A More Muscular NATO Emerges as West Confronts Russia and China

MADRID — Faced with a newly aggressive Russia, NATO leaders on Wednesday outlined a muscular new vision that names Moscow as the military alliance’s primary adversary but also, for the first time, declares China to be a strategic “challenge.”

It was a fundamental shift for an alliance that was born in the Cold War but came to view a post-Soviet Russia as a potential ally, and did not focus on China at all.

But that was before Feb. 24, when Russian forces poured across the border into Ukraine, and Chinese leaders pointedly did not join in the global condemnation that followed.

“The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests,” NATO leaders said in a new mission statement issued during their summit in Madrid.

The announcement came on a day when a top U.S. intelligence official said victory in Ukraine was not yet in Russia’s grasp, the two sides said they had exchanged more than 200 prisoners of war, and a Ukrainian official said, “There are battles everywhere.”

In a flurry of steps at the summit in Madrid, which ends Thursday, President Biden and other NATO leaders sought to respond to President Vladimir V. Putin’s resurgent and bellicose Russia. Just before publishing the mission statement, they extended formal membership invitations to the until-now nonaligned Nordic countries Finland and Sweden, paving the way for NATO’s most significant enlargement in more than a decade.

“In a moment when Putin has shattered peace in Europe and attacked the very tenets of the rules-based order, the United States and our allies — we’re going to step up,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re stepping up.”

The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that thousands of new troops would be deployed in eight countries on NATO’s eastern flank. And Mr. Biden said that Washington would deploy an Army garrison headquarters and a field support battalion in Poland, the first U.S. forces permanently located on NATO’s eastern flank.

China offered a chilly response to the new NATO moves.

“We oppose certain elements clamoring for NATO’s involvement in Asia Pacific, or an Asia Pacific version of NATO based on military alliance,” said China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun. “The outdated Cold War script must not be reenacted in Asia Pacific. The turmoil in parts of the world must not be allowed in Asia Pacific.”

For his part, Mr. Putin kept his attention in Central Asia, where he has been visiting to shore up support for Moscow — all the more important now that the West has moved to make Russia a pariah nation.

In an apparently calculated bit of Kremlin counterprogramming, the Russian president attended a summit of his own: a gathering in Turkmenistan of the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea. He flew to Turkmenistan early Wednesday from Tajikistan, on the second leg of a two-day trip that took him out of Russia for the first time since the Ukraine war began in February. It was also his first overnight foreign trip since the pandemic began.

In a brief speech to the other leaders at the summit, including the presidents of Kazakhstan, Iran and Azerbaijan, Mr. Putin spoke of trade, tourism, fisheries and environmental issues, though he said not a word about NATO or Ukraine.

But later in the day, meeting with reporters after the summit was over, Mr. Putin scoffed at the significance of Finland and Sweden joining NATO — all the while issuing a warning.

“If military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there,” he said, “we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats against the territories from which threats are created against us,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s obvious. What, don’t they understand?”

Ukrainian leaders praised the NATO news.

“We welcome a cleareyed stance on Russia, as well as accession for Finland and Sweden,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said on Twitter. “An equally strong and active position on Ukraine will help to protect the Euro-Atlantic security and stability.”

But it was far from clear that the developments this week could help Ukraine turn the tide in a war in which its forces remain badly outnumbered and outgunned. Mr. Putin has appeared unmoved by foreign condemnations and sanctions as his forces use their superior artillery to bombard Ukrainian cities into submission.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian and Western officials said Moscow was dispatching thousands more soldiers and heavy weapons to eastern Ukraine as it struggles to lay claim to the last patch of sovereign Ukrainian territory in the eastern Luhansk Province.

“There are battles everywhere,” said Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk regional military administration. “Everywhere the enemy is trying to break through the line of defense. They are trying to destroy all settlements, to later enter only the territory, not the settlement.”

He said the Russians were using rocket-propelled grenade launchers, artillery, mortars, tanks, bombers and long-range missiles to clear the land of life so their infantry could advance.

The scorched-earth tactics have enabled the Russians to creep ever closer to Ukrainian positions within the city of Lysychansk in Luhansk Province, part of Moscow’s drive to claim all of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. But even with the remarkable expenditure of ammunition, gains have been slow.

Russian officials have dismissed claims of atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, insisting that they are limiting their assaults to legitimate military targets.

But across the country, civilian deaths are increasing day by day in smaller-scale attacks that claim handfuls of lives at a time. Even in cities and towns away from the war’s fiercest fighting, civilian casualties have steadily ticked upward.

“They might be going for military structures, but they are mostly hitting civilian infrastructure,” Vitaly Kim, the governor of the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine, said at a news briefing Wednesday. “I think they are trying to frighten the local population and demoralize our military.”

In her first public update in more than a month, the Biden administration’s director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, said Wednesday that Mr. Putin appeared to still be aiming to take most of Ukraine, but that in the short term a breakthrough by Russian forces in the country’s east remained unlikely. The consensus in American intelligence agencies is that the war is likely to go on for an extended time, Ms. Haines said.

With no sign that a cease-fire may be close, Ukraine announced the largest exchange of prisoners of war since Russia launched its invasion, among them dozens of Ukrainian soldiers who defended against the Russian siege of Mariupol, the southern port city that became a symbol of Ukrainian defiance.

While the exchange was shrouded in secrecy, Denis Pushilin, the head of Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donetsk area of Donbas, said that 144 Russian and proxy forces were returned in exchange for 144 Ukrainians.

The expansion of NATO came after protracted negotiations with Turkey, a member of the alliance that had raised objections. Although it was still unclear Wednesday exactly what had persuaded Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to alter his stance, clues emerged. Some involved Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish separatists.

Ann Linde, the Swedish foreign minister, said that Sweden and Finland had formally agreed not to lend support to Kurdish or other organizations that could harm Turkey’s security, whether with weapons or other aid.

“We don’t do that today either, but now it’s explicitly written,” Ms. Linde told Swedish Radio. She said her country would continue to provide humanitarian support to Kurds and others in northeastern Syria.

Both Sweden and Finland will also lift an informal arms embargo on Turkey imposed in 2019 after Turkey had intervened in northern Syria. As new members of NATO, Ms. Linde said, both countries would have “new commitments vis-à-vis allies, and this applies to Turkey as well.”

And the United States on Wednesday signaled a new willingness to sell upgraded F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, moving closer to satisfying the ally’s longstanding request.

American officials insisted the change was unrelated to the NATO expansion.

Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski from Paris; Michael Schwirtz from Athens; Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia; Megan Specia from Lviv, Ukraine; Julian E. Barnes from Washington; and Marc Santora from Warsaw.

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