VILNIUS, Lithuania − President Joe Biden’s attendance at a NATO summit in Vilnius comes at a turning point for both Russia and Ukraine and at a critical moment for the U.S. president, who has staked his reputation on his leadership on the world stage.
Biden entered the summit having made a controversial decision to send Ukraine cluster munitions, which are banned by many NATO nations, to keep Ukraine from running out of ammo during its counteroffensive. U.S. senators attending the summit want him to persuade those same military allies to spend more money on NATO’s defense.
The alliance faces tough choices about whether to allow Ukraine to join NATO. Without a clear framework, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy waited until the last minute to show up for the summit this week in Lithuania − a vulnerable former Soviet nation in the Baltic region.
"It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the alliance. This means that a window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine's membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror," he said.
Zelenskyy was responding to draft language of a statement NATO released later in the day that said member countries would be in a "position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met." The conditions included unspecified democratic and security reforms.
The Ukrainian leader derided the statement, which did not contain a time frame for membership, as "unprecedented and absurd" and said the conditions for inviting Ukraine to join the alliance were too vague.
"Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit," he said.
Here’s what to watch at this week’s NATO summit:
Will Zelenskyy convince NATO?
In an unscheduled meeting Tuesday with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg as the summit began, Biden, who plans to meet with Zelenskyy on Wednesday, voiced his support for the position the alliance planned to take on membership for Ukraine.
"We agreed on the language that − that we proposed, that you proposed − relative to the future of Ukraine being able to join NATO," he said.
The alliance will launch a joint defense council with Ukraine at the summit, but allies were split on when and how to extend a formal offer of admission.
Stoltenberg said at a pre-summit news conference Friday that Zelenskyy would participate in the inaugural meeting of the joint defense council, even as the Ukrainian leader continued to suggest he would not come to Vilnius without a clear pathway for NATO membership.
Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told USA TODAY in an interview Friday that she thought Zelenskyy would be "very reassured by what he sees in the communique.”
“Allies have really traveled some distance to reach consensus,” she said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday that Zelenskyy should not be overly concerned by the statement. "What he should take to heart is the fact that NATO is stronger and bigger than ever, that NATO is totally committed to his triumph over Putin in Ukraine and that his effort is admired by people around the world," Durbin said.
Biden said Friday that he does not believe Ukraine is ready for NATO membership. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also poured cold water on the prospect.
Sullivan encouraged the Ukrainian leader to attend the gathering, however, and said Tuesday that Biden looked forward to meeting with Zelenskyy at the summit the next day.
"They’ll discuss how the U.S., alongside our allies and partners, are prepared to make long-term commitments to help Ukraine defend itself now and to deter future aggression," Sullivan said.
Cluster bombs and fighter jets
Biden’s decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions could divide NATO allies. Many NATO nations are party to a treaty prohibiting the use of the bombs, which can detonate much later and kill civilians.
Russia, which has been using cluster munitions in the war, the United States and Ukraine are not part of the treaty group.
Sullivan told reporters Tuesday that NATO remains united despite differences on the use of the weapons system. He said that when Biden sat down with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London on Monday, the British leader underscored the U.K.'s legal obligations.
"But you certainly haven't seen the British prime minister, or really for that matter any of our NATO allies, go out and say that this threatens NATO unity," Sullivan said. "You haven't heard anyone say that. And the answer for why that is is because it doesn't threaten NATO unity."
Biden and his advisers are defending the use of the bombs as a temporary solution to keep Ukraine from running out of ammunition. Sullivan would not say Tuesday how long it would take to ramp up production but estimated it would take months.
“It took me awhile to be convinced to do it," Biden said in an interview Friday with CNN. "But the main thing is, they either have the weapons to stop the Russians” from halting their offensive “or they don't. And I think they needed them.”
Republican lawmakers are encouraging Biden to go even further. They want him to provide Ukraine with more aggressive military equipment, including tactical ballistic missiles known as ATACMS and F-16 fighter jets promised by Western nations.
U.S. to allies: Spend more on defense
A bipartisan group of senators are urging Biden to press allies in Vilnius to spend a higher proportion of their gross domestic product on defense.
According to a NATO report released last week, just 11 of the alliance’s 31 countries are meeting an existing commitment to spend 2% of their annual GDP on defense, although more are on track to do so by 2024.
“Right now, all we are doing is humbly requesting that they fulfill past commitments to get to 2%,” Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who co-chairs the Senate NATO Observer Group, said in an interview. “The investment now is even more important than ever.”
Biden supports a broad push within the alliance for NATO countries to treat 2% as a floor for spending rather than a ceiling, and U.S. senators attending the summit from both parties say they have been reinforcing the message.
