8 min read

Why NATO is growing — but not to include Ukraine

Inside President Biden’s role in expanding NATO to include Finland — and in nixing Ukraine’s bid for membership.
Why NATO is growing — but not to include Ukraine
The leaders of (from left to right) Turkey, NATO, and Sweden shaking hands last night. (Twitter)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, July 11, 2023. The 2024 elections are 483 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

No country has been formally neutral longer than Sweden. The Nordic nation declared its intention to stay out of military entanglements in 1814 — following a series of conflicts with Russia — and maintained that policy for more than 200 years and two world wars.

During the Cold War, Sweden — along with its neighbor Finland — staunchly refused to take a side, declining to ally either with Russia or with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) set up by the West to counter Soviet influence.

But that policy was quickly upended by Russia’s war on Ukraine, just one of many ways the 500-day conflict has transformed Europe’s security landscape.

Both Sweden and Finland submitted applications to join NATO on the same day in May 2022, less than three months after Russia’s Ukraine invasion began. Finland was successfully added to the military alliance in April of this year, after all of the bloc’s member states signed off.

Sweden’s road to NATO has been trickier: 29 out of 31 member states have approved its application, with Turkey and Hungary — frequent outliers within the alliance — refusing to sign on.

In a meeting last night before the annual NATO summit opens today in Lithuania, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson announced a deal — brokered by NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg — that will ease Sweden’s way into the group.

As part of the agreement, the Turkish parliament will move to ratify Sweden’s membership application; in exchange, Sweden will expand its response to pro-Kurdish militants from Turkey operating in its territory, which had been Erdogan’s main demand. (Turkey has long been in conflict with the Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority.) Sweden also agreed to boost Turkey’s application to join the European Union.

Hungary said it would fall in line as well, declaring that ratification of Sweden’s application is now merely a “technical matter.”

“Completing Sweden’s accession to NATO is an historic step that benefits the security of all NATO allies at this critical time,” Stoltenberg, the secretary-general, said in a statement. “It makes us all stronger and safer.” Sweden’s addition to the alliance will give NATO near-total strategic control of the Baltic Sea, which some experts have now taken to calling the “NATO Lake.” A ring of NATO countries will sit around the Baltic, surrounding Russia’s western border.

(Map by The Economist)

President Biden was not present for the three-way handshake between Erdogan, Kristersson, and Stoltenberg — but his fingerprints could be felt on the agreement.

Few world leaders are as associated with Sweden joining NATO as Biden, who has made unifying and expanding the alliance a core part of his foreign policy agenda. CNN reported last year that it was Biden who first suggested to Finland’s president in December 2021 — as Russia was massing troops on Ukraine’s borders — that the country consider joining NATO. When Biden and the Finnish leader met in the Oval Office the following March, they reportedly picked up the phone and patched in Sweden’s then-prime minister to pitch her on the idea as well.

The U.S. also played a role in yesterday’s last-minute dealmaking. The White House announced that it would move forward with selling F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, which Erdogan has long sought, a move seen as a key bargaining chip that prodded Erdogan to allow Sweden into the NATO fold. (Congress still has to approve the purchase.) Biden and Erdogan spoke on the phone on Sunday and are set to meet in-person today.

Asked this morning what made Turkey agree to Sweden’s membership, Biden grinned and answered simply: “What do you think?”

Meeting with Stoltenberg in Lithuania this morning, Biden lauded Sweden’s forthcoming addition to NATO as a “historic moment” for the alliance. Biden also praised Stoltenberg’s leadership, endorsing the secretary-general for another year in office. In a sign of the ties between the two men, Stoltenberg referred to Biden as “dear Joe” in his remarks.

However, even though Biden championed Sweden’s addition to NATO, he is at odds with other members of the alliance over adding another country: Ukraine.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has spent the last week traveling to several NATO capitals, campaigning for his war-torn country to be added to the group. Zelensky will also be on hand for the summit in Lithuania, where visiting leaders — Biden included — were greeted by a billboard declaring, “Ukraine deserves NATO membership now.”

Although much of NATO’s eastern flank — including summit host Lithuania — has backed Ukraine’s bid for membership, Biden announced his opposition to the proposal Sunday.

“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” Biden said in an interview with  CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, suggesting that the ongoing war with Russia would have to end before Ukraine is allowed in the alliance.

“If the war is going on, then we’re all in a war,” Biden said. “You know, we’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.” Under Article V of the NATO Treaty, an attack against one NATO member state is considered an attack against all member states — compelling the entire alliance to join in collective defense of the attacked country.

