Biden Looks to Move Past His Troubles, Opening NATO Summit With Warning to Putin

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the 75th anniversary of NATO at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden opened NATO’s 75th anniversary summit on Tuesday seeking to bolster confidence in both the alliance and his own political standing with a forceful speech warning of the threat posed by Russia and other authoritarian states as the world plunges into a new era of superpower conflict.

Biden, speaking in a strong voice, with few errors, sounded themes from some of the most memorable speeches of his presidency, painting an image of a fearsome and growing NATO with an ironclad commitment to Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion. And he announced a pledge of more weapons to help the Ukrainians fend off air attacks.

“The war will end with Ukraine remaining a free and independent country,” he said. He matched that with a vow to “defend every inch” of NATO territory — on land, in space and in cyberspace — and repeated his caution that President Vladimir Putin of Russia “won’t stop at Ukraine” if he proves victorious.

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The three-day celebration, opened with pageantry in the same gilded auditorium where the NATO treaty was signed by a dozen nations in 1949, came at a moment of enormous testing for both Biden and the alliance. After a disastrous debate performance 12 days earlier that has imperiled his reelection candidacy, the delivery by the president, who has staked both his place in history and much of his campaign on his rallying of the NATO nations, may have mattered as much as his words.

The faltering of Biden’s campaign has also created a test for the alliance that it did not anticipate: whether it can credibly maintain the momentum it has built in supporting Ukraine and serving as a bulwark against further aggression when confidence in its most important player has never been more fragile.

The president was being closely watched by three dozen leaders, from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who enraged allies in recent days by traveling to meet Putin and once again seeming to side with him on the invasion of Ukraine. Biden made no mention of his political troubles, but he could not have escaped the fact that every word was being scrutinized for signs of faltering.

By all measures, he passed the test, though he was speaking from a teleprompter — meaning there was no risk he would wander into incomplete thoughts. Biden himself had urged Americans to watch him at the opening, saying he welcomed the scrutiny.

“Who’s going to be able to hold NATO together like me?” the president asked rhetorically in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Friday. “I guess a good way to judge me,” he said, is to watch at the summit and to see how the allies react. “Come listen. See what they say.”

They were largely complimentary as Biden talked about America’s and the West’s “sacred obligation” to come to the aid of free nations and democracies under attack. He was clearly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump, the man he swears he can still beat in November. To drive home the difference between Trump’s Republican Party and the party of decades past, Biden quoted former President Ronald Reagan: “If you are threatened, we are threatened. If you’re not at peace, we cannot be at peace.”

Biden’s goal was clear: to establish Trump, with his “America First” approach and threats to withdraw the United States from the alliance, as a threat not only to NATO nations but also to his own country. And he got help from the retiring secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, who opened the ceremony by declaring that “the time to stand for freedom and democracy is now; the place is Ukraine.” Biden awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

The president also used the opening to announce new air defenses for Ukraine, saying the country would receive “hundreds of additional interceptors” to protect cities against the kind of missile attacks that collapsed a children’s hospital this week. He said Russia had suffered 350,000 killed or injured since the war began.

But what he did not say was that Russia had gained territory, marginally, after the failure of Ukraine’s much-heralded “counteroffensive” last year. Nor did he talk about the success of Russian electronic warfare against American and NATO-provided guided missiles, or Ukraine’s struggle to retain cities like Kharkiv, which it had taken back from Russia in the fall of 2022.

And Biden’s own aides concede that no matter how well the president performs over the next three days — corralling France, Germany and 29 other NATO members into something resembling a common strategy, while stressing the need to counter China’s growing role as Russia’s critical supplier of chips and other components — he cannot make Americans unsee his debate performance.

So as 38 world leaders arrived here on Tuesday, the key to the alliance — confidence in its core member — seemed at risk. And several of the leaders assembled in Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium were already reaching out to Trump’s camp, just in case.

“NATO has never been, and is not, and will never be, a given,” Stoltenberg said Sunday in a wide-ranging discussion with journalists. “We have done so successfully for 75 years. I’m confident that we can do so also in the future. But it’s about political leadership. It’s about political commitment.”

Biden’s national security team designed the opening event to reinforce a message that the commitment was not only long-lasting but also had a bipartisan history. A film shown to the leaders reached back to the earliest images of the Cold War and the jubilation as the Berlin Wall fell.

But the alliance confronts serious problems in its fight to sustain Ukraine. Compared with a year ago, when the NATO allies met in Vilnius, Lithuania, the degradation of Kyiv’s position is evident.

A senior NATO official said that Russia continued to have a significant advantage over Ukraine on the battlefield, and that Moscow appeared able to sustain its war economy to churn out weapons and other financial support for its military for another three to four years.

By contrast, it will take months, likely into next year, before the weapons and other military assistance that will be pledged by NATO allies this week will put Ukraine on a path to retake territory from Russia, said the official, who briefed reporters on Tuesday on the condition that he not be identified by name.

Putin is also banking on additional arms from North Korea and Iran, and is looking for deals with other countries, including China, the NATO official said. Iran, for example, has sent kamikaze drones, artillery and tank rounds to Russia’s military and has signaled that it will ship ballistic missiles as well. It is also building drone factories in Russia, said the official, to bolster Putin’s hopes of exhausting Ukraine and drying up Western support for the war, especially if Trump is elected.

Although 23 of the 32 NATO states are now spending at least 2% of their gross national product on defense — a minimum threshold set in 2006 — allies privately acknowledge that is not enough to keep up with the demand for new weapons, technology and military modernization that the war in Ukraine has revealed.

“It’s not just about how much we invested,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said before the summit. “It’s how we are investing it. Today, we face challenges from all directions and all domains — from terrorists to tyrants to technology and beyond.”

Yet Biden made no mention of the fact that just as two-thirds of the NATO allies have hit the 2% goal, it seems wildly insufficient, and White House officials have said that Biden will not press for new military spending targets at the meeting.

“All of us have to step up, to scale up,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark said at a Council on Foreign Relations forum on Tuesday morning.

She said that allies had been “too naive” about threats from Russia and China, and that she agreed with Trump and other American presidents who have pushed European nations to spend more on their militaries. The United States spends more than twice as much on its military than all other NATO allies combined, and Ukraine’s foreign minister made clear that his country largely relied on the United States for support.

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