HELSINKI — President Biden defiantly declared Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “already lost the war” in Ukraine, making the stark assertion on a visit to the newest member of the NATO alliance as he wrapped up his five-day trip to Europe with a stop in Finland.
Biden’s visit drew a sharp contrast with a 2018 trip to Finland by his predecessor, Donald Trump, who held a private meeting with Putin in the same location and created a furor when he suggested he trusted the Russian president more than he did America’s intelligence services.
Biden’s 21 hours in Helsinki capped an eventful three-country excursion in which he sought to rally global partners around a joint commitment to support Ukraine against Russia and bolster NATO, while also making a case for his broader foreign policy approach ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
“At every stop in every summit on this trip, we focused on using the power of partnership to take on the challenges that matter most to the people’s lives in our countries,” Biden said during a joint news conference Thursday with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.
In a whirlwind of travel and meetings that began in London and included a two-day stop at a NATO summit in Lithuania, Biden made the case for multilateralism and global cooperation, notching victories as Turkey ended its blockade on Sweden’s NATO bid and G-7 nations joined to offer Ukraine a set of long-term security guarantees. At the same time, the trip unveiled fresh tensions as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky blasted NATO leaders for failing to offer his country a clear pathway for joining the alliance.
And the meetings did little to provide clarity about how the war in Ukraine might be brought to a close, as the conflict is now deep into its second year with no sign of winding down. Biden has made his handling of the war a key pillar of his reelection pitch.
Even as the president asserted that Russia’s invasion had already failed — citing Moscow’s military setbacks, economic struggles and diplomatic isolation — Biden offered more questions than answers when asked how long it might take for the deadly fighting to come to an end.
“Putin has a real problem: How does he move from here? What does he do?” Biden said during the news conference, declining to predict how Putin would respond to the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive. “He could end the war tomorrow. He could just say ‘I’m out.’”
Biden added, “But what agreement is ultimately reached depends upon Putin and what he decides to do. But there is no possibility of him winning the war in Ukraine. He’s already lost that war.”
As he headed back to Washington after a trip that aides touted as a success, Biden faced the challenge of convincing both the Congress and the electorate that the strategy he touted in Europe merits long-term American support.
The president will need bipartisan congressional approval to make good on his pledge to ink a new bilateral security pact with Ukraine, a potential multibillion-dollar request at a time when some Republicans in Congress have grown weary of the amount of U.S. aid flowing to Kyiv.
Biden became visibly impassioned when a Finnish reporter asked how Finland, and NATO more broadly, could be confident that America’s support would remain “reliable” — an apparent reference to the possibility that Trump, or another Republican wary of America’s traditional alliances, could retake the White House.
Biden said he could “absolutely guarantee you” that the United States will continue to back NATO. “There’s always support from the members of the Congress, both House and Senate, in both parties, notwithstanding some extreme elements of one party,” he said. “You know, no one can guarantee the future, but this is the best bet anyone could make.”
Yet the venue of the president’s events Thursday itself offered a stark reminder of how unpredictable American foreign policy can be in the current era.
During a 2018 news conference in the same presidential palace where Biden took questions Thursday, Trump stood next to Putin and appeared to side with the Russian leader over his own intelligence community when asked about reports that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.
Trump, who has openly mused about pulling the United States out of NATO, declared that the Russian president “was extremely strong and powerful” in his denial.
Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, said the change in atmosphere from five years ago “could not be starker.” He added, “It will matter who is the next president of the United States.”
Still, McFaul said he wished Biden had said more explicitly that no president can single-handedly sever the transatlantic relationship. “We are not a monarchy, we are not a dictatorship,” McFaul said. “Even if Mr. Trump is reelected, you cannot unilaterally pull us out of the alliance. I think that’s an important message for our allies to hear.”
Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen said the respective Trump and Biden visits showcase the volatility of global politics — and the need for Europe to boost its own defenses rather than relying on the United States.
“Wow, how the world has changed in five years,” she said in an interview. “Let’s put it this way: The setting today and the meeting today is much more pleasant to host, obviously, than what was five years ago.”
Niinisto downplayed the likelihood of an abrupt shift in U.S. policy if Biden does not win another term, telling reporters that he has met with dozens of U.S. lawmakers and was confident in their commitment to European allies. “I think the message was quite clear, quite united,” the Finnish leader said. “And I have no reason to doubt about U.S. policies in the future.”
While many Republican leaders strongly back continued aid to Ukraine, signs of discontent have emerged from some quarters of the party. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said Ukraine should not receive a “blank check,” and polls suggest a growing number of Republican voters worry the United States is giving the country too much aid.
Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, joined NATO in April, a major shift after decades of embracing a policy of military nonalignment. Sweden, a country with a similarly neutral past, is now set to join in coming months.
Biden has repeatedly cited Finland’s decision to join NATO as evidence that Putin strengthened the Western alliance by invading Ukraine last year. On Thursday, he repeated his now-familiar formulation that Putin had hoped for “the Finlandization of NATO,” but instead he got “the NATO-ization of Finland.” (Finlandization refers to a country being under the sway of a more powerful neighbor, as Finland was during the Soviet era.)
In addition to meeting with Niinisto, Biden participated in a meeting with the five Nordic countries — Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Denmark.
Coming out of the high-stakes NATO summit, the Nordic gathering was a less dramatic affair. Valtonen called it “more of a sort of family gathering rather than rigid negotiations, because there are so many things that we agree on,” citing security, technology and the environment as examples.
But even in this cordial venue, the war in Ukraine loomed large, especially the question of its duration.
In response to a question, Biden said he did not believe the war would drag on for years, saying he hoped that a combination of Ukraine’s current military counteroffensive and Russia’s increasingly depleted resources would force Moscow to the negotiating table.
“I think that there is going to be a circumstance where eventually President Putin’s going to decide it’s not in the interest of Russia — economically, politically or otherwise — to continue this war,” Biden said. “But I can’t predict exactly how that happens.”
James Goldgeier, a top National Security Council official under President Bill Clinton, said that despite Biden’s assurances, America’s allies will continue to worry about a potential 2024 win by Trump or a like-minded candidate.
Goldgeier pointed to Trump former national security adviser John Bolton’s comment that the former president would have pulled out of NATO in his second term, a remark that has caused anxiety among some European leaders.
“Allies have to be concerned about the reliability of the United States over the long term,” Goldgeier said. “But all Biden can do is pursue the policy he’s been pursing, and then if he wins reelection keep pursing.”
Michael Birnbaum in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.