As NATO leaders concluded two days of talks in Vilnius, members of the alliance made clear their commitments to increase military and political support for Ukraine. While Sweden’s NATO ambitions were finally realized as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lifted his objections, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s hopes for NATO membership failed to materialize. Yet despite this, the summit resulted in calls that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” and relations between the alliance and Ukraine deepened following the inaugural meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, the removal of the Membership Action Plan requirement for Ukraine, and additional security guarantees from G7 members.

Below, CEPA experts share their key takeaways from the Vilnius Summit, including what it means for Russia’s war in Ukraine, the future of transatlantic security, and the potential impact decisions may have on NATO’s 2024 summit in Washington, DC.

Alina Polyakova, President & CEO, Center for European Policy Analysis

NATO is back – no brain death in sight. The alliance is bolstered by an open path for Sweden to become member 32 and regional plans cementing a strong US presence. The Vilnius Communiqué takes initial steps toward Ukraine’s inevitable NATO membership, and while they are not enough and not what Kyiv wanted, they lay a positive foundation for next year’s 75th-anniversary summit in DC.

Kurt Volker, Former US Ambassador to NATO; Distinguished Fellow, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis

Perhaps the most positive and under-reported aspect of the Vilnius Summit was Turkey’s realignment with the rest of the allies on some critical issues. President Erdogan relented on his objections to ratification of Swedish NATO membership, supported Ukraine being admitted to the alliance, approved of further Bayraktar drone shipments to Ukraine, and appears to have worked out a deal with the United States on Turkish F-16 acquisition.

The big issue that NATO failed to address is the contradiction between its rock-solid commitment to the security of the alliance and its refusal to give Ukraine a clear pathway to membership. With a nuclear-armed, imperialist Russia on the doorstep laying claim to swathes of territory that belong to other countries, it is hard to see how NATO can accomplish its mission of security for Europe in the future without Ukraine being part of the alliance. That contradiction needs to be addressed at the 2024 Washington Summit.

Patrick Turner, Former Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning, NATO; Distinguished Fellow, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis

The Vilnius Summit had some good news – on boosting defense spending, delivering measures to defend allies, and strengthening the defense industrial base. But, on the central issue of Ukraine, this was a distinctly underwhelming Summit. After 15 years of hollow promises, allies again dodged the issue of Ukraine joining NATO. They offered no clear timetable or route map for membership, just a set of fig leaves to disguise the lack of any substantive offer. The punch line spelled this out with embarrassing clarity: Ukraine will join “when allies agree and conditions are met.” In other words, “nothing doing for the moment.” The allies concerned have much to answer for. President Zelenskyy had little choice but to put a brave face on it. There is vague talk of security assurances from key allies. They are very unlikely to add up to much, to end the war, or to deter Russia. So, as the war continues, Ukraine and allies will still bear the costs of prevarication and unjustified caution. Maybe next year’s Washington Summit will redress the failure – but, in a US election year, don’t hold your breath.

Federico Borsari, Leonardo Fellow, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis

The Vilnius summit delivered a vague and weak political message from the alliance regarding Ukraine’s NATO membership. While NATO leaders reiterated that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” a stronger commitment and a clear timeline would have been preferable because the communiqué inelegantly confirmed that allies currently disagree on the invitation for Ukraine and that meeting the necessary conditions may not be enough if disagreements within NATO remain. In this respect, hence, it is worth asking: what would be the concrete differences between an invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance today rather than sometime in the future?

At the same time, there has been progress on several fronts. First, consensus for Ukraine’s membership is clearly gaining momentum and will not require a longer Membership Action Plan (MAP). The establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council is another positive step, although a minor one in practical terms. Second, Zelensky leaves Vilnius with a substantial support package: multi-year assistance from several NATO countries, including training for F-16s and Scalp long-range cruise missiles, along with a stronger focus on interoperability with NATO. Third, but no less important, the Vilnius Summit saw the virtual green light to Sweden’s accession and accomplished kickstarting the implementation of the priorities outlined in Madrid, chiefly the activation of new regional battle plans and a firmer commitment by Allies to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense.

