Biden walks diplomatic tightrope at NATO summit

Biden leaves on Sunday for a trip centered on a NATO summit in Lithuania, a meeting now seen as an inflection point in Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. In the city of Vilnius, a few hundred miles from the fighting, the coalition’s gathering comes as Ukraine slowly launches a counteroffensive. Biden will travel to Finland for a Nordic summit, personally planting the West’s flag on the soil of NATO’s newest member.

Biden will use a keynote address Wednesday before NATO to urge a doubling of Western support for Ukraine, his aides previewed. He declares that it is necessary for Cave to have enough weapons to make any real progress before the fighting season subsides into mud and then snow. He will point to NATO’s response and expansion of the alliance over the past 16 months, arguing that he has delivered on America’s promise to repair alliances — and use the recent turmoil in Russia as further evidence that the allies’ efforts are working.

“As long as we support Ukraine, we’re going to provide them with exceptional weapons and capabilities,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday. “We believe we have been able to mount a strong, coordinated, dynamic response to Russia’s aggression.”

There is growing alarm among many of those allies. And some of those cautious voices have grown louder in Washington as congressional Republicans — and leading GOP presidential candidates — resisted Vladimir Putin. That, in turn, has fueled fears across Europe that a GOP White House victory next year could shatter the coalition. Many pressures are palpable in Vilnius, including sharp divisions over whether to put Ukraine on a path to NATO membership.

Evidence of Putin’s potential new vulnerability comes across the border from the NATO summit.

Vilnius sits not far from Lithuania’s border with Belarus, a fellow ex-Soviet state that took a very different path. Although Lithuania has annexed itself to Europe, Belarus remains a Russian satellite and its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, brokered a deal two weeks ago to end an attempted insurgency by the mercenary Wagner group.

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Lukashenko gave Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin asylum in the capital Minsk after the rebellion failed, although his whereabouts are unknown. But there were reasons for the mercenary leader’s aborted mutiny: Prigozhin had countless complaints about Russia’s faltering invasion, revealing major cracks in the Russian army’s equipment and strategy, which cost thousands of men their lives.

Biden will argue, aides say, that those Russian missteps came about because of Ukraine’s fierce resistance, fueled in part by a trove of arms and money sent by the West. Bremmer, among others, believes the failed insurgency “boosts Ukraine’s push to join NATO and gives the West far less reason to worry about Putin’s red lines.”

But Kyiv’s long-awaited counteroffensive has gotten off to an undeniably sluggish start, with many of Ukraine’s top players exhausted or incapacitated after nearly 18 months of fighting. Against the background of those protests, Ukraine will again push for NATO membership next week.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is demanding a clear indication from the leaders of where they stand on the question, which appears to be dividing the two main members of the coalition. French President Emmanuel Macron, struggling to calm unrest across his country, canceled a planned state visit to Berlin last week. This added to the growing tension between Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz over Ukraine’s potential NATO membership.

During a trilateral meeting in Paris last month, which was also attended by Polish President Andrzej Duda, Macron aligned his position on the matter with other eastern-side countries that Poland and Ukraine would eventually like to join the alliance. In turn, it alienated Scholz, who was politically controlled by a German public wary of becoming more embroiled in the conflict.

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Biden has also made it clear that he should not take a shortcut to acquiesce, a position shared by many allies, given lingering concerns about its security capabilities and the need for more democratic reforms. Sullivan said on Friday that Ukraine would not be allowed in Vilnius.

A decision on Sweden’s membership is imminent. That country applied for membership at the same time as Finland, but was blocked by objections from Turkey and Hungary. Earlier this week, Biden belatedly added his voice to the deal in Vilnius.

One thing already settled: keeping Jens Stoltenberg as NATO’s secretary general. Privately, the president urged the former Norwegian prime minister to consider another extension, with his term set to expire in October, two White House officials said. The push reflected Biden’s current position and desire to maintain general unity within a complex coalition that still faces war on its doorstep, officials said.

“It speaks to the broader climate within the alliance and how important it is to prioritize Ukraine for as long as possible,” said Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, who expressed doubt the leaders would be complacent. A request for clarity on Ukraine’s membership ambitions next week. “NATO must present a unified front at this summit. So the easiest approach here is to answer the short-term questions; and the big questions that require consensus from allies are being kicked around a little bit.

After Biden leaves on Sunday, London will be his first stop for his first visit with King Charles III since the monarch ascended the throne. That visit will be part ceremonial and part substantive, often focused on climate change. Biden will also meet UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak before heading to Lithuania.

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Biden’s team hopes that prioritizing leadership on the world stage will pay off for him back home, providing a sharp and useful contrast to the tough GOP primary field. Biden’s weekend stop will likely drive that home.

After leaving Vilnius, Biden will fly to Helsinki for a Nordic states summit to welcome Finland into the NATO alliance. He is expected to hold a news conference in the Finnish capital on Thursday – five years to a week since his predecessor, Donald Trump, did the same at a very different political moment.

It was in Helsinki in 2018 that Trump met Putin, and the two spent hours alone in their only full-scale summit. At a news conference afterward, Trump made it clear that he believed Putin’s denials of Russia’s 2016 election meddling in the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies. National security analysts believe that despite the military setbacks, Putin may try to continue his campaign in the next US presidential election.

“Given Trump running for president again and a growing chorus of Republican candidates questioning or opposing U.S. support for Ukraine,” said Hagar Semali, a former National Security Council and Treasury Department official under President Barack Obama, “I expect that closer to November 2024, the U.S. President Zelensky will push even harder for additional military support this year to avoid getting bogged down in domestic politics.

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