Leaders to Gather in Vilnius for NATO Summit Addressing Key Challenges and Strengthening Cooperation
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO leaders will convene in Vilnius on July 11-12 to discuss a wide range of pressing issues. The summit will focus on divisions over Ukraine’s membership bid, Sweden’s accession, bolstering ammunition stockpiles, and reviewing defence plans for the first time in decades.
The upcoming summit in Vilnius will mark the fourth meeting of NATO leaders since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The first summit, held virtually on February 25, 2022, took place just one day after the assault, followed by subsequent meetings in Brussels and Madrid.
This flurry of gatherings, surpassing the usual frequency of annual NATO summits, underscores how the conflict on NATO’s doorstep has compelled the alliance to reinforce cooperation.
To ensure security, Vilnius will witness high-level security measures, including the deployment of three German Patriot air defense units, the first instance of such measures at a NATO summit. Additionally, additional fighter jets will patrol the skies of Lithuania, which is situated between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, making it a vulnerable area on NATO’s eastern flank.
The main topics to be discussed at the Vilnius summit are as follows:
- Ukraine Membership: The summit will likely revolve around NATO’s future relationship with Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has persistently called for Kyiv to receive an invitation into the alliance at Vilnius. However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has made it clear that membership will not be granted while the conflict persists, and no formal invitation will be issued at the summit. There is a divergence of opinions among allies regarding the timeline for Ukraine’s potential accession after the cessation of hostilities. Eastern European countries advocate for offering Kyiv a roadmap at the summit, while the United States and Germany remain cautious, fearing an escalation with Russia. More countries have recently supported a British proposal to allow Ukraine to skip the Membership Action Plan (MAP) program, which sets out political, economic, and military requirements for NATO membership. This move would go beyond the 2008 declaration of the Bucharest summit, which stated that Ukraine would eventually become a member without providing a concrete invitation or timetable. The summit may feature stronger language emphasizing Ukraine’s perspective on joining NATO, such as “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO” or “trans-Atlantic security would be incomplete without Ukraine.”
- Security Assurances for Ukraine: Leaders are expected to discuss the security assurances that Kyiv should receive after the war, even though these assurances will be bilateral and not issued by the alliance itself. These pledges are likely to include continued military and financial aid to deter Russia from launching renewed attacks once the conflict ends. NATO, under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, provides full-fledged security guarantees exclusively to its full members.
- Bolstering NATO’s Eastern Flank: The summit will entail a review of the alliance’s first defence plans since the Cold War, outlining NATO’s response to a potential Russian attack. The revival of regional plans signifies a significant shift in NATO’s approach, providing nations with guidance on upgrading their forces and logistics. While large-scale defence plans were deemed unnecessary for decades, the ongoing war in Ukraine has prompted NATO to prepare for a potential conflict with a peer adversary like Moscow. The approval of the plans has been hindered by Turkey’s objections over the wording regarding geographical locations like Cyprus, leaving the issue to be resolved by leaders unless an agreement is reached before the summit. NATO will also aim to increase the stockpiling of ammunition due to Ukraine’s accelerated consumption, surpassing Western countries’ production capacity. Moreover, allies will present their strategies to meet NATO’s goal, set at the Madrid summit in the previous year, of maintaining over 300,000 troops on high alert, a significant increase from the previous 40,000, to counter Russian aggression.
- Sweden: Sweden had aspired to join NATO as the 32nd member at the Vilnius summit. However, Turkey continues to block its accession, accusing Sweden of harboring members of militant groups and demanding a crackdown on these groups as a prerequisite for membership. Allies hope that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will lift his opposition at the summit, although the outcome remains uncertain.
- Upgrading NATO’s 2% Military Spending Target: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg aims to transform NATO’s current military spending target of 2% of national GDP into a minimum requirement, rather than merely a goal. However, as of 2023, only 11 out of the 31 alliance members are projected to meet even the old target, according to NATO estimates. The target was established in 2014, with NATO leaders agreeing to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP within a decade. The 11 allies meeting the target are the United States, Britain, Poland, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, and Slovakia. Canada, Slovenia, Turkey, Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg have defense spending below 1.4% of GDP, lagging behind.
The NATO summit in Vilnius is anticipated to address critical challenges facing the alliance, foster cooperation among member states, and shape the future direction of NATO’s relations with Ukraine and Sweden.