Mathieu Boulegue, Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis

The summit confirmed that Russia is the primary threat to Euro-Atlantic security. Of particular importance are the communique’s mention of non-conventional subsea activities against critical infrastructure, like energy and data links, and increased Russian ties with China. Leaders briefly addressed growing security concerns in the Northern Flank of the alliance, recognizing Moscow continues to expand its military capabilities in the Arctic and its ability to disrupt North Atlantic freedom of navigation. Turkey’s long-awaited agreement to let Sweden join NATO paves the way to a stronger and more united alliance in the High North.

Ukraine was, of course, at the center of attention. As expected, Kyiv was not offered immediate NATO membership. However, a milestone was reached with the decision to scrap the need for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), making Ukraine post-MAP and pre-NATO. This is an underwhelming achievement compared to the great prize of full membership, but it brings Ukraine a step closer to this goal. As President Zelenskyy mentioned, this should happen “after the war.” The creation of a NATO-Ukraine Council must also be saluted.

Sam Greene, Director, Democratic Resilience, Center for European Policy Analysis

Ukraine is ready for NATO. NATO, alas, is not ready for Ukraine.

That’s the key takeaway from the alliance’s Vilnius Summit, which is, unfortunately, more likely to be remembered for what it didn’t do, than what it did. Moving beyond the Membership Action Plan for Ukraine was, in fact, a significant step, but Ukraine remains without membership and without a real plan for getting it. Unless the allies can move swiftly to clarify the conditions that will need, in the words of the communiqué, to be “right,” the vagueness of NATO’s commitment to Ukraine will invite unproductive game-playing from the alliance’s less responsible members and encourage Moscow to keep trying to chip away at allies’ resolve.

Against this disappointing backdrop, the G7’s momentum towards more robust bilateral security commitments has cued up happier mood music – but here, too, there are dissonant notes. While such arrangements might be a useful stopgap, the danger is that such temporary solutions can become permanent, further detracting from alliance cohesion and creating problems of coordination in the event of renewed or escalated crisis. NATO’s work, in short, is far from done.

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Krista Viksnins, Program Officer, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis

The NATO Vilnius Summit Communiqué published on July 11 mentions Russia 66 times and refers to the Russian Federation as “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” This is a welcome statement by the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, given their shared border with Russia and the imminent threat their neighbor poses to them. Another major development that happened on the sidelines of the Summit was the signing of the Declaration of Cooperation on cross-border airspace between all three Baltic states which will greatly benefit all three countries and the alliance by providing more NATO air training and exercises in the region.

Hanna Shelest, Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis

Has Ukraine become closer to NATO membership, or was there just a change of words regarding its future integration – that is probably the main question that characterizes the results of the Vilnius Summit. No Membership Action plan, Ukraine-NATO Council as an instrument of integration and first-time use of “to extend an invitation” signify a step forward. But the ambiguity of “when conditions are met” and explanations that the main reason for non-inviting is a fear of being at war with Russia is a flashback to the 2008 Bucharest summit. With all NATO’s strength, it still allows the Kremlin to shape its decisions.

Nicolas Tenzer, Senior Fellow, Democratic Resilience, Center for European Policy Analysis

Ukraine’s leaders and people have been humiliated yet again. After the final communiqué, the Ukraine-NATO committee was held for the first time, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy could not fail to attend. Speaking to the NATO Public Forum, the head of the Presidential Administration, Andriy Yermak, had some soothing words, and the same was true of the Ukrainian President’s public remarks. Ukraine knows that it continues to need its allies and that it is not possible for it to show resentment towards allies who are still halfway there. But the deep frustration will remain.

Few foreign policy and security analysts were optimistic about the outcome of the Vilnius summit, but few expected such a failure of strategic intelligence — along with such moral indecency in front of a dying nation. Not since the early months of the war had such a disastrous signal been sent to Moscow. Perhaps, judging by some non-public words, some NATO leaders are beginning to realize this. By the time of the next NATO summit in Washington in July 2024 and tens of thousands of deaths thereafter, it will be too late to put things right.

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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