Biden Braces NATO for Long Conflict With Russia, Making Cold War Parallel

President Biden concluded a meeting of NATO allies on Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania, with an address to that country, and the world, comparing the battle to expel Russia from Ukraine with the Cold War struggle for freedom in Europe, and promising “we will not waver” no matter how long the war continues.

His speech seemed to be preparing Americans and NATO countries for a confrontation that could go on for years, putting it the context of momentous conflicts in Europe’s war-torn past. And he cast it as a test of wills with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has shown no interest in giving up on an invasion that has not gone according to plan, but has locked him in a war of attrition.

“Putin still wrongly believes that he can outlast Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said, describing the Russian leader as a man who made a huge strategic mistake in invading a neighboring country and now is doubling down. “After all this time Putin still doubts our staying power. He is making a bad bet.”

The speech, at Vilnius University, came after a series of important victories for Mr. Biden as NATO’s de facto leader, at a time of rapid change for the alliance.

His success in cajoling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to drop his objections to Sweden’s admission as the 32nd member of NATO makes it possible to turn the Baltic Sea into a region bounded almost entirely by the alliance (though Mr. Erdogan suggested that Turkey’s Parliament may not take up the issue until October). NATO nations committed to boosting military spending that the United States has long complained was inadequate.

At the same time, Mr. Biden managed to quash an effort by Ukraine, with the support of Poland and several of the Baltic nations, to give a timetable for Ukraine to formally enter the alliance. Under NATO’s policy requiring collective defense, the president has said that admitting Ukraine with the war underway would put the United States in direct conflict with Russia. NATO stated on Tuesday that Ukraine would be invited to join some day, but not when or under exactly what conditions.

That prompted an angry outburst from Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, that the allies smoothed over with promises of more aid and the inaugural meeting on Wednesday of a new “NATO-Ukraine Council.”

Mr. Zelensky, faced with making the best of what he could get, called the move a victory on Wednesday, and sat for the first time as an official partner — if not a member — of NATO. It is essentially a nonvoting member, something Mr. Zelensky is selling at home as a halfway step to full status.

Though NATO has not given a timetable for Ukraine to join, Mr. Zelensky, in a statement, showed no such hesitation. “I believe that we will be in NATO as soon as the security situation is stabilized,” he said. “In simple terms, the moment the war is over.”

NATO nations also committed to funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid to Ukraine, just days after Mr. Biden made a reluctant decision to give cluster munitions sought by Ukraine. The weapons are banned by treaty by more than 100 nations, but not by Russia, Ukraine or the United States, and both sides in the war have used them.

“One thing Zelensky understands, whether or not he is in NATO now is not relevant” because of the commitments made by the alliance, Mr. Biden told reporters as he was about to depart for Finland, NATO’s newest member.

Mr. Biden’s speech, on a bright summer evening in the midst of Vilnius’s restored “Old Town” of cobblestone streets, was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of about 10,000 people waving Lithuanian, American and Ukrainian flags. It had strong echoes of similar speeches Mr. Biden has given in Warsaw and around Europe, praising the power of alliances — a clear, if unspoken, contrast to President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to dismantle NATO, which the former president repeatedly called “obsolete.”

As in his other speeches rallying the allies, Mr. Biden celebrated the new sense of unity and purpose the Ukraine invasion has given NATO, as it expands and confronts a reality that seemed unlikely just two years ago: a land war in Europe, mixing trench warfare and drone warfare.

But it was Mr. Biden’s explicit references to facing off against the Soviet Union that differentiated this speech from past ones — even though the administration has, until now, rejected most Cold War comparisons.

“America never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltics,” Mr. Biden told the cheering crowd. And he made it clear that, in turn, it would never recognize Mr. Putin’s territorial annexation.

Mr. Biden knew those comparisons would have a particular resonance in this graceful Baltic capital: Lithuania was part of the Russian empire starting in 1795, and after two decades of independence, it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 and recaptured by the Soviets in 1944. It regained independence in the early 1990s, and became a NATO member in 2004.

