Explained | What are the takeaways from the NATO summit?

How did Ukraine’s presence influence the Vilnius summit? Why did Turkey lift its opposition against Sweden?

July 20, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 12:56 pm IST

NATO leaders pose for a photo, as they attend an event to announce a joint declaration of support for Ukraine, at the NATO summit held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12.

NATO leaders pose for a photo, as they attend an event to announce a joint declaration of support for Ukraine, at the NATO summit held in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: For quite a few years, many questions were asked about the relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, the war in Eastern Europe has upended these narratives and provided a renewed raison d’etre not just for strengthening the alliance but its expansion as well. The latest NATO summit held in Vilnius this month underscored both these strategic necessities for the NATO.

How was this summit different?

A standout of the Vilnius Summit was the attendance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the anticipation around the possibility of extending NATO membership to Ukraine. In this regard, the launch of the NATO-Ukraine Council as a forum for crisis consultations and decision-making indicated that NATO tried to assuage the feelings of Ukraine for not being included in the alliance by creating a mechanism for its wider engagement, support and future inclusion as a full member. From Ukraine’s perspective, the Vilnius summit did usher promise but little immediate gains. All three priorities outlined by President Zelenskyy — new weapons packages, security guarantees and an invitation to join NATO — went unfulfilled. However, the U.K. did pledge ammunition support to Ukraine. Additionally, garbed in the urgency to help Ukraine, NATO has levelled up its own defences. NATO’s new plans involve maintaining a force of 300,000 troops, with air and naval capabilities, while emphasising the importance of a strong industrial base, leading to the endorsement of a Defence Production Action Plan.

What is the significance of the entry of new members?

The inclusion of Finland and approval of Sweden as NATO members indicates a few things. First, it signals that the Alliance continues to practise Article 10 of the Washington Treaty signed in April 1949 which states that member countries can invite other European countries to become members of NATO. It rests Ukraine’s potential membership on fertile grounds and conceptually deters Russia from taking steps against members of NATO. Secondly, Turkey’s scaling back of its long-standing opposition to Sweden’s inclusion in NATO is a significant shift. While the final approval remains contingent on Turkey’s parliament, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s facilitation of Sweden’s membership prompts a desire to mend relations with the U.S. A better relationship with the U.S would cushion Ankara’s faltering economy and provide opportunities to resolve bilaterally contentious issues.

What was the U.S.’s stance?

U.S. President Joe Biden’s speech at the summit extended unwavering support to the alliance as well as Ukraine. This is seen as an important assurance as former president Donald Trump’s approach to NATO was drastically different from Mr. Biden’s. Mr. Trump had considered withdrawing the U.S. from NATO while the current President has pitched his support to Ukraine as a political legacy of his administration, not just in resurrecting trans-Atlantic solidarity but also by drawing a bipartisan consensus on Ukraine domestically.

Who are other threat actors to NATO?

The Vilnius summit minced no words on the challenges and threats emerging from China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies. It stated that NATO faces threats from China’s malicious hybrid cyber operations, as well as confrontational rhetoric and disinformation, which specifically aim at NATO allies and pose a threat to the security of the Alliance. The NATO summit emphasised that the developments in the Indo-Pacific have become increasingly consequential for Euro-Atlantic security with expanding space for Quad countries, along with other regional countries like New Zealand and South Korea.

But even as the summit was on, Russia launched a drone attack on Kyiv, depicting an undeterred approach to NATO’s potential expansion. It is this contestation that is likely to define the future of Eurasian security.

Harsh V. Pant is Vice President for Studies at the Observer Research Foundation. Vivek Mishra is a Fellow at ORF.

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