President Joe Biden prepares to board Air Force One at Yokota Air Base, Japan, May 24, 2022.

President Joe Biden prepares to board Air Force One at Yokota Air Base, Japan, May 24, 2022. (Kelly Agee/Stars and Stripes)

WARSAW — President Biden sought to bolster the countries along NATO’s eastern flank on Wednesday, pledging full support if Russia begins targeting their countries as he concluded a momentous three-day trip to Ukraine and Poland.

Hours before he was scheduled to leave for Washington, Biden reiterated that if Russia attacks any of those Eastern European countries, the United States would invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, meaning each member of the alliance would respond as if its own territory had been attacked.

“It’s absolutely clear: Article 5 is a sacred commitment the United States has made,” the president said before joining a closed-door meeting with leaders of the so-called Bucharest Nine nations. “We will defend every inch of NATO. Every inch of NATO.”

As the war in Ukraine approaches its one-year mark, the meeting was meant to reassure vulnerable nations that are near Ukraine and Russia, as well as to send a stark warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the consequences of escalating further.

“What literally is at stake is not just Ukraine. It’s freedom,” Biden said. “The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country after a war — since World War II, nothing like that has happened. Things have changed radically. We have to, we have to make sure we change them back.”

The meetings took place one day after Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s last remaining nuclear pact with the United States and as the two leaders underscored the growing distance between them in dueling speeches. Even as Biden sought to reaffirm a strong NATO alliance, Putin was simultaneously attempting to showcase his own alliance with China.

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, was in Russia for a meeting with Putin. Early Wednesday, Wang met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that “relations between Russia and China are developing dynamically, despite the turbulence.”

“Moscow and Beijing are ready to defend each other’s interests,” he added.

As he entered the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Biden was asked for a reaction to Putin’s decision to suspend its participation in New START, the arms control agreement between Russia and the United States. Biden at first joked he didn’t “have time,” but then, after a pause, he said, “Big mistake.”

The Bucharest Nine is made up of countries sandwiched between Russia and Western Europe, and the Ukraine War has driven up its anxieties about Moscow’s aggression as they worry that they may be next. The group consists of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

Biden also met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said it is crucial that the Ukraine war end in a way that prevents a repeat.

“President Putin is not preparing for peace. On the contrary, he is preparing for war,” Stoltenberg said. “So we must sustain and step up our support for Ukraine. We must give Ukraine what they need to prevail. We don’t know when the war will end, but when it does, we need to ensure that history does not repeat itself.”

He listed other aggressive actions Russia has taken in recent years.

“We cannot allow Russia to continue to chip away at European security. We must break the cycle of Russian aggression,” he said. “NATO allies have never been more united. We will protect every inch of our territory based on Article 5 commitment to defend the children. One for all and all for one.”

The Bucharest Nine was formed in 2015 in response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, with a goal of enhancing regional security and to promote cooperation among nations under threat.

“As NATO’s eastern flank, you’re on the front lines of our collective defense,” Biden told his fellow heads of state. “And you know better than anyone what’s at stake in this conflict, not just for Ukraine, but for the freedom of democracies throughout Europe and around the world.”

Several of the leaders around the table spoke about the importance of their alliance, and the steely resolve they must have for unpredictable months ahead.

“This year has made us stronger and more united, and we the countries on the eastern flank are more protected than ever,” said Slovak President Zuzana Caputova.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said all the nations involved “have the duty to stand in defense of peace.” He added, “We must stand firm on delivering our commitments to support Ukraine for as long as it needs to win this war.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — an authoritarian leader who the U.S. has often been at odds with — did not attend the summit, with his country represented instead by President Katalin Novak. Although Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union, it has increasingly jousted with other European countries as Orban moves in a more authoritarian direction.

Biden’s meeting with the Bucharest Nine Wednesday marked the last part of a three-day trip that began with a surprise, stealthily planned trip to Kyiv and concluded with two days of meetings to bolster nations in Eastern Europe and assure them of ongoing U.S. support against Russia.

He also met on Wednesday with U.S. Embassy staff and their families. Biden had a dark smudge visible on his forehead during his first public events, marking Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent when many Catholics go to Mass. Biden spent the morning at his hotel, but in the past has had priests come to him.

During a speech in Warsaw on Tuesday night delivered in front of a large cheering crowd, Biden spoke several times about the importance of the NATO alliance and how Putin’s invasion had strengthened it.

“When President Putin ordered his tanks to roll into Ukraine, he thought we would roll over. He was wrong,” Biden said. “He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than ever — than ever before.”

Biden also cited NATO’s bedrock agreement to defend against an attack on any of its members.

“Let there be no doubt, the commitment of the United States to our NATO Alliance and Article 5 is rock solid,” he said. “And every member of NATO knows it. And Russia knows it as well. An attack against one is an attack against all. It’s a sacred oath.”

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