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Biden and NATO send Russia a defiant message

NATO countries, welcoming Finland and Sweden and announcing a surge of forces, hope to signal to Moscow that their commitment to Ukraine is not waning

President Biden praised steps taken to pave the way for Finland and Sweden’s admission into NATO during a news conference on June 30. (Video: The Washington Post)

MADRID — Under pressure to find new ways to confront Russia as its deadly invasion of Ukraine drags into its fifth month, President Biden and his NATO allies on Wednesday announced a historic surge of forces along Europe’s eastern flank and welcomed Finland and Sweden as soon-to-be members as they promised to defend “every inch” of NATO territory.

The muscular military announcements were intended to send “an unmistakable message” that NATO remains unified against Russia’s growing belligerence, said Biden, standing alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the second day of the NATO summit here.

“In a moment when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has shattered peace in Europe and attacked the very, very tenets of rule-based order, the United States and our allies — we’re going to step up,” Biden said. “We’re proving that NATO is more needed now than it ever has been. And it’s as important as it ever has been.”

NATO’s resurgence and expansion, after years when it sometimes seemed adrift, was intended to signal that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is having an effect opposite from the one he sought. The Russian leader wanted “less NATO,” Stoltenberg said, but instead is getting “more NATO.”

The United States and its allies have been looking for ways to show that their early determination to help Ukraine and confront Russia would not wane, despite Moscow’s recent gains on the battlefield and the growing domestic costs of the conflict for America and other countries. Still, the war could drag on for months or years, and its final geopolitical impact is far from clear.

At G-7 summit, leaders look for ways to boost Ukraine

The new U.S. military deployments include a permanent headquarters for the U.S. 5th Army Corps in Poland — a move that Putin has long resisted — as well as additional rotational combat brigades to Romania, enhanced rotational deployments to the Baltic region, an increase in the number of destroyers stationed at Rota, Spain, from four to six and two additional F-35 squadrons to the United Kingdom.

The alliance also released its new Strategic Concept, its first since 2010. The document, a road map for addressing threats and challenges in the coming decade, underscores just how much the security environment has changed in recent years; the previous Strategic Concept called Russia a “strategic partner” and did not mention China at all, while this one directly addresses both Russia’s current aggression and China’s growing influence.

NATO to boost rapid reaction force

White House officials said that the combination of the accession of Finland and Sweden — two militarily nonaligned Nordic states prompted to join by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and the more robust force posture in Europe, as well as increased NATO funding targets, underscore the alliance’s resolve and growing influence.

Just a few years ago, many NATO members, including powerful ones like Germany, refused to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, as the allies had agreed, and some were questioning NATO’s fundamental mission and even whether it had outlived its purpose. Putin’s invasion has changed all that with remarkable speed.

Wednesday’s announcements were also a respite from some of the tensions that recently exposed fissures among NATO allies. At a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies earlier this week, leaders were unable to agree on the specifics of a deal to impose price caps on Russian oil. Significant disagreements have also emerged between some of the NATO countries over how hard to push for an end to the war in Ukraine and how to continue supporting the beleaguered country in the face of economic fallout back home.

Addressing by video some of the NATO leaders at the G-7 summit Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for additional military and economic support, including air defense systems, and called for an end to the conflict by winter, when he fears the weather could lead to a prolonged stalemate.

On Wednesday, Zelensky again virtually addressed leaders at the Madrid summit, warning that Russia’s ultimate aim is to expand its empire westward, and that it will not stop at Ukraine.

“It wants to absorb city after city — all of us — and then all in Europe, whom the Russian leadership considers its property, not independent states,” Zelensky said, according to remarks released by his office. “This is Russia’s real goal.”

Still, the Ukrainian president added, his goal was to address this summit next year with his “direct participation, not this online format,” calling that future hypothetical “a testament to our common victory.”

Easily the biggest breakthrough as the leaders arrived in Madrid on Tuesday was the news that Turkey had dropped its previous objections and would allow Finland and Sweden to begin the process of joining the 30-member military alliance. Turkey, like all NATO members, has a veto over admitting new ones, and it objected to the two countries’ support for certain Kurdish groups.

On June 28, Turkey agreed to support Finland and Sweden's NATO bids after a month of opposition. (Video: Reuters)

Turkey drops objections to Finland and Sweden joining NATO

The period of uncertainty over whether Turkey would exercise its veto over the two Nordic nations allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to spotlight long-standing grievances over support in parts of Europe for Kurdish militants, as well as to distract from his government’s economic problems at home.