During the NATO meeting here, pro-Ukrainian messages flashed on city buses, Vilnius residents put placards with epithets about Mr. Putin in their windows, and a huge crowd gathered to welcome Mr. Zelensky when he arrived. A packed crowd gathered to hear Mr. Biden speak, including children leaning out of windows to watch him.

Mr. Biden framed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of a global challenge facing democratic societies. He said the world was at an “inflection point,” where it must choose between democracy and autocracy. The message has origins in his 2020 campaign, but he has leaned into it even more to persuade Americans that they should care about a war thousands of miles from home.

He emphasized the need to protect the Indo-Pacific, a region crucial to the United States’ growing competition with China, in a nod to Asian allies that have helped aid Ukraine and isolate Russia. And Mr. Biden said the world would need to address “the accelerating threat of climate change,” another key focus of the NATO summit.

But there was also a sense at the meeting that NATO is entering a protracted struggle with Russia. The communiqué issued on Tuesday described Russian advances in nuclear weapons, space vehicles, cyberwarfare and disinformation, and committed members to new spending and new partnerships to counter it in all those realms.

Not once in their public comments did NATO leaders discuss talks with Russia for a cease-fire or Korea-style armistice — a silent recognition that Ukraine insists on retaking far more of its territory before negotiating, and that Mr. Putin has signaled no willingness to pull back.

At a news conference at the end of the NATO sessions, Mr. Zelensky doubled down on his commitment never to give up any inch of land to Russia, saying outright that there is no room for territorial compromise. “We will never give away our territories and we will never exchange them for any frozen conflict,” he told reporters.

Mr. Zelensky told reporters that talks were underway over whether the United States would send a missile called ATACMS, pronounced “attack ’ems,” with a range of 190 miles — much farther than other American-supplied arms. Mr. Biden has so far declined to give the missiles to Ukraine because of concerns that it could prompt Mr. Putin to escalate.

Such arguments have been a recurring theme of the war, with Mr. Biden at first refusing certain weapons for fear of how the Kremlin — whose officials have repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons — might respond, and eventually agreeing to send them: HIMARS rocket artillery, Patriot air defense systems, tanks and more.

Mr. Zelensky said that just as he had “started conversation about cluster munitions many months ago,” he has been discussing ATACMS with Mr. Biden’s aides. “I’m very grateful to President Biden for the results that we have received,” he said, clearly aware of the critique that his public thanks to the administration have been insufficient.

“So just wait,” he said, “not everything at once.”

Mr. Zelensky appeared to go out of his way to praise the Biden administration, a day after calling it “unprecedented and absurd” not to give a timetable for NATO membership. The Ukrainian president throughout the war has often pressed the West for more weapons, funding and assistance from the alliance in an effort to sustain the fight against the Russians.

But on Wednesday, he thanked the United States profusely for its backing, saying in a meeting with Mr. Biden, “you spend this money for our lives.”

The decision not to invite Ukraine to join NATO yet prompted some concern that it could prolong the war, because Mr. Putin knows that Kyiv might quickly join the alliance once the fighting ends.

“It is a Catch-22 for the alliance, and that’s why this could have been, and the next summit can be, the opportunity to make it clear that Ukraine is invited,” William B. Taylor Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under the Bush and Obama administrations, said in an interview.

During a testy exchange at the NATO public forum on Wednesday, Daria Kaleniuk, the director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, asked Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, what she should tell her 2-year-old son, who has already experienced air raids in Ukraine: “That President Biden and NATO didn’t invite Ukraine to NATO because he’s afraid of Russia?”

Mr. Sullivan defended the administration, saying the U.S. had “stepped up to provide an enormous amount of capacity to help ensure that Ukraine’s brave soldiers have the ammunition.”

He added, “The president said quite simply that he’s not prepared to have Ukraine in NATO now because it would mean that the United States and NATO would be at war with Russia now.”

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