rally comes as Ukraine has slowly launched its counter-offensive. Biden will then visit Finland for a Baltic states summit, personally planting the symbolic flag of the West on the soil of the new NATO member.
Biden, his aides anticipated, will use a major speech Wednesday before NATO to forcefully urge a doubling of Western support for Ukraine. He will declare it imperative that Kiev be sufficiently armed to make real progress before the fighting season slows down with mud and then snow. He will also point to NATO’s response over the past 16 months and alliance expansion, to argue it has delivered on its promise to mend American alliances and use the recent turmoil in Russia as further proof that allied efforts are working.
« The president has been clear that we will support Ukraine for as long as needed and provide them with an exceptional amount of weapons and capabilities, » National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Friday. « We believe we have been able to mount a vigorous concerted and dynamic response to Russia’s aggression. »
Alarm has been raised among many of those allies about how long and at what cost Kyiv can continue to be supported. And some of those wary voices have grown louder in Washington, as more Congressional Republicans — and leading GOP presidential candidates — have voiced objections to funding resistance to Vladimir Putin. That, in turn, has sparked fears across Europe that a GOP White House victory next year could shatter the alliance. And several points of tension will be evident in Vilnius, including sharp divisions over whether to put Ukraine on the path to NATO membership.
Evidence of Putin’s possible new vulnerability lies just across the border from the NATO summit.
Vilnius is located not far from Lithuania’s border with Belarus, a former Soviet state that has taken a very different path. While Lithuania has linked up with Europe, Belarus remains a Russian satellite and its leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko, helped negotiate a deal to end a rebellion attempt by mercenary Wagner Group two weeks ago.
Lukashenko offered Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin refuge in the capital of Minsk after the uprising failed, though his whereabouts remain unknown. But the reasons for the mercenary leader’s failed mutiny remain present: Prigozhin had myriad complaints about the faltering invasion of Russia, revealing massive flaws in the Russian army’s equipment and strategy that claimed the lives of thousands of men.
Biden will argue, aides say, that those Russian missteps were caused by Ukraine’s fierce resistance, fueled in part by a hoard of weapons and money sent from the West. And Bremmer, among others, believes the failed insurgency gives « a boost to Ukraine’s drive to join NATO and gives the West far less reason to worry about any of Putin’s alleged red lines. »
But the long-awaited Kiev counteroffensive got off to an undeniably slow start, with many of Ukraine’s best soldiers exhausted or incapacitated after nearly 18 months of fighting. With those fights in the background, Ukraine will push again for NATO membership next week, something that is sure to be a sticking point in Vilnius.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seeking a clear indication from leaders on their stance on this issue, which appears to be dividing two key members of the alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron, who is struggling to quell widespread riots across his nation, canceled a scheduled state visit to Berlin last week. This has added to growing tension between Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz over Ukraine’s potential NATO membership.
During a trilateral meeting in Paris last month, also attended by Polish President Andrej Duda, Macron changed his stance on the issue to be more in line with Poland and other eastern flank countries who want Ukraine to finally join the covenant. This, in turn, has alienated Scholz, who is politically bound by a German public wary of becoming embroiled further in the conflict.
Biden also made clear that Kiev shouldn’t have a shortcut to admission, a position shared by many allies, given lingering concerns about its defense capabilities and the need for more democratic reforms. Sullivan said Friday that Ukraine will not gain admission to Vilnius.
A resolution on Sweden’s accession seems closer. That country applied for membership at the same time as Finland but was blocked by objections from Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Hungary. Earlier this week, Biden forcefully added his voice to a belated push to close the deal in Vilnius.
One issue that was resolved early: to keep Jens Stoltenberg as NATO Secretary General. Privately, the president urged the former Norwegian prime minister, whose term was due to expire in October, to consider another extension, two White House officials said. The push reflected Biden’s desire to maintain the status quo and overall cohesion within a complex alliance that is still facing a looming war, officials said.
« It is indicative of the broader climate within the alliance and how the priority right now is to hold the line on Ukraine for as long as possible, » said Rachel Rizzo, a colleague at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, who he expressed doubts that the leaders would satisfy Ukraine will seek clarity on its membership ambitions next week. “NATO must present a cohesive front at this summit. So the simplest approach here is just answering short-term questions; and the more important matters that require the consent of the allies are somewhat sidelined ».
After Biden leaves on Sunday, his first stop will be London for his first visit with King Charles III since the monarch took the throne. That visit will be partly ceremonial and partly substantive, focusing primarily on climate change. Biden will also meet with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak before traveling to Lithuania.
Biden’s team believes prioritizing leadership on the world stage will benefit him at home, providing a stark and effective contrast to the GOP’s raucous primary field. And Biden’s last leg of the week will implicitly take him home.
After leaving Vilnius, Biden will fly to Helsinki for a summit of the Baltic states and to welcome Finland into the NATO alliance. He is expected to hold a press conference in the Finnish capital on Thursday, five years a week since his predecessor, Donald Trump, did the same at a very different political moment.
It was in Helsinki that Trump met Putin in 2018, the two men huddling alone for hours at their only full-fledged summit. At the following press conference, Trump made it clear that he believed Putin’s denials of Russia’s 2016 election interference over the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies. And national security analysts believe that despite his military setbacks, Putin may try to continue his war well into the next US presidential election.
« As Trump runs again for president and given the growing chorus of Republican candidates who question or oppose US support for Ukraine, » said Hagar Chemali, a former National Security Council and Department of the Treasury under President Barack Obama, « I would expect President Zelenskyy to push even harder for additional military support this year to avoid getting stuck in US domestic politics as we approach November 2024. »