President Biden celebrated Finland’s addition to NATO — and Sweden’s impending membership — on Wednesday, but fierce arguments over when and how Ukraine should join the Western alliance overshadowed a moment the administration has hailed as a diplomatic triumph.
Capping a high-stakes summit in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius, Biden said he remained “optimistic” about NATO’s future, declaring that it was stronger and more united than ever in its history.
“We will not waver,” Biden said to a crowd of thousands in a courtyard at Vilnius University. “Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken. We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow and for as long as it takes.”
The question of Ukraine’s membership has split the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since Russia’s February 2022 invasion.
France, Lithuania and Poland have argued that the alliance should detail exactly how and when Kyiv might join. But the U.S. and Germany have warned that a fast-tracked bid would put NATO in a direct — and possibly nuclear — confrontation with Moscow.
Turkey dropped its objection to Sweden’s bid for membership just as NATO’s annual summit kicked off on Monday, putting the bloc’s focus squarely on the Ukraine dispute.
The alliance released a heavily qualified diplomatic statement on Tuesday that declared “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” but failed to lay out a real plan for when that might occur. NATO leaders said the bloc would “be in a position to extend an invitation” once all allies agreed and Ukraine met certain unspecified conditions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bashed the proposed language as “absurd” when it was leaked ahead of its official release Tuesday, but softened his tone Wednesday. He expressed gratitude for the substantial package of aid that was announced at the summit.
During a meeting with Biden, the Ukrainian leader said unity among NATO members and security guarantees amounted to “success.”
Biden conceded Zelensky must feel “the frustration, I know,” but assured him the U.S. would be a long-term partner for Ukraine.
“I know, you’re many times frustrated about what things get to you quickly enough, and what’s getting to you and how we’re getting there,” Biden told Zelensky. “But I promise you: The United States is doing everything we can to get you what you need as rapidly as we can get it to you.”
The alliance’s communique about Ukraine is “a modest step forward but it could have been better,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. amba