A summit of substance: How NATO can prove itself in Vilnius

NATO’s Vilnius summit provides a picture-perfect opportunity to display the unity of the alliance in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But the summit also has some major deliverables. The outcome of these will serve as a stress test for NATO’s robustness and unity.

The deliverables

  1. Support and security guarantees for Ukraine

Given the European public’s support for Ukraine despite the economic costs, NATO allies will send a strong message of support to Kyiv. This could involve the promise to provide Ukraine with additional armament, including increasingly capable equipment. It should be accompanied by a path towards NATO membership that goes beyond the ambiguous compromise made at the 2008 Bucharest summit, which could combine:

  • The establishment of a NATO-Ukraine council, allowing Ukraine to participate more closely in NATO’s work.
  • A credible path to membership.
  • A willingness to provide more robust interim guarantees than the 1994 Budapest memorandum that led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine.

Disagreements will likely arise around whether to offer such guarantees immediately or only after a ceasefire or peace agreement.  

  1. Get Sweden in

Sweden’s membership in NATO, like that of Finland, would send a strong political message and strengthen the alliance’s security, enabling much closer cooperation in the region between the Baltic and the High North, which is of critical importance. With the exception of Turkey and Hungary, all allies have completed their ratification processes. The lack of progress by Ankara and Budapest in recent days makes their formal ratification unlikely before Vilnius, but allies should nonetheless send a strong political message on this. Many NATO countries will view substantive progress as a test of Turkey’s and Hungary’s commitment to the alliance.

  1. Transform NATO’s deterrence and defence posture

NATO is drafting new plans to defend Europe, which assume that the relationship with Russia will remain unstable. These require:

  • Planning and training to ensure readiness and be able to provide reinforcement at short notice.
  • Forward-stationing troops and assets on the eastern flank.
  • Defining capability priorities (nuclear, conventional weapons, and missiles) to address shortfalls and prepare for the future.
  1. Defence spending

NATO allies will look to review the achievements of the 2014 defence investment pledge and lay the groundwork for future commitments. These could include:

  • A renewed pledge to meet the targets to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence and 20 per cent of this on investment without delays or caveats, as many countries now exceed these targets, and to sustain this level of effort, which is critical to rebuild allies’ militaries after decades of peace dividends.
  • A focus on addressing the capability shortfalls identified in the NATO defence planning process.
  • A deliberate effort to better connect NATO guidelines with activities of the European Union as the latter plays a growing role in capability development.

Concrete value

Decisions on these four fronts may not be clear cut, but observers should expect substantive progress. Extraordinary times require boldness as NATO watchers – friends and foes – will closely monitor the summit’s results. Crucially, meeting these goals would counter Moscow’s belief that it can outlast the West’s strategic patience.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished Policy Fellow

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