President Biden seemingly rules out NATO membership for Ukraine: is this a major U-turn?

7 June 2024

In an interview with TIME on 28 May (published on 5 June), US President Joe Biden said that peace in Ukraine means a guarantee that Russia will never be able to occupy Ukraine, but he does not think that Ukraine has to become a NATO member for this to be the case.

Asked about his vision for peace in Ukraine after the end of the Russia-Ukraine war, Biden said: "Peace looks like making sure Russia never, never, never, never occupies Ukraine. That's what peace looks like. And it doesn't mean NATO, they are part of NATO". 

"It means we have a relationship with them like we do with other countries, where we supply weapons so they can defend themselves in the future. But [...] I am not prepared to support the NATOization of Ukraine", he added. 

Biden recalled spending time in Ukraine during his terms as a US Senator and Vice President: "There was significant corruption. There was a circumstance that was really difficult". But Biden stressed that the West cannot allow Ukraine to fall, because it would destabilise every country that borders Russia, from the Balkans to Belarus.

Biden also denied that helping Ukraine puts NATO on a slippery slope to war with Russia: "No, we're on a slippery slope for war if we don't do something about Ukraine".

The President’s comments contradict earlier commitments, including those made recently by senior US officials, as well as the long-standing position of the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. On 31 May, following an informal meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Prague, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the July NATO summit in Washington, DC, should be an occasion to take “concrete steps to bring Ukraine closer to NATO and ensure that there’s a bridge to membership, a bridge that’s strong and well-lit”. While on 29 May, US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said that “there will be some new language in the summit declaration on Ukraine’s membership aspirations”, adding “It won’t look exactly like the language that we had last year.  That needs to be negotiated. There are some very important and useful ideas floating around the Alliance right now, some interesting proposals”.  Neither gave detail on the conditions required for membership or on a time frame.

During a joint press conference with President Zelensky on 29 April, Stoltenberg reiterated that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO”, adding that “Ukraine will become a member of NATO. The work we are undertaking now puts you on an irreversible path towards NATO membership. So that when the time is right, Ukraine can become a NATO member straightaway”.

President Zelensky has pushed for Ukraine to be granted swift entry to NATO after the war is over. Membership of the alliance would compel the US and western nations to come to the defence of Ukraine in the event of any future Russian attack, under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance has been a major sticking point between NATO member states since the Bucharest summit in 2008, when they welcomed Ukraine and Georgia's aspirations to join but declined to provide a clear timeline for their possible membership. At last year’s summit in Lithuania, member states agreed to a joint communique stating that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO”, but refused to move forward with an accelerated membership plan supported by some eastern European countries. The Washington summit in July was expected to reinforce the message of support for Kyiv's eventual membership.