Security guarantees from leading nations and assurances that Ukraine’s future lies in NATO on Wednesday appeared to calm brewing worries that Ukrainian frustrations at not being admitted to the alliance would overshadow one of the most significant bloc summits in recent memory.
President Joe Biden and G7 leaders unveiled a substantial show of support for Ukraine Wednesday at the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, offering a joint declaration of support for Ukraine aimed at bolstering the war-torn country’s military capability.
Biden acknowledged that the alliance did not invite Ukraine to membership during the summit as it works on “necessary reforms,” but, he said, “We’re not waiting on that process to be finished” to boost the country’s security. Biden has emphasized that Ukraine is not ready to enter NATO, telling CNN in an exclusive interview last week that Russia’s war in Ukraine needs to end before the alliance can consider adding Kyiv to its ranks.
“Mr. Zelensky and I talked about the kind of guarantees we could make in the meantime… And so today, the long-term commitments we’re making are backed up by the notion that in the meantime, we’re going to provide security to Ukraine for its needs and against any aggression that may occur.”
Ukraine has been a dominant item on the summit’s agenda as the US president looks to keep the group united behind President Volodymyr Zelensky in the face of Russia’s invasion. Zelensky arrived in Lithuania on Tuesday and had issued a blistering statement expressing his frustration at not receiving more specific details on when and how Ukraine would join the alliance.
However, it appears he heard enough to go home happy, saying, “The results of the summit are good” in a news conference with the alliance’s chief. Among the moves NATO took was agreeing to remove one requirement for Ukrainian entrance to the group – a Membership Action Plan – given Kyiv’s close relationship with NATO nations. It did not provide a firm timeline for when the Ukrainians will become official members.
While sitting with Biden before their meeting on the summit’s sidelines, Zelensky said he felt the summit was a “success” for Ukraine despite his earlier frustrations – which the US president acknowledged during his remarks.
“The frustration, I can only imagine. 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. 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,” Biden said.
In an event with Zelensky and G-7 leaders, Biden told the Ukrainian president that American support is not going anywhere. The declaration, Biden said, “starts a process by which each of our nations, and any other nation who wishes to participate, will negotiate long term bilateral security commitments with and to Ukraine.”
“We’re going to help Ukraine build a strong defense across land, air, and sea,” Biden vowed, calling it “a force of stability in the region to deter against any and all threats.”
“The Ukrainian delegation is bringing home significant security, victory for the Ukraine, for our country, for our people, for our children. It opens for us absolutely new security opportunities, and I thank everyone who made it possible,” he said.
Biden offers his vision for the future
In an address from Vilnius University on Wednesday evening, Biden offered his vision for American leadership, emphasizing the importance of the world’s democracies working together with allies and partners to face crucial challenges. It was a poignant location for a speech aimed at countering Russian aggression as the president stood in the capital of a former Soviet state that is now a NATO member and close US ally.
Biden, who has framed the central challenge of his presidency as the fight between democracy and autocracy, continued that theme, using the bully pulpit to highlight his foreign policy experience as he seeks a second term.
“Will we turn back naked unchecked aggression today? Or will we deter other would-be aggressors tomorrow? Will we staunch the climate crisis before it’s too late? Will we harness the new technology to advance freedom, or will we diminish it? Will we advance opportunities in more places or allow instability and equality to persist? How we answer these essential questions is literally going to determine the kind of future our children and grandchildren have,” he said.
He said the world faces a choice “between a world defined by coercion and exploitation, where might makes right, or a world where we recognize that our own success is bound to the success of others. When others do better, we do better as well.”
Biden railed against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “craven lust for land and power” as he argued that the war in Ukraine has unified the world’s democracies. He framed the transatlantic alliance as an “anchor to global stability,” making an argument for the strength of NATO, calling the alliance a “bulwark of global security and stability” as he emphasized its unity.
“NATO is stronger, more energized, and yes, more united than ever in its history,” Biden said, adding that it “wasn’t inevitable” and that Putin “was betting NATO would break” as he stoked the war.
In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, Biden noted he was in “constant contact” with NATO, G7, and EU leaders, “(warning) the world,” and preparing accordingly. He lambasted Russia’s “crimes against humanity” as he offered praise to the Ukrainian people, vowing to stay united and to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
“(Putin) is still making a bad bet against the conviction of the unity among NATO and the unity among the United States and our allies and partners will break down. He still doesn’t understand our commitment, our vows, our freedom is something we can never, ever, ever, ever walk away from. It’s who we are,” he said.
Biden nodded to the history of his Lithuanian backdrop as he began his remarks: “It’s good to be back in this nation and a region that knows better than anyone the transformational power of freedom to show the world the strength of a people united cannot be denied.”
