The NATO Vilnius Summit: Bucharest 2.0?

So close yet so far: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is greeted by other leaders at the NATO Summit in Vilnius. Image: The White House / Wikimedia Commons

As expected, the question of Ukrainian NATO membership dominated the Vilnius Summit. Despite the rhetoric and a carefully curated communique, observable cracks in Alliance unity were evident, leaving Ukraine less sure about its Euro-Atlantic security prospects.

In the run-up to the Summit and throughout, there was a widespread acceptance that Ukraine cannot join NATO while at war with Russia. Instead, Ukraine wanted certainty and clarity on the steps it must take to gain membership and therefore peace and security – for Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic. The unique challenge of Ukraine does not align neatly with the technocratic processes that NATO created after the Cold War and which served it well in the 1990s.

This puts NATO in an invidious position. It must simultaneously place a renewed focus on defence and deterrence as its core task and maintain Euro-Atlantic unity, all while managing significant escalation risks with Russia in multiple domains and regions. It must also support Ukraine. The Alliance, for all its might, has at times appeared impotent. The Article 5 paradox – that it is the most important aspiration for Ukraine, yet it is also the main constraining factor for NATO support – limits its ability to lead on Ukraine. It was the G7 and the EU, not NATO, that made the most progress on security assurances for Ukraine. G7 members agreed to provide ‘specific, bilateral, long-term security commitments and arrangements’, although it will now be on individual members to define the level of support. The sense of déjà vu – with Ukraine remembering the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on security assurances – was evident.

Out of the Grey Zone and into Purgatory

The Vilnius Summit communique is unequivocal in stating that ‘Ukraine’s future is in NATO’. Yet this declaration is essentially the extant policy from the 2008 Bucharest Summit: that Ukraine (and Georgia) ‘will become members of NATO’. The ‘substantial package’ offered to Ukraine has three strands. First, the development of the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) into a multi-year programme to support Ukraine’s NATO transition. Second, the establishment of a NATO-Ukraine Council as a consultative and decision-making forum between equals, and to support integration with NATO. Third, removing the requirement for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – making accession a one-step process.

However, this package is less substantial than it appears for three reasons. First, NATO members primarily support Ukraine bilaterally and not institutionally through the CAP, and the overall financial commitment – €500 million over the past year – is a negligible sum compared to individual assistance packages. Germany alone announced an additional €700 million package at Vilnius. Second, the NATO-Ukraine Council is not new – rather, it is an upgrade of the extant ‘commission’, and could be seen as a ‘foot dragging exercise’ if it does not make quick and substantive progress. Equally, Ukraine might feel that it can get more from its backers through bilateral engagement, rather than at the Council. Third, while waiving the MAP requirement will make Ukraine’s eventual accession process quicker, it at least provided a degree of certainty and something by which to mark tangible progress and hold NATO accountable. Ukraine did not expect a MAP anyway as it was the next identified step of its NATO journey at Bucharest but was never granted in the subsequent 15 years. In this sense, removal of the requirement actually provides less assurance on Ukrainian membership.

Deliberately settling on vague and highly subjective criteria repeats mistakes of the past and places Ukraine in limbo

Ukraine’s desired outcome from Vilnius was a definitive timeline and process. Instead, NATO declared that ‘We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met’. Membership of NATO is always conditional, as it was with Finland and Sweden most recently. However, deliberately settling on vague and highly subjective criteria repeats mistakes of the past and places Ukraine in limbo. Critically, there is a substantial risk that this commitment could become hostage to fluctuating election cycles of member states, especially the US.

It does create a stronger mutual goal – the war ending with a clear Ukrainian victory – which is not to be shouldered by Ukraine’s armed forces and society alone, but collectively by member states. But NATO missed the opportunity to align its view of victory with that of its members and Ukraine, which would have provided the strongest signal yet to Russia that the war was unwinnable. Given the commitment above, NATO must now stop drip-feeding support and provide Ukraine with all the necessary means to achieve victory as quickly as possible.

NATO Needs Ukraine Too

Too much focus at Vilnius was placed on what NATO can do for Ukraine, rather than the value Ukraine offers to NATO. The latter comes in three aspects. First, as a result of the war, the Ukrainian Armed Forces will likely be one of the largest, most modernised and battle-hardened militaries in Europe, possessing a unique and valuable skill – experience of engaging and destroying Russian forces. No NATO member can match Ukraine’s experience of combined arms warfare at scale, with even leading European members struggling to commit brigade-sized forces to the eastern front seven years after their formation. Second, Ukraine’s 2,295-km border with Russia would effectively dilute the force concentrations that Russia could muster on NATO borders, as they would have to disperse across a much wider frontage. Similar to Finland becoming a member and doubling the NATO border with Russia, it would further increase defence and deterrence by denial and make a Russian fait accompli operation against the Baltics near impossible. Third, considering the ambitions of the NATO New Force Model – 800,000 troops at varying levels of readiness – and US security interests in the Indo-Pacific, Europeans will have to significantly increase their material contributions to the Alliance. While it is uncertain what kind of Ukrainian military will emerge from this war, it will make a much-needed contribution to under-strength and underfunded European capabilities. In further lobbying for more clarity on NATO membership, Ukraine needs to flip the narrative and change its communication strategy to explain its indispensable value to the Alliance.

Early Swedish Good News Gets Drowned Out

In similar 11th-hour theatrics to last year’s Madrid Summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally agreed to send Sweden’s accession protocols to the Turkish Parliament ‘as soon as possible’. This was not an isolated action. On 7 July, at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Istanbul, Erdogan declared that Ukraine ‘deserves NATO membership’ and committed Turkish ships to securing Ukrainian grain shipments travelling through the Black Sea from Odesa if Russia does not renew the Turkish-brokered grain deal later this month. He also allowed five Azovstal commanders to return with Zelensky to Ukraine. Finally, Turkey reiterated its desire for EU membership and requested that talks reopen with the bloc following the Swedish decision. This could be an opportunity for increased and sustained engagement with Turkey to pull it closer to Europe and away from Russia.

The lack of clarity over Ukrainian membership and the failure to put the issue to bed will only increase lobbying of the Alliance by Kyiv and its significant backers

A more realistic timeframe for Swedish membership will be important for implementing NATO’s new regional plans – for the High North–Atlantic, Baltics–Central Europe and Mediterranean–Black Sea – which underpin the extant strategic and domain plans. While each region is important, Swedish and Finnish membership will now make NATO in the Nordic–Baltic region far stronger and unlock much greater levels of cooperation, interoperability and intelligence sharing. NATO now needs make these plans real and transition from exercising to rehearsals to demonstrate exactly how the Alliance would operate in an Article 5 scenario. Critically, transatlantic reinforcement plans need to be rehearsed at scale, given the importance of US follow-on forces to the defence of Europe and the ability of Russia to disrupt this in the High North, which is identified as a ‘strategic challenge’ for the Alliance.

Kicking the Can Down the Road

Vilnius was always likely to be disappointing for many participants and observers given the severity of the current situation and the hype surrounding it. Moreover, cracks in unity were always likely to develop the longer the war dragged on. The Summit was always an artificial milestone for a grand announcement, but the lack of clarity over Ukrainian membership and the failure to put the issue to bed will only increase lobbying of the Alliance by Kyiv and its significant backers. Next year’s Washington Summit will also be the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty, and the significance will be accentuated by the 2024 US presidential election campaign being in full swing. Ukrainian membership of NATO is likely to dominate that Summit, too, and NATO needs to be better prepared.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Ed Arnold

Senior Research Fellow, European Security

International Security

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