VISEGRAD BLOG: Ukraine awaits 'clear signal' of future Nato membership at Vilnius Summit

VISEGRAD BLOG: Ukraine awaits 'clear signal' of future Nato membership at Vilnius Summit
President Joe Biden and Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague July 10, 2023

The Nato summit in Vilnius on July 11-12 will be dominated by the issue of Ukraine’s potential membership as well as how to help Kyiv prevail in its struggle to push back the Russian occupiers. The issue of Ukraine’s Nato membership is the more symbolic issue; the equipping issue the more vital.

Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelinskiy said in Prague last week that his country “needs some kind of signal, a clear one, that Ukraine will be in the alliance, not that "the door is open" – this is not enough."

It used to be said that Nato membership for Ukraine was unrealistic because of the risk of provoking Russia, the impossibility of Nato defending Ukraine, and because Ukraine was unready. These objections now look specious: Russia has invaded Ukraine without any provocation, Nato has successfully helped defend it, and Ukraine has performed much better militarily than anyone ever expected against what was meant to be the strongest military power in Europe.

To demand now that Ukraine jump through the hoops of a Membership Action Plan (MAP) or to cavil about Ukrainian corruption and the rule of law looks pettifogging or just plain prevarication.

Ukraine – which formally applied for membership in September – has proved in real time under real conditions that it is militarily ready for membership, for which it has been in preparation since it joined the Partnership for Peace process in 1994. It will be a big addition to the alliance, with one of the biggest armies, and one that is battle-trained. Several existing Nato members look much less prepared for membership and have much less to offer the alliance.

Of course there are still real problems with corruption and the stability of Ukraine’s democratic institutions but these are weaknesses that are best addressed by admitting Ukraine into the alliance and working together to remedy them. Several existing Nato members also have serious problems with the rule of law, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to name just the most glaring.

Nato seems now to have acknowledged this reality. Ukraine – like fellow applicants Sweden and Finland – will not need to fulfil a MAP. There is broad agreement that, in line with the 2008 Bucharest summit decision, Ukraine will join, the main remaining questions are when, and what kind of guarantees Ukraine should be given before it joins. Ukraine wants a clear timeframe and solid guarantees.

The Vilnius Summit will not admit Ukraine to membership, given that it is in the middle of a war. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg– whose term has been extended for a year – said last month that it is “not discussing to issue a formal invitation”. Nato will instead formulate a form of words that will make its pledge of eventual membership more concrete. Poland, the Baltic states and other Eastern Flank countries want this pledge to be very explicit; the US and Germany are more hesitant. French President Emmanuel Macron moved towards the Eastern Flank states in his Globsec speech last month, with his call for a  "path" to full membership. 

This pledge will only become real when there is a ceasefire. The fact that Russia may likely still occupy part of the country is not seen as an insuperable obstacle, just as West Germany was part of Nato and East Germany joined after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Equal voice

As part of this, the summit is likely to upgrade the Nato-Ukraine Commission to a council, giving Kyiv an equal voice in decisions that affect it until it joins.

As Ukraine waits for membership it is likely to be given bilateral security guarantees by key Nato members, though this will fall short of cast-iron Article 5 protection. Macron also suggested in his Globsec speech that Kyiv could be granted the same kind of bilateral guarantees that the US gives Israel.

Vilnius will also discuss the more vital question of how to boost Nato members’ military aid for Ukraine to force Russia to come to the negotiating table. In April Nato defence ministers agreed a multi-year assistance programme; in Vilnius the heads of state will formally adopt this.

Nato has gradually hardened its support for Ukraine, so that it is now not just helping it defend itself but is now giving it a real chance of rolling Russian forces back and achieving a remarkable victory.

The false distinction between defensive and offensive weaponry has finally been buried. Nato countries are providing heavy battle tanks, supersonic fighter jets, multiple launch rocket launchers and now cluster bombs, as well as other advanced equipment such as anti-tank weapons, air defence capability and drones.

