July 6, 2023

The Vilnius Summit and the Limits of Consensus

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 20, 2023.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 20, 2023.

More than fifteen years ago, NATO Allies meeting at Bucharest declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”. Until 24 February 2022, the ritualised repetition of those words was seen by many in the Alliance as a demonstration of resolution and principle. But sixteen months after Russia embarked upon full-scale war with Ukraine, and one year after NATO’s last summit in Madrid, that formula is widely seen as inadequate, if not feckless.

“NATO makes decisions by consensus”. That principle, reiterated by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at almost every public meeting, has a far longer pedigree than the Bucharest formula. But whereas the outlines of consensus were once set by a convinced and commanding majority able to persuade others to follow suit, today that no longer is the case. When it comes to the ultimate question, Ukraine’s membership of NATO — even a credible ‘pathway’ to membership — the spirit of consensus is not strong enough to override the interests and apprehensions of those Allies who dread the consequences of defying Russia over a matter of such importance. Thus, the ‘impressive’ unity celebrated by the Alliance in supporting Ukraine and arming it ends abruptly at that point.

The questions that rightly concern us are: Can this impasse be overcome — in some measure at Vilnius, more fully at the Washington summit in 2024? What will be the consequences of not overcoming it?

Needless to say, the Alliance will not be able to focus solely on these questions, for all their gravity. Two others must and will command attention: Forward Defence and the two percent spending commitment (agreed in 2006), which seventeen years later, the majority of Allies have not met. (See more by Kristi Raik) As Julian Lindley-French notes, there also will be two other “implicit struggles that go to the heart of NATO: the future of the European pillar and the place of Turkey in the Alliance”.

Yet the manner in which decisions regarding Ukraine are either reached or evaded will have a gravity surpassing NATO’s approach to these other questions. The first reason is that both Ukraine and Russia are likely to draw definitive conclusions from the message that NATO conveys, and they will be doing so at a critical stage of a war whose outcome will affect every aspect of Western security. Second, the ghosts of Bucharest refuse to die, and NATO’s standing will suffer, perhaps profoundly, if the “Vilnius formula” only extends their life.

But there is no necessity for this. The geopolitical context surrounding the Bucharest summit and today’s are substantially different. Three contrasts ought to be instructive.

The Discontinuities of History

Russia was not seen as an adversary at the time of Bucharest. The war in Georgia was yet to come, and few outside Georgia itself considered the prospect likely. After it came, the US and other Allies treated Russia’s invasion as regional and exceptional. In 2010, two years after the war, and three years after the Bronze Soldier crisis in Estonia, NATO’s Strategic Concept placed Russia under the heading “Partnerships”. The Concept proceeded from the premise that the “security of NATO and Russia is intertwined”; emphasis was laid squarely on the “strategic importance” of cooperation. Although the Concept stated that “[c]rises and conflicts beyond NATO’s borders can pose a direct threat to the security of Alliance territory and populations”, there was no suggestion that Russia might pose such a threat. In diametric contrast, President Emmanuel Macron now states that “quite simply, the future of our continent is at stake”. NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept characterises Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies” security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area’.

Second, Russia’s war in Ukraine is significantly changing the military correlation of forces in Europe. At the time of the Russia-Georgia war, NATO had no coercive capability to speak of east of the German border. To the connoisseurs of hard power in Moscow, the failure to accompany an aggressive declaratory policy — “these countries will become members of NATO” — with the means to underpin it amounted to a combination of provocation and bluff. That combination predetermined Russia’s course. The provision of Membership Action Plans might only have sharpened the disparity between ends and means.

Today, that disparity has significantly narrowed. To be sure, the work undertaken since the summits in Newport (2014), Warsaw (2016) and Madrid (2022) to upgrade NATO’s defence posture on Russia’s periphery is work in progress. But the enhanced and steadily augmenting allied presence on the eastern flank, the admission of Finland (and, prospectively, Sweden) to NATO, the increasingly rigorous and large-scale regimen of exercises, and the augmentation of indigenous defence capability, most dramatically in Poland, are progressively diminishing the vulnerabilities that plagued the Alliance fifteen years ago. Should Russia achieve its goals in Ukraine, this progress could all be for nought. But if Ukraine succeeds in expelling Russian forces from its territory and emerging as a leading military power in its own right, its admission to NATO will strengthen NATO as well as itself. (More on this by Andriy Zagorodnyuk). In these circumstances, the Alliance will find itself far from defenceless if Russia entertains a military response to this once unthinkable step.

