U.S. at Odds With NATO Allies Over Ukraine’s Membership

U.S. at Odds With NATO Allies Over Ukraine’s Membership
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Biden says Ukraine isn’t ready to join alliance, warns of being drawn into war.

VILNIUS, Lithuania—President Biden remained at odds with other NATO leaders over Ukraine’s potential membership as alliance leaders gathered for a summit, the mood at which had been boosted by Sweden’s prospective accession.

Officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had hoped that by the time leaders had gathered for their opening session, wording about Ukraine joining the alliance would have been settled. But as the heads of government and state arrived, the critical portion of the meeting’s official communiqué—as little as one sentence in a multipage document—remained unresolved, according to diplomats close to the talks.

Biden has emerged as the leading opponent to granting Ukraine speedy membership in the alliance, or even offering clear guidance on when membership might be considered, putting him at odds with several key American allies. The question of Ukraine’s place in NATO is testing the Western world’s unprecedented unity in the face of Russia’s assault.

The U.S. president has spent much of the past year rallying the world behind Ukraine, funneling billions of dollars in aid to the war-torn country and strengthening ties with President Volodymyr Zelensky. But for Biden, Kyiv’s campaign for rapid NATO entry is a bridge too far.

Biden arrived late Monday in the Lithuanian capital, about 140 miles from the Russian border, for the second gathering of NATO leaders since Russia launched its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. His goal: reinforcing the U.S. commitment to support Kyiv’s fight for as long as it takes, amid political headwinds at home and a growing strain on the American defense industry.

NATO’s cohesion got a lift late Monday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dropped his opposition to Sweden’s application for membership, saying he would recommend that his country’s parliament approve it as soon as possible. Hungary also needs to approve the bid for it to be finalized.

As leaders prepared to meet on Tuesday, officials were still debating whether or how they would refer to an “invitation” to Ukraine, among other wording issues, according to diplomats. NATO members in 2008 said that Ukraine and Georgia would join the alliance, but gave no time frame.

Biden on Tuesday sought to smooth over any disagreements when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg greeted him at the summit. “We agree on the language that you propose, relative to the future of Ukraine being able to join NATO,” Biden said. “And we’re looking for a continued united NATO.”

U.S. diplomats handling communiqué negotiations have tried “to bridge the gap among allies and reach consensus,” said a U.S. official. “So as a result, we have sought to find agreed language that reflects Ukraine’s progress on its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, which all allies can agree to.”

Biden’s outspoken concerns with Ukraine’s push to join NATO—he has raised the prospect that doing it too early could start World War III—have frustrated officials in Kyiv and beyond.

“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” Biden said in an interview with CNN that aired on Sunday, warning that bringing Ukraine into the alliance while it is at war with Russia would draw the U.S. and Europe into the conflict. He said NATO should lay out a path for Ukraine’s eventual entry into the alliance, but he said Kyiv still has work to do to meet the alliance’s standards for membership in areas like democratization. 

In drawing a line on the issue, Biden is breaking with several NATO members, including Central and Eastern European nations that have publicly backed Kyiv’s push for expedited membership.

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