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Biden revels in NATO unity after tensions over Ukraine subside

The president closed out his European trip in Finland, a Nordic country that abandoned decades of diplomatic neutrality in April when it became the 31st member of NATO.
(L-R) Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, US President Joe Biden, Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and Norway's Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store pose for the family photo of the US-Nordic Leaders' Summit at the presidential palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 13, 2023. US President Joe Biden travelled to Britain on July 9, 2023, to a NATO summit in Lithuania and will end the trip to Europe on July 13, 2023 in Finland.
President Joe Biden, center left, with, from left, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir and Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre for the "family photo" of the U.S.-Nordic Leaders' Summit in Helsinki on Thursday.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

HELSINKI — After a NATO summit that threatened to erupt in divisions, President Joe Biden is basking in praise from the trans-Atlantic defense pact’s newest member and a soon-to-be addition.

“The way you created unity amongst the allies, that was great,” President Sauli Niinistö of Finland told Biden in Helsinki on Thursday. At a meeting of Nordic leaders, he welcomed Biden as “Mr. President, dear Joe.”

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden said: “Recently, I have met you more than I’ve met my own family. I like it a lot.” Sweden’s bid to join the military alliance was revived this week after Turkey reversed its objections on the eve of NATO’s summit in Lithuania.

Biden closed out his five-day European trip, flush with symbolism, in Finland, a Nordic country that shares an 830-mile border with Russia and abandoned decades of diplomatic neutrality in April when it became the 31st member of the NATO security alliance.

“We stand at an inflection point in history where the decisions we make now are going to determine the course of the history for the next four or five, six decades,” Biden said at a news conference at the presidential palace. “This week, we affirmed how Finland and the United States, together, together with allies and partners, are working in lockstep to set us on a stronger, safer and more secure path.”

Five years ago, President Donald Trump stood in the same palace for a more-than-two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with no notes, after which he suggested Putin was more credible than the U.S. intelligence chief.

More recently, Trump has called for a swift end to the war in Ukraine — in stark contrast with Biden, who has affirmed his administration's long-term support for Ukraine repeatedly.

But even as Biden vowed this week to bolster Kyiv's defenses in its war against Russia, he ruled out a path to Ukraine’s joining NATO while the war continues and with reforms still to enact.

On the eve of his meeting with Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lashed out at “vague wording about ‘conditions’” in a draft NATO communiqué.

NATO first offered Ukraine a promise of future membership more than 15 years ago, a declaration that loomed over the summit in Vilnius in Lithuania, a former Soviet state once cloaked behind the Iron Curtain and today, just 30 miles from Belarus, is still under Moscow’s influence.

Any tensions had subsided publicly as Biden and Zelenskyy gathered with other leaders to announce a framework for countries to negotiate individual security agreements with Ukraine outside NATO’s parameters.

Asked about Zelenskyy’s concerns over the timing for NATO membership, Biden responded, “He’s not concerned about that now.”

“One thing Zelenskyy understands now is that whether or not he’s in NATO now is not relevant as long as he has the commitments,” Biden told reporters in Vilnius.

In Finland, a country whose recent history is a reminder of how political conditions can shift over time, Biden emphasized the stakes of what he billed as a much larger battle.

“Our allies and partners around the world understand that this fight is not only a fight for future Ukraine; it’s about sovereignty, security and freedom itself,” Biden said in Helsinki. “Think about what would have happened if we didn’t do anything. What is likely to happen in the rest of Europe if we did nothing?”

Yet Biden may soon face questions over the American public’s appetite for a war in Ukraine that has cost tens of billions of dollars and dwindled U.S. artillery stocks.

Biden worked a rope line of U.S. Embassy staff members and families for nearly 30 minutes before he boarded Air Force One — then stumbled on one of the steps as he boarded the plane.

The moment was a small reminder of the grueling demands of the job as Biden embarks on a closely watched re-election bid — he would be 86 at the end of his second term if he wins.