Kristine Berzina: NATO Adopts a Global Perspective
NATO's summit in Vilnius put the high stakes that the alliance faces on full display, and the meeting will be remembered for its passion in meeting those challenges. What started as a roller coaster of emotion on the eve of the gathering, with concern about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's bargaining style and then revelry over his greenlighting of Sweden's membership, ended on that high, even if Ukraine's expectations of an invitation for membership fell short, and disappointment and frustration with Ukraine's anguish pervaded the summit. In addition to the sweeping emotion, and despite the Ukraine question, NATO put out a serious and substantive communiqué.
NATO's message was clear: It utterly denounces Russian aggression and proposes meaty plans—a “family of plans”—to protect alliance territory, especially the eastern flank, against such aggression. The final statement includes action-oriented language on the need for live-fire exercises along that flank and more exercises overall. Why do these matter? This is NATO's effort to walk the talk about protecting every inch of alliance territory. NATO is already delivering on this message on the eastern flank, in Vilnius, a mere 26 miles (40 kilometers) from the Belarusian border. The fear of Russian aggression persists here. The threat is acute and existential.
Russia was not alone in getting smacked down in the communiqué. Belarus, Iran, and China were also taken to task. NATO once did not even mention China among its concerns. Today, however, the nuance and wide range of issues spelled out in the communiqué is notable. Concerns about China's behavior in NATO countries and the country's nuclear build-up were especially in the alliance partners' sights. Beijing is specifically called out for using "political, economic, and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power", as are its coercion, hybrid and cyber operations, use of "economic leverage to create strategic dependencies", and efforts to control key technologies. NATO's clarity and breadth of concerns shows the sophistication and evolution of its strategy toward China.
Other new and growing security concerns and areas are also getting attention. These range from protecting undersea infrastructure to addressing growing security challenges in the Arctic. Cooperation with Indo-Pacific allies is also being boosted, especially on tackling hybrid operations, cyber defense and technology. All this advances the protection of the global rules-based order.
On this day of the summit's conclusion, the conditions put on Ukraine's invitation to join NATO are getting the most attention. The country will get another chance to prove its case at next summer's gathering in Washington, DC. By then, this week's disappointment may be a distant memory. But the solid foundation for defense, deterrence, and partnership to which NATO just agreed will be enduring, far beyond next year.
- Kristine Berzina, Managing Director, GMF North
Martin Quencez: Unnecessary Confusion
Expectations were high at the NATO summit in Vilnius, with hopes that the meeting would finalize Sweden’s alliance membership, define new defense plans, deepen transatlantic and transpacific dialogue on China, and send a clear and strong message of support to Ukraine. The last issue, unsurprisingly, received the most media attention, and it was also the one on which the alliance partners and Ukraine missed the mark.
The content of the final communiqué was predictable. The creation of a NATO-Ukraine Council, and the removal of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) from Ukraine’s NATO accession are undoubtedly concrete steps toward closer cooperation with Kyiv, especially given Washington's and Berlin's concerns about Ukraine's readiness to join the alliance. The challenge was, therefore, to find the right words to clarify Ukraine’s future as a NATO ally and convince Russia of the NATO’s long-term solidarity with Ukraine, while also acknowledging the constraints imposed by the ongoing war. The communiqué's convoluted wording, on top of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s public expression of frustration and disappointment, left a feeling of confusion. In the end, the summit can claim real progress in policy terms, but its less-than-successful choreography of NATO-Ukraine relations will also leave a mark.
- Martin Quencez, Fellow & Deputy Director, Paris Office
Özgür Ünlühisarcıkl: Türkiye Greenlights Sweden’s NATO Accession: Why Now and What’s Next?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's sudden lifting of his objection to Sweden’s NATO membership has ended a period of brinksmanship. Erdoğan probably shifted his position after reassessing the risks of holding out against practically every alliance partner. The continuing deadlock had begun to outweigh any additional benefits that Ankara could accrue.
Erdoğan did well, though, already scoring significant gains from Finland and Sweden’s NATO bids. He got widespread recognition of Türkiye's legitimate security concerns from its NATO allies, old and new. The two new (or soon to be new) members even implemented legal and constitutional changes to address Ankara's concerns about organizations it perceives as terrorist operating within their territories. The duo also lifted restrictions on arms sales to Türkiye.
Despite repeated Turkish and US assertions Sweden's NATO membership was not linked to Türkiye's years-long request to acquire a new fleet of F-16s from the United States, a connection between the issues is hard to deny. The Biden administration announced just hours after Erdoğan's about-face that it will "move forward" with transferring F-16s "in consultation with Congress", senior members of which have been critical of his stonewalling Sweden's alliance membership.
