The build up to this year’s NATO summit was riven by disagreements, with splits on Ukrainian membership, funding and the US decision to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made countries reassess the importance of alignment and collective defence, and NATO’s importance has been reaffirmed. Finland has joined and was participating in its first summit as a member. Objections to Swedish membership have been resolved.
Questions still need to be answered on defence spending, and Ukraine’s membership in particular – but the alliance has taken steps forward in other important areas.
The major talking points and the source of tension in the preceding days focused on membership.
The tangible headline success was President Erdogan of Turkey removing his objections to Swedish accession into the alliance, announced the day before the summit commenced. This did not look likely in the days leading up to Vilnius, but Erdogan is adept at using the theatre of the global political stage.
He has extracted concessions from Sweden regarding Kurdish groups within the country (terrorists in his view) and secured arms sales from Sweden and the US (potentially F-16s). Sweden, like Finland over the past year, will be quickly integrated into the alliance.
Regional defence plans will be strengthened by the move and NATO domination of the Baltic Sea enhanced. This provides more security to summit hosts Lithuania and the other Baltic states, whose proximity to Russia and Belarus made them some of NATO’s most vulnerable members. NATO has expanded. This will not sit comfortably in Moscow.
Divisions in the alliance around Ukrainian membership remain, centred around the conditions and timing of Ukrainian ascension. Vocal support was offered, but there were echoes of the 2008 summit in Bucharest: warm words of support for eventual membership are no guarantee against aggression.
Some members (notably the Baltics) are willing to quickly bring Ukraine into NATO and others (the US and Germany) are more hesitant due to fears over escalation and prolonging the war.
National politics was also at play. President Biden only has slim congressional support for the packages of support to Ukraine, and welcoming Ukraine into NATO could have removed this.
The outcome was an unsatisfactory but predictable halfway house. Agreements on the NATO–Ukraine council and removing the requirement for a membership action plan make Ukrainian membership theoretically easier and quicker. Increasing military support to Ukraine was also agreed.
But Ukraine has been left in the same position, outside the alliance and outside the Article 5 collective defence guarantees. No amount of strong diplomatic statements of support will make up for this.
The New Force Model
Deterrence and defence, the corner stone of NATO’s strategic concept, was supported by announcements on the new regional plans and the New Force Model. These plans provide the detail on who will provide what force elements, where they will go and under what conditions.
Significantly the plans also outline how countries should upgrade their capabilities and how the plans will be logistically supported. Logistics is boring but vital. Especially in a war of attrition.
However, planning is different to implementing. Full implementation of the plans requires execution, and this is yet to be realised and tested.
For the plans to be considered as implemented, training events and military exercises that move force elements to their assigned locations will have to be conducted in the coming year. As they say in Lithuania, ‘well begun, is half done.’
Although garnering less headlines, the military-industrial complex also featured prominently at the summit.
Industrial output of weapons and ammunition is required to support the ongoing war in Ukraine. Promises of additional weaponry to Ukraine were made bilaterally or from the G7 countries. France promised long-range missiles and fighter jets, Germany promised more tanks.
Increased industrial output is also required to recover dwindling national stockpiles and to enable the logistic support required for the new regional defence and deterrence plans.
The depletion of national artillery shell stocks was one argument behind the US decision to provide cluster munitions. Effective deterrence rests on its credibility. Without stockpiles and the means of production, that credibility is lacking.
Defence spending, or lack of it, was a relatively low-key feature of the summit. Most countries agree that it is important to increase defence spending above 2 per cent, and that this should be the minimum figure not a target.
However, how to do this within the political constraints and budgetary requirements of individual countries is challenging. Those along NATO’s Eastern flank are acutely aware of the need to invest.