NATO Summit in Vilnius: Results and future perspectives

2023 / 07 / 17

Author: Alex Petriashvili, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation


The NATO summit held in Vilnius on July 11-12 drew great interest and much anticipation in the lead up to the event. Everyone understood that the topic of Ukraine would be at the epicenter of the talks, and possible specific solutions, discussions of the various developments, and predictions on the potential results only served to increase the importance of the Vilnius summit. While the position of the President of Ukraine and his administration was clearly outlined: "We understand that now there is a war and no one will accept Ukraine in NATO, but we need clear signals, a road map, and an approximate time frame regarding the invitation and membership," alliance members chose to stick to their decision on multi-year military aid, refraining from making any commitment to Ukraine’s accession or to offer an invitation. Backstage, various countries were named as being opposed to any specific promise for Ukraine, and while it was not officially stated, the United States of America and Germany were at the top of the list of suspects. Using the method of exclusion, it can be assumed that precisely these two countries prevented the reaching of a consensus, since 23 NATO member states signed a joint bilateral declaration with Ukraine supporting Ukraine's accession to NATO, and 2-3 days before the summit, during President Zelensky's visit to Ankara, President Erdoğan said that Ukraine deserves NATO membership. Among the remaining 7 members were the USA and Germany.

Besides the issues of invitation and membership, there were differences of opinion and intensive diplomatic work regarding other matters also. In particular, one of the compromising offers for Ukraine was so-called Israeli-type multi-year military assistance in exchange for an absence of invitation to NATO. In this regard, the Ukrainian authorities very clearly stated that no other type of security guarantee would be acceptable to them than Ukraine's membership in NATO. I think many factors supported their argument in this regard. In addition, the question of removing the membership action plan or “MAP” obligation for Ukraine's accession was also discussed, which would have shortened the path to joining NATO. There was no consensus among the members of the alliance on this issue either. For example, Great Britain was in favor and the United States of America was against - both British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley and American President Joseph Biden openly stated their positions.

Thus, as anticipated, the discussion and decision-making around the issue of Ukraine turned out to be the most dramatic. The first information spread was via Dmytro Kuleba's tweet, according to which, after long consultations, the alliance agreed that Ukraine would join NATO without the MAP. The NATO Secretary General's statement ("we are continuing to talk about this") was not as clear, which made it obvious that the issue was not fully resolved. However, due to the fact that there was no consensus on the time frame for Ukraine's invitation to NATO, all members of the alliance, including the United States, agreed to remove the MAP. This decision was recorded in the final communiqué and in the statements made by the NATO Secretary General and the President of the USA during press conferences.

Apparently, the leadership of Ukraine was not satisfied and wanted specifics regarding the timing of the invitation. President Zelensky's statement before arriving at the summit was rather rigid, so much so that reciprocal statements were made and caused quite uncomfortable tension at the summit. Leaders of the member states (e.g. President Macron) and individual representatives (White House Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby) sympathized with Ukraine's discontent, while others (UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace) demanded more gratitude for military aid. However, in the end, Zelensky himself defused the situation, saying that a concrete response on the invitation would be ideal, but the decisions made at the summit should be considered a good result, and he is grateful for the assistance that the alliance provides to Ukraine.

In addition to the removal of the MAP commitment, Ukraine adopted the format of the NATO-Ukraine Council, to which NATO itself attaches great importance. During and after the summit of the first such format, many promising statements were made for Ukraine, and after the meeting with President Biden, Zelensky should not have been dissatisfied, since the American president openly stated his strong will and readiness on Ukraine’s accession to NATO. "We eagerly await our official meeting where we will confirm the invitation to NATO."

During the summit, it was decided that NATO will allocate 500 million dollars annually for non-lethal support to Ukraine, which involves training the Ukrainian armed forces to bring them in line with NATO standards. Further, the leaders of both member and non-member countries (Australia) have applied for new military aid packages for Ukraine. In particular, Germany will additionally transfer two Patriot anti-aircraft defense systems, 40 Marder armored vehicles and 25 Leopard 1 A5 tanks (bringing the total German aid so far to 700 million dollars); France will transfer long-range (400 km) SCALP-type missiles (similar to the British Storm Shadow); Canada 410 million dollars in aid; Great Britain 65 million dollars, and 30 Bushmaster armored vehicles from Australia.

During the summit with the Minister of Defense of Ukraine, the heads of the defense agencies of 11 NATO member states signed the agreement to start the training of Ukrainian pilots on American F-16s from August. Later, US President's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that these planes are likely to be delivered to Ukraine from the stocks of European allies, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba suggested that the US F-16s will appear in Ukraine's arsenal by the end of the 1st quarter of 2024.

