Biden says war with Russia must end before NATO can consider membership for Ukraine

Jul 9, 2023, 2:30 PM

President Joe Biden speaks with CNN's Fareed Zakaria during a televised interview inside the Roosev...

President Joe Biden speaks with CNN's Fareed Zakaria during a televised interview inside the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 7. Photo credit: Tom Brenner for CNN

(CNN) — President Joe Biden told CNN in an exclusive interview that Ukraine is not yet ready for NATO membership, saying that Russia’s war in Ukraine needs to end before the alliance can consider adding Kyiv to its ranks.

Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that while discussion of Ukraine’s imminent membership in NATO was premature, the US and its allies in NATO would continue to provide President Volodymyr Zelensky and his forces the security and weaponry they need to try to end the war with Russia.

Biden spoke to Zakaria ahead of his weeklong trip to Europe, which includes a NATO summit in Lithuania where Russia’s war in Ukraine and Zelensky’s push for NATO membership will be among the key issues looming over the gathering.

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” Biden said. “For example, if you did that, then, you know – and I mean what I say – we’re determined to commit every inch of territory that is NATO territory. It’s a commitment that we’ve all made no matter what. If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.”

Biden said that he’s spoken to Zelensky at length about the issue, saying that he’s told the Ukrainian president the US would keep providing security and weaponry for Ukraine like it does for Israel while the process plays out.

“I think we have to lay out a rational path for Ukraine to be able to qualify to be able to get into NATO,” Biden said, noting that he refused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands before the war for a commitment not to admit Ukraine because the alliance has “an open-door policy.”

“But I think it’s premature to say, to call for a vote, you know, in now, because there’s other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues,” Biden said.

On Friday, the White House announced that the US was sending Ukraine cluster munitions for the first time, a step taken to help bolster Ukraine’s ammunition as it mounts a counteroffensive against Russia. Biden told Zakaria that it was a “difficult decision” to give Ukraine the controversial ammunition, but that he was convinced it was necessary because Ukraine was running out of ammunition.

The NATO meeting also comes as Sweden is seeking to join the Western alliance, a move that has faced resistance from Turkey and Hungary. Biden told Zakaria he was optimistic that Sweden would eventually be admitted to NATO, noting the key holdout, Turkey, is seeking to modernize its F-16 fleet, along with Greece, which has voted to admit Sweden.

“Turkey is looking for modernization of F-16 aircraft. And (Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos) Mitsotakis in Greece is also looking for some help,” Biden said. “And so, what I’m trying to, quite frankly, put together is a little bit of a consortium here, where we’re strengthening NATO in terms of military capacity of both Greece as well as Turkey, and allow Sweden to come in. But it’s in play. It’s not done.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Biden and Zakaria also discussed other key foreign policy challenges, including China, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Biden said that he’s confident Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to replace the US as the country with the largest economy and military capacity in the world, but he said that he believes the US can have a working relationship with Beijing.

“I think there is a way to resolve, to establish a working relationship with China that benefits them and us,” Biden said. “And the last thing I’ll tell you, I also called him after he had that meeting with the Russians about this new relationship, etc. And I said, ‘This is not a threat. It’s an observation.’ I said, ‘Since Russia went into Ukraine, 600 American corporations have pulled out of Russia. And you’ve told me that your economy depends on investment from Europe and the United States. And be careful. Be careful.’”

Biden said Xi didn’t argue with him and noted that China has “not gone full bore on Russia.”

“He talks about nuclear war being a disaster, there is such a thing as security that’s needed,” Biden said of the Chinese leader. “So, I think there’s a way we can work through this.”

Asked whether he would invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House, Biden said that Israel’s President Isaac Herzog was coming soon to the White House for a visit.

In March, Biden criticized Netanyahu for his now-scrapped plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary, a rare public instance where the two allies were publicly at odds.

Biden told Zakaria that he continued to believe a two-state solution was the correct path forward in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and he criticized some members of Netanyahu’s cabinet for their views on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“It’s not all Israel now in the West Bank, all Israel’s problem, but they are a part of the problem, and particularly those individuals in the cabinet who say, ‘We can settle anywhere we want. They have no right to be here, etc.,’” Biden said. “And I think we were talking with them regularly, trying to tamp down what’s going on and hopefully, Bibi will continue to move toward moderation and change.”

Biden also defended his trip to Saudi Arabia last year, telling Zakaria a number of successes came from the visit, such as establishing Israeli overflights over Saudi Arabia. Asked whether the US would provide the Saudis with a defense treaty and civilian nuclear capacity, as Riyadh has requested, Biden said, “We’re a long way from there.”

“Whether or not we would provide a means by which they can have civilian nuclear power, and/or be a guarantor of their security – I think that’s a little way off,” Biden said.

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Biden says war with Russia must end before NATO can consider membership for Ukraine