WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants Ukraine to win the war against Russia. But he doesn’t want World War III—especially with nukes.
Balancing these two goals has been difficult, and the tension was particularly evident at this week’s NATO summit in Vilnius.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an emotional and even caustic demand for a clear path to joining the alliance.
But Biden, who sought to demonstrate NATO’s strength in his closing remarks Wednesday night, refused to take that step, even as the United States continues to provide Ukraine with more weapons and ammunition than any other country.
Competing priorities amid Europe’s bloodiest war in generations created frictional tensions, even as Biden and Zelenskyy projected a united front during their meeting as the summit drew to a close.
During the public meeting, two leaders cleared the air, each conspicuously praising their counterpart.
Biden praised Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians for their courage, saying he was “an example for the whole world.” Zelensky thanked Biden and the American people for billions of dollars in military aid, saying “you are spending this money on our lives.”
Biden, wearing a blue-and-yellow striped tie in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, admitted that Zelenskyi was sometimes displeased by unfulfilled requests for weapons.
“I can only imagine the frustration,” Biden said. “I know a lot of times you’re frustrated about whether things are getting to you fast enough, what’s getting to you, and how we’re getting to you. But I promise the United States will do everything we can , to get what you need.”
Biden also said the war created a sense of unity in the face of international aggression.
“It brings the world together,” he said. “It’s a hell of a price to pay, but it brings the world together.”
The meeting came after several other summit meetings between Biden and Zelenskyy. They sat close to each other at the inaugural meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, a new forum designed to give Kyiv a greater voice within the alliance.
And they were on stage together when the Group of Seven, which includes the world’s strongest democracies, announced long-term security assistance to Ukraine.
But Wednesday afternoon was the first time Biden and Zelenskyy sat down with their advisers face-to-face — since their public comments.
And by then, Zelensky had softened his tone considerably. Traveling to Vilnius on Tuesday, he shot down NATO’s vague plans for Ukraine’s possible membership, tweeting: “Unprecedented and absurd when there is no deadline set for either the invitation or Ukraine’s membership.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said that “everyone needs to be clear on the fact” that allowing Ukraine to join NATO at this point “means war with Russia.”
“It’s an inescapable fact,” he told CNN.
Sullivan credited Biden with making NATO “more united, more determined, and more determined than it has ever been.”
“This is President Biden’s legacy as far as NATO is concerned, and he can be very proud of it,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Associated Press in an interview before Biden’s trip that the president was “moving in the right direction, but not fast enough” when it came to supporting Ukraine.
“It looks like the arms transfers are never going to happen as announced,” said McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. While Ukrainians are “extremely grateful for the help,” he said, the help “often doesn’t come soon enough to be most effective.”
While McConnell strongly supports aid to Ukraine, other Republicans have voiced skepticism, raising uncertainty about Biden’s ability to make long-term financial commitments.