New military aid for Ukraine
The G7 issued a three-page document detailing the joint declaration agreement shortly after the leaders spoke on Wednesday.
“Today we are launching negotiations with Ukraine to formalize – through bilateral security commitments and arrangements aligned with this multilateral framework, in accordance with our respective legal and constitutional requirements – our enduring support to Ukraine as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity, rebuilds its economy, protects its citizens, and pursues integration into the Euro-Atlantic community,” the declaration said, adding that those discussions will begin “immediately.”
It will work on “bilateral, long-term security commitments and arrangements towards” three goals.
The first goal is “ensuring a sustainable force capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring Russian aggression in the future,” through continued provision of security assistance and modern military equipment, support for Ukraine’s industrial base development, training for forces, intelligence sharing and cooperation, and support for cyber defense, security and resilience initiatives.
The second is “strengthening Ukraine’s economic stability and resilience, including through reconstruction and recovery efforts, to create the conditions conducive to promoting Ukraine’s economic prosperity, including its energy security.” And the third is “providing technical and financial support for Ukraine’s immediate needs stemming from Russia’s war as well as to enable Ukraine to continue implementing the effective reform agenda that will support the good governance necessary to advance towards its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
The announcement will start a process of bilateral negotiations with Kyiv, National Security Council senior director for Europe Amanda Sloat told reporters.
There will be a “long-term investment in Ukraine’s future force” aimed at “ensuring Ukraine has a sustainable fighting force capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring Russian aggression in the future, a strong and stable economy, and the help Ukraine needs to advance the reform agenda to support the good governance necessary to advance Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” she said.
Sloat said the purpose of the declaration would be to bolster Ukraine’s deterrence and send a message to Russia.
“We believe the declaration we will announce today seeks to ensure Ukraine’s future as a free independent, democratic, and sovereign nation. It signals in joint long-term commitment to building a powerful defensive and deterrence force for Ukraine, of course for both stability and for peace. This multi-lateral declaration will send a significant signal to Russia that time is not on its side,” Sloat said.
Biden and Zelensky meet
Biden expressed understanding and offered support to Zelensky ahead of their meeting in Vilnius, which saw each leader offer each other praise after some earlier tension.
“I hope you all got a sense today from all my colleagues how much public support you have. It’s real and I hope we finally have put to bed the notion about whether or not Ukraine is welcome in NATO. It’s going to happen. We’re all moving in the right direction. I think it’s just a matter of getting by the next few months,” the American president told his Ukrainian counterpart.
Biden noted that Russia’s war has been ongoing more than 500 days, as he heralded the courage of Ukraine’s people.
“The whole world has seen your courage,” he said. “You set a whole example to the entire world of what constitutes genuine courage. … I think it’s your resilience and the resolve has been a model for the whole world to see.”
Biden praised Zelensky’s leadership as he said he “looks forward” to eventually celebrating his country’s accession to the alliance.
“I look forward to having the meeting, celebrating your official, official membership in NATO,” he said.
“The bad news for you is: We’re not going anywhere, you’re stuck with us,” he joked, prompting rare laughter from his counterpart.
In turn, Zelensky offered heartfelt thanks to the US for standing “shoulder to shoulder” with Ukraine from the first days of the war. He also acknowledged criticism facing the US following Biden’s controversial decision last week to send his country cluster munitions.
“It’s very simple to criticize, for example, cluster munitions,” he said, calling it a “difficult political decision.”
“This decision will help us to save us,” he said of the munitions, thanking Biden for his “huge support.”
He thanked the American people more broadly.
“You spend this money for our lives. And I think that we save the lives for Europe and for all the world,” he said.
The war, Biden said, is “bringing the world together. It’s a hell of a price to pay. But it’s bringing the world together, and people are realizing that we just can’t stand by and let this kind of aggression occur.”
The meeting was draped by a 15-year wait for Ukraine to get answers on just when it can join the allied group. NATO first welcomed Ukraine’s membership aspirations during a 2008 meeting in Bucharest, Romania, but little progress has been made and the timeline remains uncertain.
“Ukraine and many NATO allies are calling for a clearer pathway, a roadmap, some kind of statement at Vilnius that will show Ukraine what it needs to do to get into the alliance. And I think that is very important to happen for the alliance to be credible. Given the stakes of the war … given what the Ukrainians have endured, if we walk out of Vilnius without a firmer sense of what it will take to get Ukraine into the alliance, I worry about the alliance’s credibility,” said Chris Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
CNN’s Donald Judd contributed to this report.