UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl talk at the informal meeting of defense ministers at the 2023 NATO Summit on July 11, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl talk at the informal meeting of defense ministers at the 2023 NATO Summit on July 11, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images

Ukraine disappointed, but NATO summit sees progress on several fronts

Sweden is expected to get a formal OK for membership and the alliance is to release new battle plans. There's even a sidelines commitment to Ukraine.

Ukraine isn’t getting the clearer path to NATO membership it wanted from this week’s summit, which is expected to produce an invitation to Sweden, new alliance battle plans, and a firmer commitment to spending 2% of members’ GDP on defense, U.S. and NATO officials said.

The summit, underway in Vilnius, Lithuania, may, however, see a subset of the alliance members deepen their security commitment to the besieged country. UK officials announced on Tuesday that a joint declaration, “expected to be signed by all members of the G7, will set out how allies will support Ukraine over the coming years to end the war and deter and respond to any future attack.” 

In the leadup to this week’s event, member states Estonia and France had been pushing for some language that more clearly laid out how and when Ukraine might be allowed to join NATO. 

As of Tuesday morning, some sort of discussion appeared to be on track, said Jessica Cox, the director of NATO’s Nuclear Policy Directorate.

“I think you'll see a very strong commitment from all allies that Ukraine will be part of NATO some day, when the timing is right, and that they will get an invitation to join NATO when…the right security conditions have been established. I think there is no general consensus that they will be required to have what we call a Membership Action Plan, a map,” Cox told an audience at a German Marshall Fund event in downtown Washington, D.C.

That concession that Ukraine might be able to join the alliance without submitting an action plan didn’t impress the Ukrainians much, especially after they’ve been successfully executing action plans against larger, invading Russian forces for more than a year. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was scheduled to make a public announcement on Tuesday morning from Vilnius but the public remarks were quickly canceled after a sharp tweet from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame [sic] is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine's membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine,” Zelensky tweeted. “Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.” 

Still, Cox said, the summit is still expected to produce a new and potentially large security assistance package for Ukraine and a new mechanism for Ukraine to engage allies. 

“I think we'll have a new multi-year package of assistance to Ukraine. So I think there's already been over 500 million euros that have been pledged to a new Ukraine assistance package that will provide things like medical equipment, non-lethal military aid, support for reconstruction…so a lot of those types of security sector improvements that Ukraine needs, not just now, but in the future,” she said. “And then we're also establishing, for the first time, a NATO Ukraine council, which will meet tomorrow with President Zelenskyy, where NATO and allies can sit down with Ukraine as equals at a table and talk about our mutual security issues. And this will be a forum for the long term.”

The council’s first gathering, slated for Wednesday, is already shaping up to be contentious. On Tuesday evening, Washington D.C. time, the U.K. said that it would use the meeting to push for a simplified path to NATO membership for Ukraine. The G7 members of NATO will put forward an international framework for Ukraine’s long-term security, the U.K. government said in a press release. 

“The joint declaration, expected to be signed by all members of the G7, will set out how allies will support Ukraine over the coming years to end the war and deter and respond to any future attack. It is the first time that this many countries have agreed a comprehensive long-term security arrangement of this kind with another country,” notes the release. 

The Summit has already produced another key deliverable: an agreement on the ascension of Sweden into the alliance, which came after member Turkey withdrew its opposition. That change of heart from Ankara occurred after U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said that he would reconsider his hold on sales of F-16s to Turkey. 

Said Cox, U.S. President Joe Biden has “been pretty vocal for a while that he supports F-16s for Turkey. The fact of the renewed pledge to help Turkey with membership into the EU, which is a really important issue for the Turks,” also played a factor. “And then just the broader work that Sweden has done over the last year to really change their legal system to really criminalize terrorism in and the terrorist groups that are important to Turkey.”

The addition of Sweden into the alliance “gives us much greater freedom of action in the Baltic Sea, which will now be largely circumscribed by NATO nations. But it also gives us a lot more access and insight into the high north,” said Cox. 

Rear Adm. Tim Henry, Deputy Commander of NATO’s Joint Force Command Norfolk, said during the Marshall Fund event that the addition of the Scandinavian members “brings a whole societal approach to resilience. Finland and Sweden are on this one, one nation challenge of bringing all the levers of the nation together when in crisis.”

NATO’s New Plans

The summit will also see the release of a new set of regional plans for NATO. These will establish three new blocks: an Atlantic-European-Arctic block based out of Joint Force Command, or JFC, Norfolk; a Central European block based out of JFC Brunssum in the Netherlands; and a block, based in JFC Naples, focusing on the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the southeastern portion of alliance territory. 

Henry said each block will establish independent planning and exercises but still participate in NATO-wide plans and exercises as needed. 

Gen. Chris Cavoli, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, “himself spent a lot of time making sure that these three patterns sit side by side and entirely aligned. But also these plans can be done independently or collectively, depending on the nature of the challenges that we face,” Henry said. “The work is done and needs to be agreed” at the summit.

One senior NATO official, who said the plan’s size stretches to 4,500 pages, called the agreement merely a formality. 

Cox said NATO’s expansion produced a need for new battle plans.. NATO now has eight brigade-sized battle groups in the eastern front, as agreed at the 2022 Madrid summit.NATO needs to “exercise the forces that will be executing the plans, and doing that in a much more realistic environment. So that units that are going to fight together can train together. And so by having plans, forces assigned an understanding of the reinforcement, and logistics and sustainment needed to operationalize those plans, will enable [the Supreme Allied Commander Europe] to just have a much more ready capable force,” she said.

Another reason NATO is looking to revamp its plans: the Russian military is now a very different threat than it was two years ago. But losing more than 25,000 people, plus tanks, jets, etc. doesn’t actually mean Russia is less dangerous. Cox said that as Russia’s military is bogged down in Ukraine, allies are concerned that Moscow will rely more on threats of nuclear weapon use to scare democracies into inaction. While the U.S. government has not yet seen signs that Russia has transferred tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, a threat that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been making for months, Russia had begun construction of facilities to allow it do so, she said. 

“The nuclear dimension will be part of all of that, not just can we respond to a nuclear attack, but how do you look at this new security environment where Russia is increasingly relying on nuclear coercion and nuclear saber-rattling to affect us?”

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the alliance is set to agree to more sustained suspending, setting the pledge that members must devote 2 percent of the GDP of the nations into defense spending as a firm floor. 

“Over the last year or so in 2023, we'll see approximately an 8.3% increase in defense spending across the alliance. So this is this is already happening and already taking place,” said Cox.