Ahead of this week’s NATO summit in Lithuania, U.S. leaders are insisting that the war with Russia must end before Ukraine is invited to join the powerful military alliance.
President Biden said during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that aired Sunday that he doesn’t believe there will be “unanimity” on the issue of Ukraine’s membership while the nation remains “in the middle of a war.”
“We’re determined to [protect] every inch of territory that is NATO territory,” Biden said, noting that if Ukraine were part of NATO, it would put the alliance at war with Russia.
Biden added that it was “premature” to call for a vote on Ukrainian membership because the country still has to meet some NATO qualifications. Biden said he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have spoken at length about the issue of membership, and said the two have to lay out a “rational path … for Ukraine to be able to qualify.”
Still, Biden said the United States remains committed to supplying the war-torn nation with the security assistance it needs to continue fending off Russia.
Like Biden, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said talk of Ukraine’s membership is “too premature.” McCaul told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that Ukraine has to win the counteroffensive against Russia, secure a cease-fire and negotiate a peace settlement before joining NATO.
“We cannot admit Ukraine into NATO immediately; that would put us at war with Russia under Article 5 of the United Nations,” McCaul said.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that the war “has to end with Ukrainian victory,” and that Ukraine also has to join the European Union, which involves “improving their transparency, their rule of law, their civil society, which lays the foundation for NATO membership in the future.”
The comments on Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership come days after Biden approved sending U.S. cluster munitions to Ukraine. The weapons have been controversial because they explode in the air over a target, releasing dozens to hundreds of smaller submunitions across a wide area. More than 120 countries have joined a convention banning their use as inhumane and indiscriminate, in part because unexploded submunitions litter the landscape and endanger both troops and civilians.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday that Ukraine has agreed to not use these powerful munitions on Russian territory. It will only use such weapons in its own territory, where, he said, Kyiv has “the highest incentive to limit the impact to civilians, because it is Ukrainian citizens who would be at risk.” Ukraine also agreed not to use the munitions in populated areas, Sullivan said.
Zelensky, in an interview that aired Sunday on ABC, said inviting Ukraine into NATO is “all a matter of political will.” In the meantime, Zelensky said Ukraine “should get clear security guarantees” from NATO members in the effort against Russia.
“It would be an important message to say that NATO is not afraid of Russia,” he said.
Zelensky said he will attend the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, to do whatever he can to “expedite that solution to have an agreement with our partners.”
“I don’t want to go to Vilnius for fun,” he said.
John Kirby, the spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said on ABC’s “This Week” that strong commitments will be made to Ukraine during the upcoming summit.
“You’re going to see the allies really stay unified on supporting Ukraine in this fight against Russia on their soil,” Kirby said. “You’re also going to see from all the allies a concerted, unified approach to making it clear that NATO is eventually going to be in Ukraine’s future, and that in between the time of the war ending and that happening, that the allies will continue to help Ukraine defend itself.”
While Biden remained skeptical of Ukraine’s ascension into the alliance in the immediate future, he told CNN he is optimistic that Sweden, which has also been fighting for membership, will become a NATO member soon. Extending membership to a new nation requires the approval of all NATO allies, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have cited objections to adding Sweden.
“Sweden has the same value set that we have in NATO, [is] a small nation, but has a capacity to defend itself, as they know how to fight,” Biden said, echoing other statements he has made in the lead-up to the summit. “I think they should be a member of NATO.”
Turkey has criticized Sweden for refusing to extradite individuals it sees as terrorists, including members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a movement accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government in 2016. Turkey also has complained about anti-Erdogan protests held in Sweden and demonstrations at which Qurans were burned.
Officials in Hungary, meanwhile, have cited a variety of reasons for their country’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s accession, from what a government spokesman said was Stockholm’s eagerness to “bash Hungary” to the Nordic country’s “crumbling throne of moral superiority.”
Biden, in the interview with CNN, responded to Turkey’s criticisms by arguing that it isn’t “Swedes that are burning the Quran. They are immigrants who are burning the Quran.”
The White House said Biden and Erdogan spoke Sunday about Sweden’s membership bid and Biden “conveyed his desire to welcome Sweden into NATO as soon as possible.” Erdogan told Biden that Sweden has taken the “correct steps” to appease Turkey’s concerns by passing anti-terrorism policies — but that these policies were voided by PKK protests, per Turkey’s state news agency.
Nitasha Tiku contributed to this report.