The crown of this assistance and support was the joint declaration agreed by the G7 countries, which contains the commitment of the seven countries with the most powerful economies of the democratic world to provide Ukraine with all the necessary weapons, help to train its armed forces, and cooperation in the field of intelligence information exchange and cyber security. It must be noted that in the final communiqué, declaration of the G7, and in the statements of individual leaders, the special importance of Ukraine's fight against corruption and the successful implementation of reforms in the institutions of state was clearly noted.

The President of Ukraine highly appraised the decision of the G7, and expressed hope that it will be the basis for the signing of future bilateral security guarantee agreements. Thus, for Ukraine as a whole, the Vilnius summit should be considered a success.

In addition to the Ukraine issue, there were two big topics on which reaching an agreement was of particular importance for the alliance. It is difficult to say which was more important, but in the media space, more attention was definitely paid to obtaining Turkey's agreement on Sweden's NATO membership, and Turkish President Erdoğan personally made a big contribution to this- very skillfully "upping" the game both before and during the summit in order to make his consent even more important and, to put it bluntly, get more in return. The second issue, which was also of great importance, was the decision to develop a strategic plan for defense and deterrence. At the NATO Wales summit in 2014, it was decided that within 10 years, all member countries should fulfill the obligation to spend 2% of their GDP on defense. The start of full-scale Russian aggression in Ukraine, the struggle in Ukraine, and the course of the war made it clear to all countries that most were not ready for defense and deterrence. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War emboldened the NATO member states and made them lose focus in this direction. Spending on defense and armaments has been steadily decreasing over the years. That is why, when the Alliance made the principle decision to extend military support to Ukraine, the Allies quickly discovered that their stockpiles of weapons and ammunition would soon be in danger of depletion. Accordingly, the defense and deterrence strategy required a principled decision on the part of the alliance members.

We can already safely declare that the summit was successful in this regard. One day before the official opening, the Secretary General of NATO, the President of Turkey, and the Prime Minister of Sweden met in Vilnius and, after three hours of negotiations, they announced that the President of Turkey will send the ratification certificate to the Turkish legislative body as soon as possible and will personally oversee the successful and quick completion of the process. There was an expectation that the ratification procedure would be passed in the following days of the summit, however, after the summit, President Erdoğan said that the Turkish Parliament would not meet until October and, therefore, the ratification would not take place until then. We must not forget that the Hungarian Parliament must also ratify this document, and it also plans to do so in the autumn session. All in all, the issue is resolved and Sweden will become the 32nd member of NATO in the autumn. Without exaggeration, it can be said that Sweden, with the level of its military training and compatibility with NATO, the strength of its military-industrial complex, its economic situation and degree of democracy, is a great addition for a North Atlantic Alliance facing such global challenges.

It has not been officially confirmed, and both sides deny a direct link, but it is said that in exchange for agreeing to Sweden's accession, Turkey will receive American approval for the purchase of new F-16 aircraft and the modernization of existing ones. The process has been moving through Congress and is highly likely to be resolved positively.

The agreement reached at the summit regarding the general plan of defense and deterrence was assessed as historic, since an agreement on defense measures of such a scale was made for the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Union (300,000 military personnel on high alert, additional naval and air assets, etc.), while the minimum limit of 2% of GDP on defense was decided on the "merit" of Russia's full-scale aggression in Ukraine; otherwise it would not have happened.

Another issue, one which was supposed to be decided at the Vilnius summit, could not be agreed upon shortly before the summit: the election of the new Secretary General. Among the three main candidates being considered were the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Spain, and the UK Defense Secretary. Consensus could not be reached, yet the issue was easily resolved: Jens Stoltenberg's tenure as NATO Secretary General was extended for another year. Before the start of the summit, there were also reports that Joe Biden supported the candidacy of Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, although Mrs. von der Leyen herself refused the proposal. She still has one year left on her current position and, therefore, time to think about her candidacy for the post of NATO Secretary General.

As for Georgia, in the paragraph dedicated to Georgia in the final communique, the adherence to the decision taken at the 2008 Bucharest summit on Georgia's accession to NATO was recorded, and in the context of the accession, the granting of a MAP to Georgia was again reiterated as a necessary condition. Noteworthy is the reference to the importance of reform implementation, in particular, the importance of using all instruments of cooperation with NATO in terms of implementing said reforms. In my view, if the political will had been there, doing the necessary work well in advance of the summit and making progress on reforms would have given us a better record in the final NATO communique.

In my opinion, overall, the summit was a success. I think that the expectations were somewhat exaggerated, but the results turned out to be significant and tangible.

Next year, the 75th summit will be held in Washington, and in 2025 in the Netherlands. According to President Zelensky, Ukraine will be able to achieve victory over Russia in 2024, which will make the issue of Ukraine joining NATO inevitable. We should hope that this year the war will take a positive turn and Ukraine's invitation to NATO will indeed become a reality at the next summit.  

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