“I think it's important for the NATO countries, the people that we meet with, to hear from the bipartisan delegation from the Senate that this is important to us,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic co-chair of the Senate observer group, told USA TODAY ahead of the summit.
Durbin said Tuesday that the congressional delegation had been telling NATO nations that the U.S. is glad to have them as allies, "but there's a responsibility, in terms of their resources, to put together for your own military defense, and for the participation in NATO's military effort, then more countries have to get closer to the 2%."
The delegation also met with Biden on Tuesday in Vilnius. Senators said he supported their effort to get NATO allies to pay up.
"I think it worked both ways. He was urging us to tell the people at this conference to remember that that's part of their obligation," Durbin said. "More and more countries every single year are meeting the 2%. We just hope they all do."
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he presented Biden with a letter signed by a bipartisan group of senators urging the president to prioritize the defense spending push in the conversations he's having in Vilnius.
The GOP senator said he told Biden, "The point of these things in the letter was to help strengthen your hand when you are talking through these issues."
"And the 2% issue is one I know that they've been focused on, trying to make sure it's a floor, not a ceiling," he added.
Allies said in the statement they released Tuesday that they would "make an enduring commitment" to invest "at least 2%" of their GDP on defense, recognizing "more is needed urgently to sustainably meet our commitments as NATO Allies."
"We affirm that in many cases, expenditure beyond 2% of GDP will be needed in order to remedy existing shortfalls and meet the requirements across all domains arising from a more contested security order," the statement said.
Defend every inch of NATO territory
Eastern European nations such as Lithuania, which is spending 2.54% of its GDP on defense, or roughly $1 billion a year, are meeting their commitments to NATO. But their military spending is small compared with the estimated $860 billion the U.S. will pump into defense this year.
Lithuania is asking wealthy NATO members to increase their military and financial support for less populous Baltic states that share a border with Russia.
Germany said last month that it would deploy 4,000 more troops to Lithuania once the infrastructure exists to house them.
The U.S. announced at last year’s NATO summit that it would permanently station forces in Poland and create a rotational brigade combat team that will be headquartered in Romania. It is still working out the command and control structure for those forces.
Smith, the ambassador to NATO, said the Biden administration would unveil new regional plans in Vilnius that will help position the U.S. to make good on its commitment to defend every inch of NATO territory and help it address terror threats.
Tillis said he believes the Baltic states are “rightfully concerned, given their geographic position and their size,” about the future risk to their countries once the conflict in Ukraine is resolved.
Building up a troop presence and defensive capabilities that can respond to their specific vulnerabilities is a challenge, though, he said.
“I can understand, if I were in their neighborhood, how I'd want a lot more security, and particularly now that we've seen Russia invade a sovereign nation,” said Tillis, R-N.C. “I think that will come up. I think there will be a solution to it. But there are already decisions being made to increase our posture and our capabilities in the Baltic states and in the Baltic.”
What about the Wagner Group?
Lithuania also shares a border with Belarus – a country that is tightly bound to Moscow. Belarus brokered a deal last month to end mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion against Vladimir Putin. The possible exile of Wager Group mercenaries and their leader to Belarus has created alarm in eastern Europe.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told Biden in a meeting Tuesday that the situation in the region is “unfortunately deteriorating” as neighboring Belarus is “swallowed” into the Russian federation.
“We see that Belarus is becoming additional threat, additional factor of insecurity in the region,” Nausėda said. “This is the reason why we ask the NATO, we ask our strongest ally United States to pay consistent attention to the security of our region.”
Sullivan said Friday that the “evolving threat from Belarus” was the first and main topic of conversation during a call he had just had with the Polish government.
Threats to nations on NATO’s front lines “are all things that we have been taking into account of going back to the start of this conflict,” he said. “And we constantly look at everything from the positioning of NATO forces to the pre-positioning of various stocks and ammunition in the eastern flank. That will be a continued discussion at Vilnius.”
Prigozhin’s whereabouts are unconfirmed, and Sullivan said it isn't a given that his for-hire army will resettle in Belarus. The Kremlin said Monday that Putin met with Prigozhin and his commanders five days after the aborted mutiny and offered them options for employment and combat.
Expansion of NATO to include Sweden
Entry into NATO must be unanimous, and Turkey had been refusing to approve Sweden’s accession.
But on the eve of the summit, after hours of meetings with the leaders of both nations, Stoltenberg announced a breakthrough.
“Sweden will become a full member of the alliance,” Stoltenberg announced at a late-night news conference.
Biden had also spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the better part of an hour on Sunday as he flew to Europe. The pair also met Tuesday in Lithuania. Biden hosted Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson last week at the White House.
Hungary must also approve Sweden’s membership request, but with Turkey no longer opposed, Stoltenberg said he expects the process to move swiftly.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NATO Summit 2023: 5 things to watch for as members gather in Vilnius