First, the bad news – those hoping for an offer of NATO membership to Ukraine are going to be disappointed. While alliance defense ministers meeting in Brussels on June 15-16 will be making the last, important steps before NATO’s Vilnius summit, full Ukrainian membership is not on the table for now (NATO offered membership in 2008, but that has proved a slow process.)
However, some package short of membership is being discussed and will be fine-tuned in Brussels. Quite what this may mean is not yet fully clear, but there has been talk of security guarantees and pacts, as part of a strategy to arm post-war Ukraine to the teeth.
If that causes dismay (some European states have pushed for membership once the fighting stops), the better news is that the now 31-member alliance (soon to be 32 when Sweden joins) is tackling a range of improvements to confront the reappearance in Europe of an aggressive country whose behavior is increasingly unconstrained.
Put bluntly, NATO once again needs to be able to fight, and the defense minister meeting will deal with the nitty-gritty that once again needs to ensure its improvement.
As a refresher, at the NATO Summit in Madrid in 2022, allies adopted a new Strategic Concept that declared the need to invest in and improve upon a host of NATO capabilities, policies, and plans, including everything from integrated air and missile defense and cyber and space resilience to pre-positioning ammunition and equipment on Eastern Flank nations and improving infrastructure to enable rapid reinforcement of those nations. In other words, allies must ensure that Article 5 is sacrosanct, and defend “every inch” of NATO territory as President Biden has pledged.
Additionally, in their 2022 Madrid Summit Declaration, NATO nations agreed to defend forward by scaling up existing battlegroups to brigade-sized units where and when required, and that these units would be underpinned by rapidly-available reinforcements. They agreed to a new NATO force model and resource a new generation of military plans, to make collective defense exercises more realistic, and to enhance energy, cyber, and defense industry resilience.
These commitments require investment in national contributions to NATO, which will mean money for defense industries, defense infrastructure, recruitment and training, and exercises. In other words, it will require living up to the 2% NATO Defense Investment Pledge of 2006, which has been too long ignored by too many members.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has spent the past few months arguing that 2% must be a floor, not a ceiling, but given the tremendous outlays of support to Ukraine and the impact of inflation on budgets, some countries have been soft-pedaling on this. They argue, instead, that the 2% metric is less important than whether each nation meets national commitments to NATO plans, operations, and battlegroups.
All these issues will be addressed this week for a final time before Vilnius. The Defense Ministerial agenda will kick off on June 15 with four nations formally joining the 20 existing members of NATO’s Multinational Ammunition Warehousing Initiative (MAWI). This rather dull-sounding project is a critical tenet underpinning the grandiose goals laid out at Madrid by facilitating the stockpiling of munitions in areas where NATO forces – such as NATO’s multinational battlegroups – will operate. It is one of many issues that seem boring until — in this case — the shells and bullets run out, and battlefield disaster ensues. This focus on the basics is one of the many lessons learned from Ukraine’s war for survival.
Something similar can be said of the Transatlantic defense industry reception. The return of high-intensity conflict to the European continent laid bare the inadequacies in many countries’ defense industrial bases and stockpiling strategies. Although NATO’s Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD) meets twice annually and has a structure that incorporates an industrial advisory group, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of collaborating with the defense industry to ensure not only sufficient capacity but also supply chain resiliency.
The final event of the day will be a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC), which will follow on the heels of the US-hosted Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) held some hours earlier. At the NATO Foreign Ministerial two weeks ago, allies reiterated that Ukraine will become a member, but that a pathway can only be considered once the conflict is over (immediate membership would mean immediate war, since the allies would have to apply the Article 5 guarantee.) Instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has noted that NATO allies are working on a “robust” package of “political and practical” support for Ukraine.
In terms of immediate practical support, a senior US defense official noted that the June 15 UDCG meeting will focus on air defense, anti-armor systems and munitions, and short- and long-range artillery, as well as F-16 training and enhanced sustainment support, to include an emphasis on spare parts deliveries and translating repair manuals.
On the following day, June 16, there will be assessments on operationalizing NATO’s new Strategic Concept. Allies will discuss progress made toward updating NATO plans to make them more realistic and aligning national plans with alliance plans. They also will assess the combat viability of the much-vaunted eight multinational battlegroups in the eight Eastern Flank nations.
The final event on the agenda is a session of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG.) The group involves all allies except France (which has decided not to participate), and notably includes Finland, even though it will not allow for the stationing of nuclear weapons on Finnish territory. At its core, NATO is a nuclear alliance, and the US B61 gravity bombs stationed in Europe would be deployed using F-16 and Tornado dual-capable aircraft (DCA). However, both these bombs and the aircraft that carry them are aging, and the US is currently modernizing the B61s to the B61-12 by 2025, affording better accuracy, variable yield capacity, and some standoff ability. Meanwhile, Germany finally joined the other DCA-operating nations in buying F-35s, which are currently undergoing certification to meet NATO nuclear deterrence requirements.
We should not expect an official statement or communique from the June 15-16 meeting. There likely will not be any major news about Swedish accession to NATO or security guarantees for Ukraine. It’s nonetheless a vital opportunity for secretaries and ministers of defense to assess progress toward the lofty goals identified in Madrid last year, in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine.
Ann Marie Dailey (@anndailey) is a former Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. She is a geopolitical strategist with deep expertise in Europe, Eurasia, and energy and climate resilience with two decades of study and experience in the public and private sectors. She has a Master’s Degree in International Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a Captain in the United States Army Reserves.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.