Triumph for NATO and Ukraine at Historic Vilnius Summit
Michal Wyka examines the outcomes of the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
In the days following the NATO-Ukraine summit, one image dominated my Twitter feed. It depicts President Volodymyr Zelenskyy standing alone, struggling to hide his fury as the NATO leaders mingle behind him. Having lived for over a year under the constant threat of assassination, it appears that he has, understandably, aged faster than some of his peers.
Despite the apparent negativity of this image however, the summit turned out to be a relative success. In Vilnius, Ukraine’s favourite comic-turned-politician took a step towards securing victory by encouraging Western politicians to invest in Europe’s sovereignty.
Expectedly, the summit focused on clarifying when Ukraine will join NATO – if at all. Even the buses carrying delegates to and from the venue displayed the message “While you are waiting for your stop, Ukraine is waiting to become a NATO member. #UkraineInNATO”.
This appeal for membership is one in an increasingly large, albeit crucial, list of requests that Ukraine has been making of the alliance.
Whether it was the need for handheld anti-armour weapons, like the American Javelin, or the latest request for 4th generation fighter jets, the West has generally responded to Ukraine in the same way. First, Ukraine requests a more substantial piece of equipment. The West then mulls it over. They then say no, or not right now. But they mull it over a bit more, and eventually agree. From long-range rocket artillery, like the HIMARS system, to main battle tanks, like the Abrams or Leopard, the story has largely been the same.
At the start of this year, Ukraine asked for 4th generation aircraft (American F-16s, British Typhoons, and others). In May, the US permitted European countries to train Ukrainian forces on F16s. But they haven’t committed to actually sending US stocks of F16s… yet. Although the US won’t send any of their planes any time soon, they said they wouldn’t block the export of aircraft that allies already operate.
There was some speculation as to why the US isn’t sending any of their F16s, but it mainly comes down to the policy of ‘training first, supply second’. Western 4th generation fighters are shockingly expensive, and they need an extensive support network to operate them in an active warzone. To add to these problems, there are two main concerns for NATO when Ukraine requests military aid: the cost and the risk of escalation. Whenever new weapons are sent to Ukraine, some people are concerned that it might be the final straw for Putin’s regime leading to escalation. NATO has trodden this fine line very carefully.
We are not AmazonBen Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence
Hopes and Dreams
In the lead-up to the summit, it became clear that the focus was on securing some sort of guarantee for Ukraine to join NATO. Shortly before the summit began, Zelensky tweeted to address rumours that discussions about the wording for Ukraine’s accession were happening without him. Understandably, he voiced his anger at NATO’s discussions on the wording of the communiqué.
Whenever NATO membership for Ukraine is brought up, Article 5 is too. If Ukraine entered the alliance whilst at war, it would trigger Article 5, which states that “an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all”. Hence, the allies would be obliged to become more directly involved, further escalating the conflict. Clearly, then, Ukraine’s membership whilst the war is ongoing is a fantasy.
US President Joe Biden stated that Ukraine “is not ready for membership in NATO” shortly before the summit. But it’s not because of a sudden shift in foreign policy. Simply, it’s the only response that he can give.
The Membership Action Plan (MAP)
At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Ukraine was told that it could begin the Membership Action Plan (MAP). However, despite not being in a conflict at the time, domestic politics stood in the way. Polls suggested that public support for NATO membership teetered at 50:50. Without domestic support, the significant reforms needed to turn an ex-Soviet military into one compatible with NATO would fail miserably.
The road to NATO membership usually involves going through the MAP process – one which Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently going through.
NATO says that the MAP isn’t a list of requirements, nor that it’s even exhaustive. Rather, it’s “a programme of activities to assist aspiring countries in their preparations for possible future membership”. These ‘activities’ range from a “commitment to the rule of law” to having a sufficient defence budget. The MAP’s purpose is to give some guidance for a state to become compatible with NATO.
What was agreed?
Bearing that in mind, President Biden mentioned in an interview that Ukraine doesn’t meet elements of the MAP; suggesting that even if Ukraine achieved peace with Russia in the weeks to come it would not be ready for immediate accession into NATO.
Zelensky’s frustration at the lack of a timeframe to join is understandable but the issue isn’t an easy one to resolve. Getting all members to agree on when, and under what circumstances, Ukraine will join is a juggling act between domestic politics, the risk of escalation, and several other factors.
Zelensky’s frustration at the lack of a timeframe to join is understandable but the issue isn’t an easy one to resolve.
If NATO gives a timeframe or requirements, it would create an incentive for Russia to prolong the war. However, if Putin did prolong the war to keep Ukraine out of NATO, it would be added to his growing list of mistakes. Following the summit, the Deputy Secretary General of NATO said that trying to out-wait democracies (e.g. encouraging the election of leaders less keen to support Ukraine) isn’t a viable strategy.
NATO managed to strike a balance at the summit. Although Ukraine does not, and probably won’t be able to commit to the MAP whilst defending a war, it doesn’t mean that Ukraine can’t be helped to transform into a NATO-compatible state outside the normal process. This is why NATO granted Ukraine an exception from the MAP.
In the final communique of the summit, NATO decided that Ukraine will join when allies agree that conditions are met. Though this is deliberately vague, NATO has granted Ukraine a more straightforward accession process.
Strengthening European Security
The summit’s purpose wasn’t only to provide security guarantees for Ukraine, it also strengthened plans for European security.
Although the US and NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg denied that the moves were related, Turkish support for Sweden joining the alliance in return for Swedish support in the EU was a notable move in their relationship. Sweden agreed with Turkey to increase its counter-terrorism operations, amongst other issues.
On a wider scale, plans on how to respond to a Russian attack on NATO were revamped and strengthened. The states also agreed to set a minimum target of 2% of GDP on defence spending, with the AP describing it as ’the floor, rather than a ceiling’.
What will this do for NATO and Ukraine?
The outcomes of Vilnius will change European security for decades to come. The summit achieved some important goals:
- A clearer route to NATO membership for Ukraine was achieved, which was the key issue for Zelensky at the start of the week.
- NATO has expanded into the Nordic states, protecting the northeastern border with Russia.
- And importantly, the alliance has agreed to continue to ramp up defence spending, production, and military aid to Ukraine.
And these successes together will strengthen NATO against potential future Russian aggression.