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NATO summit could test Biden's unity promise

Biden will meet with European and NATO leaders during a five-day swing through Europe. He's also expected to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Lithuania.
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LONDON — President Joe Biden and trans-Atlantic leaders will gather this week in Europe to consider how to deter Russia from Ukraine in a war that is approaching the 18-month mark — a critical moment as the world watches closely after a failed mutiny.

The White House’s message that Biden has left NATO “more united” than ever is likely to come under increasing scrutiny in the coming days, as the leaders of the countries that make up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization confront differences over military spending, plans to expand the alliance and who should lead it.

Biden’s five-day swing through Europe begins in London, where he met Monday with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and King Charles III before he traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania, for the start of a two-day summit aimed at reinforcing a message of solidarity among NATO members and shoring up support for Kyiv.

A senior administration official said Biden is expected to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the summit Wednesday.

The significance of the summit, set just 30 miles from Belarus, as a staging point for attacks into Ukraine has grown as the war drags on and after an aborted mutiny by Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin against Russian leadership.

Biden will deliver a speech Wednesday that the White House said will highlight “how the United States, alongside our allies and partners, is supporting Ukraine, defending democratic values and taking action to address global challenges.”

He will then travel to Finland, NATO's newest member, for a Nordic defense summit.

It is a trip that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, promised would “showcase the president’s leadership on the world stage.”

Yet divisions over Ukraine’s push for a clearer pathway to join NATO risks puncturing Biden’s promise to revitalize and restore America’s alliances.

Biden previewed the challenge in an interview that aired on CNN on Sunday, when he said he does not think there is “unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” and pointed to the alliance’s cornerstone agreement that promises its members mutual defense in conflicts.

“For example, if you did that, then, you know — and I mean what I say — we’re determined to commit every inch of territory that is NATO territory,” Biden said. “It’s a commitment that we’ve all made no matter what. If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.”

And Biden conceded his reservations over Ukraine’s desire for a quicker pathway, saying, “I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO.”

“I think it’s premature” to call for a vote now, he said, “because there’s other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues.”

How he navigates the issue could have legacy-defining outcomes for Biden, said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland.

“Ukraine is going to be the dominant issue at the summit: There’s the issue of how NATO is planning to defend its eastern flank from Russian aggression, and then there’s the question of NATO-Ukraine relations,” Fried said. “And there are risks for Biden.

“If the White House was initially worried about a divided alliance, now the risk is that the U.S. is seen as reticent and uncertain,” he said, citing a growing consensus among the leaders of NATO members to press for stronger, defined guarantees for Ukraine.

“It’s not just the Baltic states,” Fried said, alluding to differences that have at times pitted Ukraine’s staunchest supporters against other allies since the start of the war. “The risk is that the U.S. will squander a lot of the political capital we’ve put into defending Ukraine — we’ve made the stakes pretty high.”

Biden and the leaders of NATO countries do not need to deliver Ukraine an invitation to overcome the breach, “but there needs to be clarity of vision,” Fried said. “They need strategic clarity sufficient that Ukrainians understand that if they do the right thing at home, they end up protected by the NATO alliance.”

Christopher Skaluba, a security expert at the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank in Washington, who was a senior Defense Department official in the Obama administration, said: “It’s an issue of the alliance’s credibility. They’ve repeated this Bucharest declaration like a mantra for 15 years. And now after what Ukraine has suffered, if you can’t come up with something that is more tangible for their pathway to membership, I think it’s a setback.”

Aboard Air Force One on Sunday, Sullivan told reporters that the summit would offer an opportunity “to mark progress along the pathway towards Ukraine’s membership aspirations,” with trans-Atlantic leaders expected to discuss the issue directly with Ukraine on the second day of the summit when a new NATO-Ukraine defense council meets.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday cited the NATO-Ukraine Council and a multiyear nonlethal aid package to help modernize Ukraine’s forces among the steps aimed at bringing Ukraine closer to NATO.

Fried argued that the question of Ukraine’s road map opens opportunities for Biden, including the chance for “a considerable victory at Vilnius.”

Still, some are urging stricter caution.

Justin Logan, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, cited Biden’s reasoning for holding off on Ukraine’s ascent into NATO as a factor that should be considered now and over the long term.

“Biden says we don’t want Ukraine in NATO today because that would mean NATO would be at war with Russia. But if the U.S. and other countries don’t have enough at stake in Ukraine to fight Russia over, why even consider adding it to the alliance?” he said.