Third, when it came to the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, the United States, backed by Allies in East-Central Europe, led the charge, and Western European Allies obstructed. Today, the argument and initiative are led by the states of east-Central Europe, and the states of Western Europe reluctantly acquiesce. As Natalie Tocci, recent President of the Istituto Affairi Internazionali, stated at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference:

“The political dynamic underpinning Bucharest and Vilnius has fundamentally changed. In Bucharest [there was] a half-baked US push and headlong European opposition. Now [there is] US reluctance, Eastern European push and Western European acceptance. This is a sea change.”

To Achieve Consensus or Not?

On one point, there is a consensus: Ukraine will not be offered membership in Vilnius. On another point, there is at least an understanding: NATO will not offer membership to a country in the midst of war, not least a war whose course and ultimate outcome remain uncertain. But a more contentious argument — NATO will not admit a country whose borders are disputed — rests on shaky ground. By enjoining an applicant to resolve disputes by peaceful means, NATO had no intention to deny it the right to self-defence or afford a veto to others.[1]

The fundamental issue is NATO’s relationship with Russia, both immediate and long-term. In an alliance of sovereign states, this is also a national issue, and for now, it is still the case that the outlook and national interests of 31 Allies are not fully aligned.

The immediate issue, the fear of escalation — the contours of which are as broad as the human imagination — so far have not borne fruit despite the fact that NATO already has crossed several “red lines” drawn by Russia without discernible consequences. According to Russia’s current military doctrine (and most of its predecessors), Russia will only employ nuclear weapons when the “survival” of the state is threatened. In contrast, Russia’s resort to ecological aggression — more realistic and potentially more devastating — took place at the Nova Kakhovka dam without any warning, and its consequences have been confined to Ukraine alone. But if other fears are realised (with respect to the Crimea Titan titanium plant and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station), the consequences will be greater.

But for many allies, NATO membership for Ukraine would be a red line of a very different kind. Would Russia treat such a decision as a casus belli and respond by launching war against NATO? That nothing to this effect is stated in Russian military doctrine does not mean it will not happen. Nevertheless, there is nothing in Russian history to support it. Russia has never launched a war against an opponent it considered to be stronger. Moreover, such a response would make no military sense. There is a world of difference between an act of ecological terrorism undertaken without fear of retribution and the use of nuclear weapons in the face of a nuclear armed alliance that has warned Russia of “catastrophic” consequences. No rational country embarks on war if it believes it is going to lose it.

But is Russia’s state leadership rational? The dramatic events launched by Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s so-called “mutiny” provide evidence that it is not only rational, but ultra cautious, increasingly dysfunctional and divided within itself. How conceivable is it that a national leader unwilling or unable to crush an internal insurgent will launch a war against the most mighty alliance on the planet? The answer might not be self-evident to all. Whilst the once hypothetical spectre of an unstable Russia might persuade some that grey zones have become impermissible as well as dangerous and that a stronger, more inclusive and more consolidated NATO is now a necessity, others inevitably will fixate on the dangers of a “cornered Putin” and the risk of what he will do. Turkey, having invested more than any other ally in a multi-vector policy will be the litmus test and the most critical case.

However immediate anxieties and threats play out, the longer-term issues are no less profound. For all its residual apprehensions, the German establishment, more courageously than most has recognised that the pre-2022 paradigm is no longer sustainable. In the words of the historic Ostpolitiker, Wolfgang Ischinger, Russia’s war has returned us to “Ground Zero of European security”. Emmanuel Macron also appears to understand that there is no pre-2022 status quo to go back to. The conclusion that reasonably follows is the conclusion of 1947: to integrate and consolidate Europe, in alliance and collaboration with the United States — and to do so without requiring Russia’s consent. But even for many who accept this conclusion, the inclusion of Ukraine into NATO will have a finality that other essential measures will not. To face a permanently alienated Russia, a conflict without end (even if only in hearts and minds) will be a step too far for some.

“Standing up to Putin” and “supporting” Ukraine “for as long as it takes”, are causes that now unite NATO, and that unity will be reconfirmed at Vilnius. But those who argue that no Russian state will reconcile itself to “NATO Ukraine” or to NATO itself if Ukraine joins it are most unlikely to change their views before the Vilnius summit, and it is far from clear that they will do so afterwards.

[1] The 1995 NATO Study on Enlargement and 1999 Membership Action Plan enjoin applicants to resolve disputes by peaceful means. My own points have been confirmed more than once in discussions with members of NATO International Staff.

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