Biden Vows to Back Ukraine ‘as Long as It Takes’ Despite Economic Toll

MADRID — President Biden vowed on Thursday that the United States and NATO would support Ukraine for as long as necessary to repel Russia’s invasion, despite waves of economic pain rolling through world markets and voters’ homes, saying it was the Kremlin that had miscalculated in its aggression, and not the West in opposing it.

Speaking at a news conference at the close of a NATO summit in Madrid, Mr. Biden said that Americans and the rest of the world would have to pay more for gasoline and energy as a price of containing Russian aggression. How long? “As long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” he said.

But his remarks underscored the kaleidoscope of problems that he and other NATO leaders face in keeping their people committed to backing up Ukraine with money, weapons and sanctions against Russia, despite the damage it is doing to Western economies and an uncertain outcome on the battlefield.

“You can already see in the media that interest is going down, and that is also affecting the public, and the public is affecting the politicians,” said Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister. “So it is our responsibility to keep Ukraine and what Russia is doing high up on our agenda. We’ve seen this so many times — you have a catastrophe, you have a war, and it just continues, but it slides away.”

The 30 member states of NATO capped an important, even transformative summit in Madrid this week, taking the first step to admitting Sweden and Finland, emphasizing their unity in support of Ukraine and approving plans to markedly increase the alliance’s forces in countries on its eastern flank, closest to Russia and its ally, Belarus. The decisions, all prompted by the Russian invasion, are expected to strengthen the alliance, especially in its ability to defend the Baltic nations, while extending its border with Russia significantly.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia set out to fragment NATO and prevent its expansion, but Mr. Biden said that before the war began, he warned Mr. Putin that if he invaded Ukraine, “NATO would not only get stronger, but would get more united, and we would see the democracies in the world stand up and oppose his aggression and defend the rules-based order.” That, he said, was “exactly what we’re seeing today.”

But he and the leaders face economic crises, division at home and increasingly weary voters. Fuel prices are soaring, driven by the war, high inflation and Western efforts to punish Moscow through its main exports, oil and gas. The United States, distracted and polarized by major court rulings, hearings on the Capitol riot and coming elections, is on the brink of recession. German leaders are warning of a potentially desperate energy crisis, and food prices are rising as Russia blocks critical exports from Ukraine.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy had to leave the summit to help shore up his political coalition, which is in part deeply unhappy over his firm support for Ukraine and the costs that entails.

Anna Wieslander, the Swedish director for Northern Europe for the Atlantic Council, said that although support for Ukraine had mostly held across the alliance, it was uneven: strongest in nations with long experience and deep fears of Russian domination, like Poland and the Baltic states, and more difficult to maintain in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece.

“There it’s more a hard sell, with inflation, high energy prices and war fatigue, and will they really buy this geopolitical argument that we have to do this now or things will be worse? We’re not there yet but, it will get harder,” she said.

And pledges of some members to beef up their militaries remain far from changing the material conditions of the alliance. Spain spends barely 1 percent of its GDP on defense, half of NATO’s goal; Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez promised to reach 2 percent only in 2029, and he must first persuade reluctant political parties to support the increase.

Ukraine’s leaders continue to plead for more arms, delivered faster, to beat back Russia’s slow advance. President Volodymyr Zelensky, addressing the NATO leaders, said this week that Ukraine needed some $5 billion a month just to keep his government functioning.

The announcement of a vastly expanded NATO reaction force, of some 300,000 troops or more, rather than the current 40,000, also illustrated the challenge Western leaders face in realizing their rhetoric. The allies must consult on which troops will be part of the force, spend money to equip them, train them and decide on the logistics of deployments — a process likely to take at least a year.

“A lot needs to be done by different countries, and it will take a lot of working through” to develop an integrated force that could fight a major land war in Europe, said Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, a military research group in Britain. But NATO can no longer focus on “expeditionary forces” to go fight in places like Afghanistan, he said, so “this summit has been transformative.”

While NATO and its allies have strained to navigate politics, find cash and move troops, China and India have filled the gap in Russia’s finances, buying the crude oil that fuels the Kremlin’s war machine. And Mr. Putin has re-emerged abroad for the first time in months, looking newly confident and patient, to engage in diplomatic niceties in Central Asia.

“The work is going smoothly, rhythmically,” he told journalists in Turkmenistan late Wednesday, describing the fighting by Russian forces. He insisted he was in no hurry to end the war, saying, “There is no need to talk about the timing.”

Despite that assertion, neither Russia nor Ukraine appears to have broken through the other side’s lines in a significant way in recent days, despite heavy bombardment and combat in the eastern Donbas region and parts of southern Ukraine. Both sides are badly depleted, having suffered heavy casualties and equipment losses.

After repeated Ukrainian attacks — including with powerful, newly arrived Western weapons — the last Russian troops retreated by speedboats overnight from Snake Island, a small speck of land in the Black Sea that Russia had seized and used as a base to menace the Ukrainian coast.

But it was unclear whether Ukraine would be able to reoccupy the island, which could affect the control of shipping lanes near Odesa. Russia has blockaded Odesa and other ports, preventing the export of millions of tons of grain and contributing to a global food crisis.

Instead, neither side may be able to hold the island in the near future, as Russian warships are held at a distance by Ukrainian missiles but still patrol the Black Sea, alongside submarines, in greater numbers than Ukraine can sink.

The consensus among American intelligence agencies is that the war is likely far from over, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said on Wednesday, in her first public update on the war in more than a month.

Ukrainian forces have held many of their fighting positions in Donbas, which includes the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Although Russia has secured much of Luhansk Province, American officials believe it will be difficult for the Russian military to capture the part of Donetsk they do not already control.

“The conflict remains a grinding struggle in which the Russians make incremental gains, but no breakthrough,” Ms. Haines said. “In short, the picture remains pretty grim.”

Steven Erlanger, Michael D. Shear and Jim Tankersley reported from Madrid, and Alan Yuhas from New York. Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski from Berlin, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Marc Santora from Warsaw, and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.

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