BRUSSELS — Just before President Joe Biden started his news conference Monday, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that NATO agreed that his country could join the alliance.
“Commend @NATO partners’ understanding of all the risks and challenges we face,” he wrote. “NATO leaders confirmed that will become a member of the Alliance.”
Biden was inexplicably running late, two hours late, and the tweet suddenly appeared to explain what could be causing a delay.
Two days before Biden is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, news of Ukraine joining NATO would have sent a strong message to Russia. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and began supporting separatists in the country, Russia has continued to amass troops along the Ukrainian border.
On Twitter, foreign policy experts and journalists began to question what Ukraine’s announcement meant and what Biden would say. Some began to speculate Putin would cancel the meeting.
NATO, a 30-member alliance, was formed in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union. It pledge that an attack against one country is an attack against them all.
When Biden finally appeared in front of the cameras, he said NATO would stand behind Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” but didn’t mention the country joining the alliance. It quickly became clear that Ukraine had overstated what happened by not including when the country might be admitted.
NATO had merely reiterated a 2008 commitment that Ukraine will one day become a member. A U.S. official familiar with the matter said nothing had changed. “It’s very carefully worded to give support without committing to anything because the alliance is not unified on this,” the official said. Germany and France, in particular, are unlikely to support a path to membership.
Zelensky told reporters Monday he was looking for a “yes” or “no” answer from Biden on whether Ukraine would be admitted as a full member of NATO.
In answering a question about Ukraine joining NATO — though not specifically about the tweet — Biden responded: “It depends on whether they meet the criteria,” he said. “The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. They still have to meet other criteria. School’s out on that question, it remains to be seen.”
But he defended them against Russia. “We will do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression,” he said. “And it will not just depend on me, whether or not we conclude that Ukraine can become part of NATO, it will depend on the alliance and how they vote.”
After answering five questions over 25 minutes, Biden left. He never explained why he was late.
Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this report.