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At NATO Summit, Biden Welcomes Sweden to Alliance But Tells Ukraine to Wait

6 minute read

On a secure phone line aboard Air Force One, 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday, President Biden spent 45 minutes spooling out a lengthy list of reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should agree to let Sweden, a well-armed ally on Russia’s doorstep, join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As the heads of NATO nations prepared to meet in Vilnius, Lithuania on Wednesday, the question of Sweden’s membership had loomed over the crowded agenda, threatening to suck valuable time and energy away from crucial questions facing the alliance such as when the allies would allow Ukraine to join and finalizing military build up plans along Russia’s western border.

Erdogan had been holding out for a number of concessions. He wanted the U.S. Congress to finalize Biden’s request to send a new batch of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey’s air force, for one. He wanted better trade terms with the European Union. And he wanted to ensure Sweden would crack down on Turkish opposition groups in Stockholm.

Biden spent his side of the conversation with Erdogan laying out the many steps Sweden had already taken to fulfill Turkey’s demands since the leaders of the two countries met in Madrid a year ago, according to a senior White House official. Biden also emphasized he’s been in touch with U.S. Senators about signing off on the F-16s for Turkey, and that he’s long publicly supported Turkey’s long-shot bid for membership in the European Union. But on Sunday, Biden ended his Air Force One call with Erdogan unsure what the Turkish leader would decide.

The next day Erdogan announced he would agree to Sweden’s bid to join NATO.

It was a historic step that would further expand the alliance and cement Biden’s legacy in helping strengthen NATO since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago. Sweden’s neighbor Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, joined the alliance in April, after holding out for 74 years.

The addition of two European countries to NATO in a single year with the strong support of the United States marks a major departure from President Donald Trump’s four years of belittling and berating the alliance. After the NATO meetings on Wednesday, Biden will travel to Helsinki on Thursday to show support for Finland and its willingness to stand up to Russia.

Biden’s trip to Helsinki comes five years after Trump traveled there and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including a two-hour private conversation between the two leaders with no official note takers and only the two men’s interpreters present. Trump drew strong bipartisan criticism from other US leaders after he told reporters in Helsinki that he believed Putin’s assurances that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections, despite lengthy documentation of Russia’s disinformation operations by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Even with Sweden’s membership resolved, President Biden will walk into Wednesday’s summit focused on how to answer Ukraine’s desire to eventually join NATO without dragging the entire alliance into Ukraine’s current hot war with Russia. Allies are looking for a way to make a clear statement about their joint desire to have Ukraine join NATO after the war ends.

“The question is what is the pathway toward Ukraine’s future membership?” Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters in Vilnius Tuesday morning. “I think we can come to a good understanding about that here in Vilnius, among all the allies and with Ukraine.”

“That’s really what these next two days are about, and I think that’s what will be reflected in the communique,” Sullivan added.

The U.S. and its allies are trying to come up with a new formula to describe how Ukraine could eventually fall under NATO’s security umbrella, to deter future invasions by Putin, without making Ukraine a former NATO ally now.

If Biden “can bring NATO together around a common position that we’re serious that the end state is Ukraine in NATO, we have to figure out the ‘how’ and the ‘when,’ but the ‘whether’ is no longer in question. If he does that, that’s a very big deal,” says Daniel Fried, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for Europe. “That’s legacy affirming. That puts him in the group of Presidents that have advanced freedom in Europe up to and after the end of the cold war.”

For his domestic audience, Biden’s advisors want him to show he can effectively wrangle America’s allies and serve as a force for stability and strength overseas. That is one way Biden’s aides hope he can overcome the lingering fallout from the disastrous end to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, which was a major hit to Biden’s pitch that he would bring experience and competency to US foreign policy.

There’s also the question of funding. Congress will decide at the end of the year how much more money to appropriate for Ukraine’s defense, and the Biden administration needs to continue to show that what the U.S. has invested so far hasn’t been in vain, says Michael Allen, who was a senior official on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “They need to project back to the American people and the Congress that our taxpayer dollars are not being wasted, that the Europeans are contributing at least their share,” Allen says. “That’s a tall order.”

Perhaps the thorniest issue facing Biden and NATO allies is figuring out how to bring the war in Ukraine to a stable end. Biden has slowly approved more and more lethal weaponry for Ukraine, including HIMARS rocket launchers, Abrams tanks, and a long-term commitment to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F16 fighter jets. In the past week, Biden also agreed to send cluster munitions to Ukraine to fill a short-term ammunition shortage.

“Historians may look back and say that, in the Ukraine crisis, he’s been pretty impressive in a lot of ways,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution focused on foreign policy. “What Biden really has to think about is history. How do we start to think about ending this war?”

O’Hanlon notes that Biden could find himself leaving office without resolving the conflict. “I don’t know how many points he’s gonna get historically for having been the guy who helped Ukraine survive the initial onslaught.”

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