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Countdown until the NATO Vilnius Summit: Priorities and expectations in 2023

Security & defence / EPC ROUND-UP
Amanda Paul , Jamie Shea , Ivano di Carlo , Mihai Sebastian Chihaia , Ricardo Borges de Castro , Ionela Ciolan , Iana Maisuradze , Federica Zizzi , Benedetta Berti

Date: 22/06/2023

NATO Leaders will meet in July 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania, against the background of a complex and volatile security environment. The Summit will be an opportunity to send a strong signal of transatlantic unity and resolve, to reiterate NATO Allies' ironclad commitment to defending each other, and to strengthen the Alliance's deterrence and defence posture. 

In Vilnius, NATO leaders will make important decisions to accelerate NATO's military adaptation with new defence plans, a strengthened command structure, and concrete commitments to continue accelerating defence spending and enhancing the Alliance's collective industrial capacity to meet the needs of a more dangerous security landscape. 

The Summit will also emphasise the transatlantic community's unwavering commitment to supporting Ukraine to prevail as a sovereign, independent country. NATO leaders will take decisions to enhance the support provided to Ukraine, including through a multi-year commitment to helping Ukraine transition from Soviet-legacy equipment to modern, NATO interoperable capabilities. 

These initiatives will strengthen Ukraine and its current and long-term ability to deter and defend itself against aggression while bringing it closer to NATO, in line with the need to move forward in implementing the decision Allies took with respect to Ukraine’s future membership in NATO

A year after adopting a new Strategic Concept, the Alliance’s overall strategy, NATO leaders will also meet to continue preparing for a world of growing strategic competition. They will discuss global security challenges, including those stemming from the People's Republic of China, and their impact on Euro-Atlantic security. 

The focus will be on how to continue strengthening the Alliance's resilience, including through strengthened cooperation with the European Union and enhancing cooperation with NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners - Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea - whose Heads of State and Government have been invited to attend the Summit for the second year in a row. 

This signals the growing interlinkages between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security and the need for like-minded countries to work together to uphold the rules-based international order when it is especially under pressure.

What’s on NATO’s menu?

Five issues will dominate the NATO Summit in Vilnius on 11-12 July. 

First is the future membership of Ukraine in the Alliance. All Allies remain committed to NATO's Open Door policy and the commitment made to Ukraine in Bucharest in 2008 that it will be a member of NATO at an unspecified future date. Yet confronted by Russia’s invasion of his country, President Zelenskyy is seeking a commitment that Ukraine will join NATO as soon as the war is over and that he will be given a clear and concrete accession plan in Vilnius. Some Allies support this approach, but others, aware of the impact on Russia, are more cautious and wish to stay within the Bucharest position. So achieving consensus and sending a clear and positive message to Kyiv will be key. 

On the other hand, there will be a NATO plan to enhance interoperability with Ukraine's forces, more commitment to providing Ukraine with weapons and training, and possibly the creation of a new NATO-Ukraine Council. The question of which security guarantees the Allies are willing to provide to Ukraine after the war and before it can join NATO will be an important but difficult discussion.

Second is approving updated and more detailed defence plans to enhance NATO's ability and readiness to defend its Eastern Flank against potential Russian aggression.

Third is military spending. The NATO Secretary General would like 2% of GDP to become the minimum level of defence spending for Allies rather than the upper ceiling. Yet, as only 7 out of 31 Allies currently meet the 2% target, some will be reluctant to commit publicly to even more ambitious or binding targets. The US, in particular, will be watching this debate carefully.

Fourth are the allies' hope that Sweden will be formally welcomed into the Alliance in Vilnius. Now that President Erdoğan has been re-elected, the hope - and indeed expectation - is that Türkiye will ratify Sweden's long overdue accession. Sweden has changed its counter-terrorism laws to meet Ankara's demands. Hungary also needs to ratify Sweden's accession but will most likely wait for Erdoğan to move first.

