The NATO Vilnius Summit: What Constitutes Success?
NATO leaders’ meetings are important opportunities to measure policy progress and compel decisions. Hosted on NATO’s eastern flank (only 143 kilometers from the Belarusian border and 311 kilometers from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad), this week’s alliance summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, will pick up some of the themes of the previous gathering in Madrid. There are four principal items:
- Ukraine: NATO members will consider Ukraine’s application and determine what the country’s long-term defense needs are. Decisions taken will be at the national level as the United States prohibits NATO’s direct involvement in Ukraine other than for the provision of non-lethal aid.
- Sweden: Türkiye and Hungary have not ratified the instruments of accession to formally bring Sweden into the alliance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meets Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on July 10, which may shed light on what can or cannot be accomplished at the summit.
- Defense and deterrence plans (DDAs): The approval of three regional DDAs for the entire eastern flank to deepen NATO members’ defense investment and bolster capabilities to support the DDAs.
- Leadership: Naming a new secretary general was on the agenda, but Jens Stoltenberg’s tenure was extended, on July 5, for a fourth time, until October 1, 2024. He was appointed in 2014 and is now the second-longest-serving NATO secretary general.
Ukraine’s NATO Journey. Most of the summit’s focus and press attention will be on the security and capabilities packages for Ukraine announced by individual NATO members and on alliance-approved language related to Ukraine’s future membership. The latter will be decided at the summit, with the total package a determinant of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s attendance. He has threatened to stay away if he deems the assistance insufficient. While most NATO members support Ukraine’s membership, the United States, reversing its position at the 2008 Bucharest summit, is reluctant to signal Ukraine’s future membership and potentially provoke Moscow. Other European NATO members believe that Ukraine’s membership will stabilize the continent and end the war more quickly. They also believe that Russia will not challenge NATO (and its Article 5 provision) and that prolonged hesitancy about Ukrainian membership gives Russia a veto over membership decisions.
Success would be a near-term and long-term security commitment package substantial enough for Zelenskyy to attend the summit and to deliver that and a clear pathway to NATO membership to the Ukrainian people. It will, however, be important to carefully read the language NATO issues on the timing of Ukrainian membership and its meaning for decisions to be taken at next year’s Washington summit, which will celebrate the alliance’s 75th anniversary. Equally important will be the extent of individual NATO members’ promises of assistance to Ukraine, any additional commitments to support the current counteroffensive, and those countries’ long-term military-capability pledges.
Getting Sweden over the NATO Transom. After Finland’s accession in April, many had hoped Sweden’s membership would be achieved before the Vilnius summit. Stoltenberg has continued to work closely with Ankara to resolve this issue through the Permanent Joint Mechanism (established by a Trilateral Memorandum, which brings together Türkiye, Sweden, and Finland) that last met on July 6. Sweden has amended its constitution twice, met its obligations under the terms of the memorandum, and recently convicted a Turkish Kurd of helping militants—all efforts to overcome Ankara’s concerns about Stockholm’s position on fighting terrorism. But Türkiye continues to demand the return of individuals who, Ankara believes, support the PKK or Gulenists allegedly involved in the 2016 coup attempt. Recent incidents in Sweden of burning the Holy Koran have made Turkish concessions increasingly difficult. The United States has resisted making this a bilateral US- Türkiye matter, but many believe Ankara’s consent requires the White House’s and Congress’ approval to modernize Türkiye’s F-16 fleet. Hungary also has yet to ratify Sweden’s membership given its public criticism of Hungarian violations of the rule of law. Budapest now also states that a recess means parliament cannot ratify the accession protocols before the summit. However, Hungary will follow Türkiye once it begins the ratification process.
This issue speaks to a deeper challenge. At the Madrid summit, Erdoğan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán agreed that Sweden and Finland would join the alliance. Their word can no longer be taken at full value but needs to be viewed as a bargaining chip. It has not gone unnoticed that both countries have close economic and political ties with Moscow.
Success would be Erdoğan’s announcing that he is immediately sending the instruments of ratification to the Turkish parliament.
DDAs are the DNA of NATO’s Collective Defense on the Eastern Flank. DDAs are regional defense plans should Russia attack NATO territory. Approval of three regional defense plans—for the European Arctic and Atlantic (led by a US-based command), the central region (between the Baltics states and the Alps, led by a Netherlands-based command), and the southeast (led by an Italy-based command)—will represent a “generational shift” in NATO defense planning by integrating national defense plans to defend “every inch of NATO territory”. These plans should have been approved in June by NATO defense ministers, but an objection now moves the decision to the summit.
Success would be approval of the DDAs, commitments by NATO members to fulfill Defense Investment Pledges (DIPs), and, potentially, statements suggesting that NATO will temporarily deploy additional forces to the alliance’s borders with Belarus given heightened concerns after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny, the Wagner Group’s reported disbandment and exile in Belarus, and Russia’s announced deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Still, it will take years for NATO to fully fund DDA-mandated capabilities (e.g., enablers), identify the personnel involved, and execute the training required to defend NATO territory from the Arctic to the Eastern Mediterranean. Implementation of the DDAs, accompanied by the Madrid summit’s decision to transition NATO battalions to brigade strength in the three Baltic states and Poland, will strengthen the defense of NATO’s eastern flank, but this will take time to fully realize.
Identifying a New NATO Secretary General in 2024. The longer that NATO keeps “punting” this decision the more it becomes a weakness, even if Stoltenberg has been and will continue to be an excellent NATO secretary general. His successor should be a former prime minister from an eastern or southern member state that spends 2% of its GDP on defense, is hawkish on Russia and China, transatlantic in outlook, and can maintain access to and achieve balance with NATO’s more challenging leaders. The candidate should preferably be female. Another candidate from the North (e.g., Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen) would face a challenge after a Dane and a Norwegian have held the top position for the past 15 years.
The decision to again delay identifying a successor, however, is inauspicious as the timing of a fifth attempt will now come up against the US presidential election and just after European Parliament elections, both of which complicate the politics involved.
Success would have been a decision on a strong candidate for secretary general. A senior US official has stated that a new secretary general will be named next July, at the Washington summit.