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Ukraine can't join NATO yet. But Biden says Zelenskyy is OK with that

President Biden vowed the United States and other western nations would continue to support Ukraine against Russia's war.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden vowed the United States and other western nations would continue to support Ukraine against Russia's war.

President Biden vowed continuing support for Ukraine in a speech in Lithuania on Wednesday, saying the U.S. and its allies would "stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes."

Biden spoke to a crowd of hundreds of people in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the end of a NATO summit where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had pressed NATO for a timeline for when his country could join the military alliance.

Zelenskyy left the summit without a timeline — but he did receive pledges for long-term security assistance by the United States and other G-7 nations. Biden has likened the aid to the kind that the United States provides Israel, and told reporters traveling with him that Zelenskyy was pleased.

"The one thing Zelenskyy understands now is that whether or not he's in NATO now is not relevant, as long as he has the commitments," Biden said, shortly before leaving Vilnius for Helsinki.

Some NATO members, including the United States, feel that Ukraine cannot join the alliance until Russia ends its war there. Otherwise, NATO would be drawn directly into the war.

Determining when the war is over will be complicated, given that almost 10 years ago, Russia annexed Crimea — territory that Ukraine still claims as its own.

Asked by NPR's Asma Khalid whether he felt the issue of Crimea needed to be fully resolved before the war could be declared as over, Biden said: "Seventeen other things need to be fully resolved, too. Crimea is important, but there's much more to deal with."

Biden said that Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine has united and re-energized the NATO alliance, which recently admitted Finland as its newest member and is poised to admit Sweden as well.

The summit comes more than a year after Russia's invasion, with no sign of a resolution in sight. While polls show Americans largely support the Ukrainian people, some Republican voters and lawmakers feel the country is giving too much money to the cause. GOP presidential frontrunners Donald Trump and Ron DeSantishave also argued the U.S. should pull back its support.

Speaking in Vilnius, however, Biden stressed that international support would "not waver."

"When Putin and his craven lust for land and power unleashed his brutal war on Ukraine, he was betting NATO would break apart," Biden said. "He thought wrong."

Biden took some credit for getting Sweden in NATO

Biden told reporters he had accomplished all his goals on the trip, and took some credit for convincing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for agreeing to lift his block on Sweden joining NATO.

"I know there was some cynicism about whether I could talk the Turks into Sweden," Biden said.

Erdogan has long wanted the United States to approve the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Biden has supported the sale, but Congress needs to approve it. Some lawmakers have expressed opposition, including Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Asked whether he was confident that Menendez would drop his objections now that Erdogan has agreed to Sweden's accession, Biden said: "I'm confident that Turkey will continue to support Sweden getting into NATO. And I'm confident we'll be able to sell them F-16s."

NPR's Asma Khalid contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.