It is also noteworthy that Sweden has committed itself to support closer EU-Türkiye ties, specifically in areas such as customs union modernization and visa liberalization.
Erdoğan's latest move comes after other recent, notable developments. He adopted a measured approach to the mutiny in Russia, reasserted Ankara’s support for Ukraine’s NATO membership, permitted the repatriation of the Azov Battalion commanders who were sent to Türkiye as part of an earlier prisoner swap that the country brokered between Russia and Ukraine, and began the construction of a drone manufacturing plant in Ukraine.
The nature of the Russian-Turkish relationship is one of competitive cooperation. The two countries have historically gotten close when both feel excluded by the West. Erdoğan apparently no longer feels the sting of exclusion. His greenlighting Sweden's NATO accession may well set in motion a period of strengthened ties between Türkiye and the West. Russia's isolation could be deepening.
- Özgür Ünlühisarcıkl, Director, GMF Ankara
Michal Baranowski: The Under-Reported Success of Vilnius
While most of the commentary that followed the NATO summit in Vilnius focused on the alliance’s relationship with Ukraine, perhaps the most important deliverable of the summit was the adoption of new Regional Defense Plans.
The three plans for the defense of the alliance on its northern, central, and southern flanks represent a new chapter in NATO’s collective defense. The more than four thousand pages of highly classified military plans prepared by SACEUR General Cavoli and his team lay out—in precise terms—what the alliance would do in the event of an attack on one of its members. This is the first time since the Cold War that the alliance has prepared such detailed and specific plans. They make the deterrence and defense of the alliance more credible than ever before. It was, of course, the Russian attack on Ukraine that provided the impetus for NATO to complete these regional defense plans.
The new plans will also serve as a roadmap for NATO member states' future military modernization. They specify which capabilities are needed, where, and who should deliver them. Because the plans are highly detailed, SACEUR will be able to verify the state of preparedness and readiness at the outbreak of a conflict, and the allies will know exactly what to do.
How do these new defense plans fit into the debate over Ukraine’s membership in NATO? The Vilnius summit was the moment when a true consensus emerged that Ukraine will be part of NATO as soon as “conditions” are met. In truth, the main condition will be an end to the hot war in Ukraine. NATO’s military aid to Ukraine is, in effect, the alliance’s investment in the forwardmost defense of its territory—which at this moment the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with Western support, are carrying out. The regional defense plans constitute a hard shell of NATO’s defense, with “every inch” of alliance territory defended from the first moment of any conflict. In Vilnius, the alliance truly delivered, finalizing the regional defense plans, bringing Ukraine closer to NATO than ever before, and confirming that Sweden will become a member. The Euro-Atlantic region is safer for it.
- Michal Baranowski, Managing Director, GMF East & Regional Director, Poland
Ian Lesser: Turkish Delights in Vilnius
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived at the NATO summit in Vilnius as a leader under fire from allies and departed as a hero. With the controversy over NATO’s ambivalence about Ukraine’s path to membership looming over the gathering, Ankara’s commitment to approve Sweden's membership is surely the summit's most significant outcome.
What was behind Erdoğan's change of mind? In the Swedes' view, they had simply done what they had agreed to do at last year’s summit in Madrid. Many other observers linked the Turkish leader's approval with a tacit White House agreement to press ahead in Congress with an F-16 package for Türkiye. But the Biden administration was at pains to decouple these issues and portray the outcome as the product of Turkish-Swedish diplomacy, aided by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Agreeing to Sweden’s accession was simply in Ankara’s interest. Türkiye could easily find itself in a clash with Russia in the Black Sea, Syria, Libya, or the Eastern Mediterranean, and the NATO security guarantee—which is not automatic—matters to Ankara. Ultimately, the Article 5 commitment is a political decision made by consensus. It is important to be a member in good standing, and the dispute over Swedish accession threatened the predictability of this commitment to Türkiye. Erdoğan's green light was never a forgone conclusion, but the prospect of having a big stage to deliver his good news surely influenced the timing of his announcement.
An important bilateral Greek-Turkish meeting also took place on the margins of the summit. The mood was, by all accounts, positive, with important confidence-building measures in the works. After years of tension, the prospect of a new Aegean détente is more good news for the alliance. And it may even help to convince a skeptical Congress to approve the sale of those F-16s.
- Ian Lesser, Vice President, GMF South & Executive Director, Brussels Office