But it was unclear what concrete concessions, if any, Turkey received in exchange for allowing Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to move forward. On a call with reporters Tuesday, a senior administration official said Turkey did not ask the United States for any specific actions.

“I want to particularly thank you for what you did, putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden, and all the incredible work you’re doing to try to get the grain out of Ukraine and Russia,” Biden told Erdogan on Wednesday, before a private meeting between the two leaders.

White House officials said that while Biden deliberately did not insert himself deeply into the talks among Turkey, Finland and Sweden, he worked behind the scenes to give the agreement a final push.

In a phone call Tuesday morning with Erdogan — in advance of Erdogan’s in-person meeting with Stoltenberg and the leaders of Finland and Sweden — Biden pressed the Turkish leader “to seize this moment, get this done in Madrid,” said the senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid details of how the agreement came together.

Biden also told Erdogan that finalizing a deal Tuesday evening, at the beginning of the NATO summit, would set up a “very good opportunity” for the two leaders when they met in person Wednesday.

The accession of the Nordic countries had long been in the works, administration officials said, noting that in the months before Russia entered Ukraine, as Moscow began massing troops on the country’s border, Biden had recognized the changed European security environment. In December, Biden reached out to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to begin conversations about the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining NATO.

Putin has always bitterly objected to any expansion of the alliance, whose members pledge to come to each other’s defense in case of any attack, seeing it as a way of hemming in his country and limiting its influence.

Biden and Niinisto spoke again in January, and then Biden invited the Finnish leader to the White House for a more detailed discussion. There, during their discussion in the Oval Office, the two leaders picked up the phone and, around 10 p.m. one night, called Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to continue the conversation with her.

Having the effort come together at the outset of a summit designed to signal NATO’s determination is particularly resonant, officials said.

“The timing is obviously excellent,” the senior administration official said. “This obviously is just a powerful shot in the arm from the point of view of allied unity and also a historic moment for the alliance, two traditionally neutral countries choosing to sign up to NATO and being welcomed by NATO.”

The alliance had previously agreed to deploy additional forces on its eastern flank, scaling up from the existing battle groups to brigade-size units.

Most of those troops won’t actually sit in the front-line countries, but they will pre-position their equipment and train on the ground frequently so that they are ready to speed to the defense of the NATO countries that border Russia in case of an emergency.

The Madrid summit also marks the first time that leaders of four Asian countries — Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — attended the military and diplomatic gathering, signaling the alliance’s growing focus on Asia even amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met privately at the summit to discuss North Korea, according to the White House. The two Asian leaders also joined broader discussions on what Russia’s war means for global security, including in the Indo-Pacific region.

Many Asian nations fear that if Russia succeeds in winning control of Ukraine, it will encourage China to show similar aggression toward its own neighbors.

“Japan is totally appalled by what is going on in Ukraine,” said Koichiro Matsumoto, Japan’s deputy cabinet secretary for public affairs. “And it is not just a problem for European countries.”

China is closely watching Russia’s war in Ukraine, Matsumoto said, and studying its implications, particularly vis-a-vis China’s designs on Taiwan.

“We made it very clear in the G-7 summit that we should not let any country draw the wrong lessons from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Matsumoto said. “We must stand firm and apply the maximum level of sanctions that we can agree.”

On Monday, Stoltenberg also announced that the alliance plans to build a rapid-reaction force of 300,000 troops to defend its territory — a significant step that nonetheless came as a surprise to many of the defense officials who oversee the troops.

Several senior European security policymakers said that they did not know in advance about the plan to expand NATO’s quick response force from its current size of 40,000 and that they were taken by surprise when Stoltenberg announced it.

A senior defense official from a different European country said that his country had not been consulted about the figure ahead of time. The official wondered which of his own country’s troops were being counted toward the force.

The rapid reaction force is intended to be deployable within 15 days. The plan aims to muster 100,000 troops within 10 days and an additional 200,000 within 30 days.

But the numbers and country-level commitments are theoretical for the moment, a NATO official conceded.

“The concept has not been fully worked up yet,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity per NATO ground rules. “We will have to do more to build up the model before we can work out what national commitments can be.”

Michael Birnbaum in Washington and Kareem Fahim in Istanbul contributed to this report.