These are helping Ukraine defend itself and take the offensive. The only red line now is the use of these heavy weapons to launch attacks within Russia itself – something that Kyiv would of course be entirely justified in doing but which may be unwise. Attacks within Russia might make the Kremlin consider escalating its response to even the tactical nuclear level, while potentially dragging Nato nations directly into the war.

Big boost

Aside from discussing Ukrainian membership, the Vilnius summit will formally welcome Finland into the alliance, and in effect Sweden, though Turkey and Hungary have still to formally approve it (all Nato members must approve new applicants).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is blocking Sweden to punish Stockholm for giving protection to Kurdish opposition groups fleeing his tyranny, and perhaps also to put pressure on Washington to drop its block on providing F-16 jets. Erdogan also appears, according to the Financial Times, to be even trying to exert pressure on the EU to accelerate Turkey’s accession process, though a Nato summit would be a bizarre forum at which to attempt this.

For his part, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban appears to be trying to curry favour with Erdogan and to maintain his undisputed position as the EU’s main troublemaker.

Last ditch talks will take place between the leaders of Turkey and Sweden on the eve of the summit. A deal will eventually be done, and in the meantime full integration of Sweden and Finland will progress. Both countries are already well integrated into the alliance and will be a big boost to its defensive capabilities, particularly in the Arctic and Baltic theatres.

Georgia is a less happy story. This should have been a huge opportunity for the country to enter Nato on the coat-tails of Ukraine, given that it shares many of the same problems in terms of rule of law and Russian occupation of its territory. However, in recent years Tbilisi has been going backwards rather than forwards in its preparations for both European Union and Nato membership, by undermining democracy and currying favour with Moscow.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili scored a huge own goal in front of security experts at the Globsec security conference by blaming the Ukraine war on the old trope of Nato expansion. In a clear acknowledgement that he expects no presents in Vilnius, he has decided to send his foreign minister instead, saying: “we must tell the truth to our society and ourselves, acknowledging that we should not create unnecessary expectations".

Burying the tripwire

The summit should also formally adopt the new defence plans – the first comprehensive ones since the end of the Cold War – that have already been adopted by defence ministers. These plans, covering the north (Arctic/Baltic), centre and south (Mediterranean/Black Sea) areas, is something that the Baltic states in particular have been calling for as a way of showing that Nato is now thinking much more seriously about how to confront the Russian threat. The old idea of Nato forces on the Eastern Flank as a “tripwire” is now truly dead and buried, and Nato will now defend the territory of its members, something that should strengthen deterrence.

The plans put flesh on Nato’s new strategic concept and its new force model of 300,000 high-readiness troops, including 100,000 troops ready to deploy in less than 10 days, which were agreed at the Madrid summit last year. The plans should also help guide Nato members on their defence spending priorities.

Underpinning all this is a planned new defence investment pledge, which makes defence spending of 2% of GDP – a goal agreed at the Madrid summit in 2014 – a new minimum. Stoltenberg has said he expects a “more ambitious commitment…with 2% of GDP for defence as a floor not a ceiling”.

Only seven of Nato’s 31 members met this goal in 2022, though several intend to meet it soon, including Germany next year and France in 2025. Some Eastern Flank states are already well over this threshold, with Estonia planning to spend 3% this year and Poland 4%.

Linked to this, Nato leaders are also set to discuss how to boost procurement of vital defence equipment by agreeing multi-year contracts with arms companies. These firms need this assurance in order to make the investments in new plants necessary to produce the materiel to build up defence stockpiles. These stocks have been depleted by Western aid to Kyiv, with Ukraine using as many shells in 10 days as even the US produces in a month.

These discussions should not be mistaken for dissension. As well as pushing Sweden and Finland to join,  Russia's aggression has united Nato as never before. What are now being discussed are concrete steps to support Ukraine and prepare the alliance for a much more dangerous world.