June 29, 2023

Vilnius Summit Prepares NATO for Tough Times Ahead

Estonian Defence Forces
Cooperation exercise of NATO and Finnish fighters in Estonian airspace. 29.03.2023
Cooperation exercise of NATO and Finnish fighters in Estonian airspace. 29.03.2023

There are three major issues on the Vilnius Summit agenda – new defence plans, spending commitments and Ukraine’s path to NATO membership – that are of vital importance for NATO’s ability to manage the Russian threat in the years and decades to come. As the summit takes place at the time of an epochal shift for not only European, but also international security, the significance of it extends well beyond Europe. The decisions to be taken at the Vilnius Summit will send signals to allies as well as adversaries regarding the capability and resolve of NATO to manage the Russian threat.

A year ago in Madrid, NATO held its first summit addressing the consequences of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The signs of an epochal shift were evident, with a large-scale war returning to Europe just next to NATO’s eastern border and consequently two Nordic countries with a long tradition of neutrality, Finland and Sweden, applying for membership. The alliance took decisions on strengthening defence and deterrence on the eastern flank and adopted a new strategy that defined Russia as the most significant threat to European security.

One year later, NATO’s adaptation to the deteriorated security environment continues. Perhaps a year ago, some NATO countries still expected that it was possible to make a deal with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and that the war would be over soon. Most allies did not rush to strengthen their defence capabilities or the capacity of their defence industries, which are costly and often politically difficult steps to take. By now, the understanding that NATO is likely to be facing a long-term antagonistic relationship with Russia has become more broadly shared.

There are three major issues on the Vilnius Summit agenda – new defence plans, spending commitments and Ukraine’s path to NATO membership – that are of vital importance for NATO’s ability to manage the Russian threat in the years and decades to come. Russia is obviously not the only security concern of NATO countries, but the alliance also needs to be able to deal with issues such as terrorism, cyber security, systemic challenges posed by China, and security implications of climate change. While not denying the importance of these other issues, this article focuses on the aforementioned three strategically crucial matters.

New Defence Plans

Last year in Madrid, NATO took steps to move from the concept of enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) towards forward defence of its eastern flank. The eFP was created in response to the annexation of Crimea, which was the first time after World War II when state borders in Europe were changed by force and instigation of war in eastern parts of Ukraine by Russia in 2014. NATO’s eastern flank countries saw these developments as a serious deterioration of their security. Consequently, in 2016, NATO agreed on the deployment of the eFP in the three Baltic states and Poland, composed of multinational combat-ready battlegroups led by the United Kingdom (Estonia), Canada (Latvia), Germany (Lithuania) and the US (Poland).

NATO’s defence plans for the eastern flank entailed the idea that, in case of an invasion and occupation of some of its territory, the alliance would reconquer the lost lands. In spring of 2022, the world was shocked by the images of extensive and brutal violence against civilians that was uncovered in Ukraine, as the country reconquered territories that had been occupied by the Russian forces following the invasion of 24 February. These events pushed NATO towards replacing forward presence with forward defence and developing an ability to push back an invasion from the very first moment. Hence, NATO has been preparing new defence plans, to be adopted in Vilnius. For the first time after the end of the Cold War, the plans will define in detail how NATO will respond to a possible Russian attack and what are the forces and capabilities that each ally needs to provide for this purpose.

Spending Targets

Ensuring the necessary capabilities for the implementation of the new defence plans will be a challenge. The war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 launched a debate in NATO on the need to refocus on collective defence and rebuild lost military capability. NATO agreed to reinforce the target of allies to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, which was seen as a necessary level to ensure the alliance’s military readiness. The decision followed years of underspending after the end of the Cold War, when most European countries assessed that they did not face a military threat, and the attention of NATO shifted from collective defence to expeditionary missions in the Western Balkans countries, Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, in most cases the increases in defence spending have been slow. According to a fresh NATO report, only seven allies reached the 2% target in 2022: the US, UK, Poland, Greece and the three Baltic states. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine underscores the need to get serious about this issue. After February 2022, NATO countries have been giving substantial amounts of armament to Ukraine which needs to be continued in order to enable Ukraine to reconquer occupied territories. At the same time, stronger capabilities are needed for NATO’s own long-term defence needs. Some allies have argued in favour of raising the target level above the current 2%, and some are moving beyond this level in any case – Poland plans to spend 4% of its GDP on defence in 2023, and the Baltic states are aiming at 3% in coming years.

Ukraine’s Road to NATO

While the new defence plans and spending commitments are by no way easy topics on the Vilnius agenda, perhaps the most contentious one is the question of Ukraine’s future relationship with NATO. Allies do agree that Ukraine (and also Georgia) will one day join the alliance – such an agreement was already reached at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008. However, the Bucharest decision has been extensively criticized. It was a compromise solution between those members, notably the US and eastern flank countries, that were willing to offer Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan and others, including Germany and France, that opposed any move towards the membership of these countries. The disagreements resulted in a vaguely worded prospect of membership, while signaling that NATO was actually not ready to take any steps to implement this commitment. The compromise decision was on the one hand seen as provocative by the Kremlin, but on the other hand, suggested that some NATO countries were de facto respecting Russia’s privileged role in the post-Soviet space (excluding the three Baltic states which had joined both NATO and the EU in 2004). This message encouraged Russia to intensify its efforts to keep Ukraine, Georgia and other post-Soviet states in its sphere of influence.

NATO countries do agree on a number of points regarding Ukraine’s relationship with the alliance. First, as already noted, there is the common understanding that Ukraine will join. Second, as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made clear, Russia has no veto power over the decision which is to be made by NATO and Ukraine. Third, there is consensus that Ukraine cannot join for as long as active fighting continues. Indeed, NATO has been very clear that it wants to avoid the war between Russia and Ukraine expanding into a NATO-Russia war. Fourth, NATO countries agree that Ukraine will need credible security guarantees after the war in order to make sure that Russia will not invade again.

Although these are significant points of agreement, there have been different views among allies regarding the steps to be taken at this point. Interestingly, this time it is the US that is most hesitant to move ahead worrying about a possible escalatory response by Russia, while the Eastern flank countries – that might be more directly affected by an escalation – insist on strong steps to be taken towards Ukraine’s membership which would send a clear signal to Russia about a long-term commitment of the alliance to Ukraine’s security. The summit is expected to come up with an innovating wording that sends a strong message of commitment, while also reflecting the more cautious views among some allies. It will also be important to highlight further practical steps that prepare Ukraine for membership and strengthen the interoperability of its military with NATO forces.


The decisions to be taken at the Vilnius Summit will send signals to allies as well as adversaries regarding the capability and resolve of NATO to manage the Russian threat. The alliance will need credible defence plans backed up with sufficient capabilities in order to be able to deter the expansion of Russian aggression to NATO territory. Furthermore, NATO has an important role to play in integrating Ukraine to the trans-Atlantic security architecture and providing it with effective post-war security guarantees.

The significance of the Vilnius Summit extends well beyond Europe. The summit will take place at the time of an epochal shift for European and, more broadly, international security. The outcome of the war in Ukraine will have a long-term impact on the viability of a rules-based security order in Europe and beyond – an order where the security norms laid out in the UN Charter are respected, borders are not changed by force, and invasion and occupation of one state by another is ruled out. NATO is going through a process of adaptation to the changing security environment where such norms are under increased pressure. The Vilnius Summit will be a major milestone in equipping NATO for the challenging times ahead.

This article was written for Korea On Point.

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