Finally, who will succeed Jens Stoltenberg as Secretary General of NATO? After three extensions, Stoltenberg has clarified that he would like to step down in October. Many names are being circulated, including several women candidates for a position that men have held up to now. But will the Allies be able to narrow the field, come to an agreement, reach a consensus and announce a successor to Stoltenberg in Vilnius? Consensus in the next few weeks looks increasingly unlikely, and Stoltenberg will probably agree reluctantly to stay on for one more year, taking him to the alliance’s 75th anniversary next April. This will allow the NATO and EU jobs to be decided as a package. 

As the Vilnius Summit approaches, one of the most pressing issues is how to further strengthen the Eastern Flank to achieve a stronger defence and deterrence posture.

At the 2022 Madrid Summit, NATO members adopted a series of defence and deterrence measures, including a new NATO Force Model and upgraded the presence on the Eastern Flank by scaling the existing NATO battlegroups to pre-assigned brigade-size units and prepositioned equipment.  

The Vilnius Summit will assess the implementation of the decisions taken in Madrid and put forward further defence and deterrence steps, such as the new regional defence plans and details of the new force structure. 

The ability to move equipment and troops swiftly plays an essential part in NATO defence plans and is central to ensuring deterrence on the Eastern Flank. Mainly neglected after the end of the Cold War, military mobility has become a key concern for the EU and NATO in the last few years. Yet, Allies are the main drivers in enhancing military mobility, and that will require a concerted and consistent long-term effort from them.

In Vilnius, Eastern Flank countries will continue to advocate for faster implementation of the commitments and increase the number of permanent NATO forces. Nonetheless, a semi-permanent presence along its Eastern front combining permanent and pre-assigned readily available troops will likely continue to be NATO's approach.

Boosting defence spending is also crucial. Stoltenberg has been advocating for making the goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence a floor rather than a ceiling. 

Multiple NATO members have already announced budget increases since the start of the Russian invasion. However, there are concerns over the implementation process and the ability to match the promises made. In 2022, only seven NATO member states met the 2% benchmark. Given the current security environment, meeting the spending goals and even going further is crucial. While some Allies are pushing for a more ambitious pledge, achieving consensus on raising the benchmark above 2% will likely hit roadblocks in Vilnius.

Today, NATO faces a security environment where nuclear weapons have become more prominent and potentially more usable.  

One reason is the collapse of arms control regimes that shackled nuclear weapons in the past and provided a degree of transparency and confidence building between the US and Russia. Recently Moscow stopped providing data on its nuclear arsenal under the New START treaty, and mutual inspections have ended. Strategic stability talks are frozen too. So NATO is becoming increasingly dark regarding nuclear programmes and strategies of Russia, China and other countries such as Iran.

Another reason is NATO's return to collective defence and the need to plan seriously to fight and prevail against Russia. This means facing the issue of the potential role of nuclear weapons in such a conflict, as these weapons are central to the deterrence and war-fighting plans of both sides.

Third is Russia’s reckless behaviour when it comes to repeatedly gesticulating about the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or transferring some of these weapons to Belarus. 

Ukraine's future security depends on concrete, credible commitments and planning from its partners. Kyiv's ability to contain Russian aggression and defeat Russia on the battlefield will shape the transatlantic security environment for years to come. At Vilnius, NATO leaders must channel the spirit of their Baltic hosts and take bold and decisive steps, reinforcing their dedication to Ukraine and crushing Putin's belief that time is on his side. While a commitment to expand and accelerate the delivery of the Western military aid needed to allow Kyiv to liberate its territory and secure Ukraine's victory is vital, this is not enough.

A concrete and effective proposal on security guarantees (bilateral and multilateral), along with a credible, binding and accelerated roadmap for NATO membership, is vital. The Alliance, or coalitions of like-minded countries, must be ready to commit to long-term military, political and economic support that will deter future Russian aggression. Different sorts of security arrangements, including something like the US has with Israel, must be seriously discussed.

This means not only arming Ukraine to the teeth with modern weapons and technology but also a long-term multi-year assistance package to assist Ukraine in its further transition from Soviet-era military doctrine to NATO standards and weapons. This includes training Ukraine's armed forces to bring them up to NATO standards, making them more interoperable, strengthening their capacity to defend themselves, and deterring any future aggression.