According to Politico, under the latest draft, NATO countries are set to announce at the end of the summit that they will “extend an invitation to Ukraine when allies agree and conditions are met,” language that Biden signaled this morning he agreed to.

In a post on Twitter, Zelensky called it “unprecedented and absurd” that NATO was declining to establish a specific timeline for Ukraine to join the group. “Uncertainty is weakness,” Zelensky added.

Although Ukraine will likely not be invited to the alliance during this week’s summit, the NATO countries are expected to offer increased security guarantees to Kyiv in the form of a multiyear aid package.

Ukraine is currently struggling to stage its long-awaited counteroffensive, facing difficulties outmaneuvering Russian defenses. The U.S. announced last week that it will provide cluster bombs — a controversial weapon banned in more than 100 countries — to Ukraine, a victory for Zelensky.

Biden and Zelensky are expected to meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit, during which Zelensky will presumably air his frustrations about being left out of the alliance.

Two Senate announcements.

After their issues with “candidate quality” in 2022, Senate Republicans have made a much more active effort to boost specific candidates in 2024 primaries. On Monday, they landed their top recruit in one of the cycle’s marquee races. WaPo’s John Wagner reports:

Sam Brown, a retired U.S. Army captain severely injured by an explosion in Afghanistan, announced a GOP bid Monday for the seat held by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), among those that Republicans are eying as they seek to regain control of the Senate in next year’s elections.

Brown is one of two Purple Heart recipients that Republicans have pinned their Senate hopes on, Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor notes. The other is former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, GOP leadership’s preferred candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in Montana.  

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the party’s plans to coronate Rep. Elissa Slotkin as their nominee for Michigan’s open Senate seat hit a speed bump Monday when actor Hill Harper — of “‘CSI: NY” and “The Good Doctor” fame — joined the race.

The anti-Trump money dump.

Some of the wealthiest groups in Republican politics are trying to kneecap Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports:

A new group with ties to the anti-tax Club for Growth is launching a multimillion-dollar ad campaign in key early primary states aimed at stopping Donald Trump from steamrolling to the Republican nomination.

And here’s the NYT’s Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan, and Shane Goldmacher last month:

The political network established by the conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch has raised more than $70 million for political races as it looks to help Republicans move past Donald J. Trump, according to an official with the group.

Flashback: “Conservative Club for Growth launches $1 million anti-Donald Trump campaign” (CBS, 9/15/15)... “The Kochs freeze out Trump” (Politico, 7/29/15)

These are the same groups that tried to take out Trump during the 2016 primaries — only for him to beat them with a fraction of their resources. We’ll see whether 2024 ends up any different.

A 164-year milestone.

Gen. David Berger stepped down as Commandant of the Marine Corps on Monday, but due to a blockade by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), the military branch has no permanent leader in place to succeed him.

Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith, whose nomination for the top post is being held up, will serve as Acting Commandant in the meantime. The Hill’s Brad Dress reports:

The last time the Marine Corps was left with an acting commandant was in 1859, when Archibald Henderson, the fifth commandant of the Marines, died at 76 without a successor in place.

Tuberville has refused to allow any Defense Department nominations to advance by unanimous consent until the Pentagon changes its policy of paying for the travel of service members seeking an abortion. Roughly 250 military promotions have been held up as a result.

A few more headlines.

Trump wants classified documents trial delayed until after 2024 election / Politico

Number of migrants at the border plunges as Mexico helps U.S. to stem flow / NYT

Think tank leader who claims to have given FBI info on Hunter Biden charged by Justice Department / The Hill

Biden confronts a “pissed-off generation” of young voters who may be decisive in 2024 / NBC

Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s staff prodded colleges and libraries to buy her books / AP

US attorney leading Hunter Biden probe refutes whistleblowers’ politicization claims / CNN

The Influencer Who Came to Congress / Time

The day ahead.

President Biden is in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the annual NATO summit. Earlier this morning, he met with President Gitanas Nausėda of Lithuania and participated in a group meeting with the other NATO heads of state (plus Sweden). Later today, Biden will meet wtih President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey.

The Senate will vote on confirmation of three nominees: Xochitl Torres Small (to be Deputy Secretary of Agriculture), Rosemarie Hidalgo (to be Director of the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women Office), and Kymberly Kathryn Evanson (to be a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Washington).

  • Senators will also receive a classified briefing from the Defense Department and the intelligence community on AI and national security.

The House will vote on bills on investing, small business paperwork, and a Marine Corps commemorative coin.

The Supreme Court is off until October.

In Fulton County, Georgia, two grand juries are set to be selected today. One of them is expected to decide whether to indict Donald Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis has signaled that any indictments in the probe would be released between July 31 and August 18.

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