Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, left, and Camille Grand of the European Council on Foreign Relations speal at GLOBSEC 2023 Bratislava Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, on May 29, 2023.

Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, left, and Camille Grand of the European Council on Foreign Relations speal at GLOBSEC 2023 Bratislava Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, on May 29, 2023. Photo by Michal Cizek / AFP

Estonia Will Ask For a Clearer Path for Ukraine to Join NATO

In Europe, defense ministers and military experts worry that the world is not learning the lessons from Ukraine quickly enough.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—When NATO leaders meet for their annual summit in July, Estonia will ask them to consider a “roadmap” for Ukraine to join the alliance, Estonia’s minister of defense said Monday. 

“What we have to push in Vilnius is that there has to be a clear understanding [of] what are the next steps for Ukraine,” Hanno Pevkur said at the annual GLOBSEC conference here.

That doesn’t necessarily mean bringing Ukraine into NATO immediately. Pevkur pointed out that even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that winning the war against Russia must come first. But, the Estonian said, it’s time for the alliance to be more direct about its plans. 

Pevkur said that’s because Russia’s Vladimir Putin still aims to conquer Ukraine, even if he has reduced his immediate objectives to consolidating his limited territorial gains. But changing politics in Europe and the United States also add urgency.

After July’s meeting in Lithuania’s capital, “the next summit in Washington will be just before the U.S. elections in 2024. So this will be a huge challenge for all of us…What will be the message coming out from Washington? So, I would like to see that we will have a clear roadmap.”

France has similarly pushed for a roadmap for Ukraine’s ascension into NATO to be on the agenda this summer. 

NATO deterrence

At GLOBSEC, concern is rising among European military officials and military experts that Western governments aren’t fully prepared for the worst-case scenario: that they will become party to the war. That could happen if Ukraine fails to expel Russians from its territory, said Richard Sherriff, a retired U.K. general who served as Britain's top NATO commander. 

“Let's hope that they will be able with one counteroffensive to achieve their military objectives, but we shouldn't assume that,” Sherriff said. “We probably need to expect to see a series of major counteroffensives over a period of maybe a couple of years.

“If [the Ukrainians] fail to achieve their military objectives,” he said, “we in NATO need to be prepared for the worst case, which means we might have to intervene.”

NATO, a defensive alliance, has no mechanism for intervening unless a member country is attacked. Pevkur argued that failure in Ukraine would increase the chance that Russia will mount such an attack.

“When you look at the map of Ukraine, it seems that it's a small part of Ukraine which has been occupied at the moment. In reality, this is the size of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,” he said. 

Pevkur also said NATO moves too slowly to deter attack, in part because the commanders closest to the likely Russian invasion don’t have the necessary authorities to act in their own defense. 

The NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s “office or the secretary itself has to have the authority to engage the preliminary actions, because otherwise we will be too slow, otherwise we have to sit somewhere in Brussels, 32 countries—when Sweden will join soon—and make a decision: do we engage Article Five or not. Then, by that time—sorry to say—the Russian army will be already halfway to [Estonia’s capital] Tallinn and we don't have the time. We don't have the strategic depth.”

“This is why we need to have forces in place where they are also used. We need pre-positioned ammunition and we need authorization for…the sector to engage if necessary, and then we can say that we have critical deterrence… regional plans that work and actually deter Russia.”

Joint procurement

On the procurement side, Pevkur said that NATO must increase weapons standardization, in part by encouraging joint acquisitions by alliance members. Many weapons fire 155mm ammunition, he noted, but not all can use the same 155mm shells.

“At the end of the day, what we need to have inside of NATO is the standardization,” he said. “First, standardization; secondly, [more] joint procurements; and thirdly, strong recommendations from the NATO headquarters to do at least regionally joint procurements,” he said. 

Camille Grand, a distinguished policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, agreed. 

“At the end of the day what is unacceptable is not that we have different guns. It’s the fact that the artillery shells that we're using cannot be put in each of these guns because we didn't do the homework of making them standard enough, not only not by caliber but so that every artillery shell…should be used on any NATO gun that is available and that should be an absolute requirement,” Grand said.

For Sherriff, the key procurement lesson coming out of Ukraine is simply this: procure faster, like the Ukrainians themselves. He recounted his visit to Ukraine’s new Brave1 innovation and procurement cell.

“It brings together inventors operating out of their workshops and garages, innovators. It brings together investors, the ministers of digital transformation, economy and defense. It brings in the General Staff. And when I said [to Brave1’s director Nataliia Kushnerska], ‘How long do you reckon it's going to take you to [to build a prototype], and what's your aim in terms of getting stuff into service from idea, inception to battlefield?’ She said, ‘I think we're pushing it two months.’ Yeah. Well, don't tell that to the British [Ministry of Defense]. They’re years, light years away.”

Update: Following the original publication of this article, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu wrote to Defense One: "Our top military commander, SACEUR General Cavoli, has updated and strengthened a set of new regional plans. They designate in detail how we would defend allied territory, with which forces and capabilities, and at what levels of readiness. We expect NATO leaders to commit to these new plans a new force structure, with more troops at higher readiness, at the Vilnius summit in July.”