Ukraine's military is now one of the most battle-tested in Europe, already trained in a significant amount of NATO munitions and equipment and its ability to help secure the Alliance's Eastern Flank; at least half of the job is already done. Transforming the current NATO-Ukraine Commission into a fully-fledged NATO-Ukraine Council is also important as it will help further deepen ties and allow Ukraine to sit at the table as an equal.

Finally, it is crucial that the Alliance does not repeat the mistake it made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit: namely, revealing differences between members and making half-hearted commitments that leave Ukraine exposed and vulnerable to further Russian aggression and reinforcing the Kremlin's belief that it has a de facto veto on NATO's open-door policy. This would result in a perpetual war. While the conflict may halt at some point, it would almost certainly restart again, leaving Ukraine and wider European security in a permanent state of peril.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has had far-reaching security implications for the wider region, including the South Caucasus. Along the target of malign Russian influence and activity, Georgia made Euro-Atlantic integration a strategic imperative, enshrined in the Georgian Constitution, to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and independence. 

At the Vilnius NATO Summit, the Alliance should recommit to the 2008 Bucharest Summit Decision that Georgia and Ukraine will become NATO members, but this time, present a clear roadmap and membership perspective. As stated in the 2022 Madrid Summit Communiqué, the Alliance should also further boost NATO’s tailored political and practical support for Georgia’s political independence to help the country counter hybrid threats, particuarly emanating from Russia, which continues to occupy 20% of the country.

NATO must demonstrate that its open-door policy is not selective. While Finland joined the Alliance earlier this year, and Sweden is expected to join as early as the upcoming Summit, the commitment to Georgia remains valid on paper only, despite Tbilisi repeatedly demonstrating its commitment to the Alliance. This includes carrying-out political reforms and being the highest per-capita troop-contributing country in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation to spending 2% of its GDP on defence. 

Today, the earlier arguments voiced by some NATO members that bringing Georgia and Ukraine closer to NATO would provoke Russia have proved to be miscalculated. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that the Kremlin does not need a reason to escalate. Furthermore, NATO acting based on Russia’s hypothetical reactions only gives Russia a de facto veto in NATO's internal decision-making process, further fuelling Russian imperialistic ambitions.

Lithuania is aware of the multidimensional threats from its neighbours and beyond. It borders Russia's exclave of Kaliningrad and has been the target of China's coercive economic actions in response to the "Taiwan Representative Office" opening in Vilnius.

By inviting Indo-Pacific leaders (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan) to the Summit, NATO reaffirms that the challenges it confronts nowadays transcend geographical boundaries and are truly global. Triggered also by the deepening alignment between Russia and China, the Alliance recognises the importance of enhancing its cooperation with global partners, particularly with the so-called “Asia-Pacific Four” (AP4), which will transition to NATO’s Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP). Economic coercion, maritime, space, and cyber security, hybrid threats and disinformation activities are among some of the pressing issues that warrant discussion between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners.

Yet, turning ambitions into actions may be difficult. Diverging views on how to frame NATO's engagement with the Indo-Pacific countries remain a contentious issue within the Alliance. Ongoing debates surrounding the proposed establishment of a NATO liaison office in Japan exemplify these conflicting perspectives. There are also legitimate doubts about the extent to which the European pillar of NATO could meaningfully contribute to the security landscape of the Indo-Pacific. In addition, some NATO member states argue that the Alliance has to prioritise the security and defence of Europe, citing Russia as the main threat. Hence, the Summit will be another important occasion to discuss how to reconcile NATO’s changing strategic outlook with its traditional functional and geographic mission.

The Arctic is becoming a 'pole of instability' and a theatre of geopolitical competition between the West, Russia and China. As climate change is felt in the Arctic four times faster than anywhere else in the world, five areas of competition are emerging: dominance, natural resources, trade routes, tourism, and preserving the Arctic environment. Since the region is rich in natural resources (oil, gas, natural minerals, and rare earth metals, which are crucial for new technological innovations), the geopolitical competition will be reflected in a geo-economic one.

