The dilemma of Ukraine’s accession and other keys to a NATO summit near Russia

The Allies will meet in Lithuania in a bid to send the Kremlin a resounding messages of unity and strength

Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Slovakia President Zuzana Čaputová, and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in Bratislava, part of his tour to gain support for his country's accession to NATO.TOMAS BENEDIKOVIC (AFP)

NATO allies are planning to hold a summit on Tuesday and Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania. From that symbolic location on the Alliance’s eastern flank, it will seek to send a new message of unity and strength to the Kremlin. The central issue on the agenda will be to find a political agreement on the future of Ukraine, to outline what a hypothetical path to membership might look like, and to offer security guarantees against a new invasion after the war ends. Other important issues the meeting will have to tackle are the situation of Sweden, whose membership remains blocked by Turkey, the launch of renewed regional defense plans, which will entail the biggest restructuring of the Alliance since the Cold War, and an effort to outline new spending policies.

The 31 Allies (following Finland’s recent accession) will meet, amid important security measures, just a few dozen kilometers from Belarus — an ally of the Kremlin that has agreed to host Wagner’s mercenary troops as well as Russian nuclear bombs —, less than 130 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and under 190 miles from the main body of Russian territory. This is the fourth NATO summit following the Russian invasion of Ukraine; in addition to the Swedish Prime Minister, Ulf Kristensson, and, predictably, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Allies will be accompanied by the leaders of four Pacific area democracies: Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. This is a reminder that if NATO’s central focus is on Russia, China has also clearly entered the radar.

There is no shortage of discrepancies and friction between the Allies, but there are also many elements that indicate that the Russian aggression has breathed new life into the world’s largest security organization. Below are the key issues of the summit:

The future of Ukraine

The relationship model between NATO and Ukraine will be the focus of a large part of the debates at the Vilnius summit. The military organization extended Ukraine an invitation to join, along with Georgia, at the Bucharest summit in 2008, but since then — and despite propaganda by the Kremlin, which has justified the war on the claim of the Alliance’s alleged expansion eastwards — hardly anything had changed until the full-scale invasion. Now, it has been agreed to elevate the diplomatic relationship with Ukraine by transforming the NATO-Ukraine Commission into a NATO-Ukraine Council, with more power of representation and which will allow the Kyiv government to sit alongside the Allies on equal terms on many issues. The first of these meetings will be held in Vilnius, where a strongly symbolic statement is expected to stress that Ukraine’s place is in NATO. Some Allies want stronger language and even a timetable or some signal that Kyiv will not need to follow the Membership Action Plan (MAP).

Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskiy on the Island of Snakes, in the Black Sea, which was occupied by Russia in the early stages of the invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskiy on the Island of Snakes, in the Black Sea, which was occupied by Russia in the early stages of the invasion. UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SER (via REUTERS)

Ukraine has already assumed that its membership will not be taking place until the war is over, but even then it would not be automatic and the country would have to meet the organization’s standards, which entail a massive shift in its military structures from Soviet to NATO doctrine, said Allied sources. Meanwhile, the Alliance is set to approve an economic assistance package for several years to ensure material, training and help with the restructuring.

Kyiv wants the Alliance, or rather, some of the Allies, to offer “security guarantees.” However, neither NATO nor its members want to provide Ukraine with a binding “security guarantee” that could sound like Article 5 of the Alliance, which defines mutual defense and could drag NATO into the war. A group of allied countries that includes the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom are finalizing an offer for a “security commitment” or some type of “security protection” that falls short of mutual defense. Rather, through bilateral or group political agreements, it seeks to keep arms and support flowing to create such a shield for Ukraine that it will become undesirable to attack it. These commitments would include the supply of weapons, military training, intelligence sharing and technology transfer, as EL PAÍS reported earlier.

Swedish accession

The completion of Sweden’s accession is one of the main issues on the NATO agenda. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both Stockholm and Helsinki decided to reverse a long history of military non-alignment and request integration into the Alliance. In the case of Sweden, it signals a change in a course maintained for two centuries. But if Finland has already been able to enter, Sweden has not due to a refusal by Turkey and Hungary, although the main political hurdle is Ankara.

Membership requires the unanimous approval of all the Allies. Turkey claims that Stockholm has not done enough to fight terrorism, and accuses the country of an alleged tolerance towards the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), considered a terrorist organization by the EU, among others. Another element of friction was an embargo on arms sales to Turkey decided by Sweden and Finland in 2019, after a Turkish incursion into Syria against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militias.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Francisco Seco (AP)

The embargo was lifted in September of last year. Sweden has passed new anti-terrorism legislation. This same week, a Swedish court sentenced a man for attempting to finance the PKK, a judicial fact that has been considered a useful element in the dispute with Ankara. The Swedish press reports that Stockholm is also considering reforms to the law to allow the police to stop anyone from burning copies of the Koran.

In diplomatic moves leading up to the summit, however, Turkey has not lifted the blockade, arguing that while Sweden has taken steps in the right direction, practical implementation remains to be seen. This overlaps with other issues. Turkey has long pushed for advanced U.S.-produced weaponry, especially to modernize its existing F-16 fighter jets and purchase of new ones. The White House approved a sales package for F-16 upgrade software after Turkey gave the green light for Finland’s entry, but the matter got bogged down in Congress. The parties maintain that the issues are separate from the accession negotiations, but many experts see a link between the two.

The pressure from the Allies on Turkey to grant approval is very high. The accession of Sweden would represent a new blow for Putin. The Lithuanian summit will provide clues.

An American F-16 fighter at the German Spangdahlem airbase during Air Defender 2023 exercises.
An American F-16 fighter at the German Spangdahlem airbase during Air Defender 2023 exercises.Boris Roessler (AP)

Regional plans

NATO has embarked on what it considers its biggest reorganization since the Cold War in the form of comprehensive regional defense plans, divided into three geographical areas, which seek to deal with the main threats to the Alliance: Russia and terrorism. The new plans also cover five domains of eventual threats and attacks: air, land, maritime, space and cyber. They are fundamentally based on deterrence.

The architecture of the new model has been under design since 2018, four years after the invasion of Crimea and the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula by Russia, but it has gained further momentum with the large-scale invasion. The war in Europe has made visible the need for new strategies and these plans, set out in more than 4,000 secret pages, are the most important item of the meeting, according to Allied sources.

The new plans imply a greater spending commitment. They will set priorities for acquisitions and investments, as well as create a model to align supply and demand with lessons learned from Russia’s war in Ukraine and amid a European push to revitalize its defense industry and address huge shortages of ammunition in its arsenals.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS (AFP)

Military spending

The question of Allied military spending is another important issue on the table at the Lithuanian summit. NATO members agreed in 2014 to meet the goal of investing 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in defense within a decade. The trajectory of many of the Allies was a long way from that goal, causing great frustration in the U.S., the mainstay of the Alliance. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a change in dynamics.

Diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters indicate that there is an agreement for the summit to affirm a “lasting commitment to invest at least 2% of GDP” in defense, thus making the figure no longer an arrival target, but a minimum requirement.

Data provided by the Alliance indicates that this year only 11 of the 31 member countries will meet the 2% target: the U.S., the U.K., Poland, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia.

However, public opinion is now more open to the security argument, and NATO members are almost all embarking on paths of increased spending. The great challenge will be to make it efficient, achieving a high level of interoperability, economies of scale, avoiding duplication and overcoming deficiencies.

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