In recent years, Russia has stepped up its military activities through an Arctic Command, which has become a strategic challenge due to its ability to obstruct Allied reinforcements and freedom of navigation in the North Atlantic. For its part, China has proclaimed itself a ‘near-Arctic state’ and envisions a ‘Polar Silk Road’ linking China with Europe through the High North. Moscow and Beijing share common goals in developing the Northern Sea Route and considerable energy, infrastructure, and rare earth projects. The growing Sino-Russian strategic partnership in the Arctic will challenge the Allies’ stability, security, and interests.

Increasing competition in the Arctic is changing NATO's understanding and views of the Arctic. When Sweden completes its accession process, seven of the eight Arctic countries will be NATO members. By joining the North Atlantic Alliance, Finland and Sweden are strengthening NATO's posture, presence and deterrence in the Arctic and enhancing security in the Baltic Sea. Most importantly, these new developments bring the 'North' back into the Alliance's strategic thinking and planning.

The Vilnius Summit will be important for the High North. First, Finland will attend as a full member, and the Allies will discuss more about Helsinki's integration into NATO's command and control structures. Second, the Allies could announce the admission of Sweden to NATO or at least progress in completing the ratification process of Sweden's membership by Hungary and Türkiye. Third, the Vilnius Summit will be an excellent opportunity for Allies to discuss and build consensus on the strategic importance of the Arctic for NATO critical infrastructure, North America-Europe communication cables, defence and deterrence.

NATO should not miss this opportunity to further strengthen its presence in the Arctic, as the security of its Eastern Flank becomes increasingly intertwined with developments in the High North.

Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine reinvigorated NATO and led most EU countries to stop hitting the security and defence snooze button. Sweden’s potential accession to the Atlantic pact at the Vilnius Summit, following Finland’s historic entry into the Alliance on its 74th anniversary in April, and Denmark’s Common Security and Defence Policy opt-in, means that NATO’s European pillar is further strengthened.

Although not a key deliverable for the July Summit, forging stronger NATO-EU cooperation should stay at the top of the agenda for transatlantic leaders, especially when the EU is beefing up its security and defence initiatives and capabilities.

NATO and the EU share the same set of security challenges, and the future of warfare will blend civilian and military domains. Hence, complementarity and coordination between both organisations should be considered natural and desirable. This needs to go beyond just words and joint statements.

Indeed, NATO and the EU would benefit from jointly defining a roadmap for enhancing cooperation with practical steps and milestones. Current positive areas of cooperation, such as on ‘military mobility’ (a typical example where military and civilian domains meet), should be reinforced and extended to other issues of common interest to tap into the mutually supportive roles that both organisations can play – from climate security and cyber-defence to space, critical infrastructure, and emerging tech.

Strategic awareness shows that 21st-century security and defence combine conventional and hybrid fields. Only by working together can NATO and the EU face the challenges that lie ahead.

Although hybrid threats are nothing new, recent years have seen an increase in their scope and speed. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and China’s coercive policies to leverage its economic resources for geopolitical ends put hybrid warfare’s importance in the spotlight.

The weaponisation of critical infrastructures and energy supplies, disinformation operations, cyber-attacks, and economic coercion are just a few tools employed to destabilise the strategic environment with repercussions to transatlantic security.

The Madrid Strategic Concept 2022 reaffirmed that cyber and hybrid attacks qualify for a collective response under Article 5. At the Vilnius Summit, Allies must reiterate the importance of countering and deterring hybrid threats and warfare, stepping up their preparedness and delivering on the commitments made in Madrid.

This must include enhancing and speeding up digital transformation and strengthening the resilience of the Allies' critical infrastructures. It must be a NATO imperative to fortify its ability to adapt to a new security landscape. The line between conventional and non-conventional threats is increasingly blurred and underlines the need to foster cooperation with partners outside the Alliance because regional challenges demand global responses. 

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein. 

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