NATO ministerial meeting overshadowed by Israel-Hamas war

Analysis of the NATO Defence Ministers Meeting, Brussels, 11-12 October 2023

14 October 2023

The NATO Defence Ministers meeting took place on the 11-12 October 2023 at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. This was the first NATO ministerial since the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July. It had been largely intended as an evaluation exercise, looking at the state of the alliance ahead of its 75th anniversary summit in Washington, D.C., in July 2024. However, it took place against the backdrop not only of violent turmoil in the Middle East but also political turbulence in the US Congress, which has been holding up approval of aid for Ukraine, as well as breaking news that undersea gas and telecom links between Finland and Estonia had been disrupted. Six main issues were discussed: (a) NATO’s ongoing support for Ukraine; (b) the situation in the Middle East in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks by Hamas against NATO partner Israel; (c) NATO operations and missions, including in Kosovo and Iraq; (d) the work underway to resource and exercise the military plans that leaders agreed at the Vilnius Summit to strengthen NATO’s long-term deterrence and defence; (e) the recent damage to undersea infrastructure between Estonia and Finland; and (f) ratification of Sweden’s membership application.

Key decisions and activities:

  • Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with NATO allies and partners in the US-led Ukraine Defence Contact Group and received assurances of sustained military support.
  • Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant briefed his NATO counterparts by videoconference on the war with Hamas. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Hamas’ terrorist attacks and said: “Israel has the right to defend itself and as the conflict unfolds, the protection of civilians is essential”.
  • The recent deployment of hundreds of extra KFOR troops to Kosovo was discussed. The NATO Secretary General called on Belgrade and Pristina to “behave responsibly, refrain from destabilising actions, and re-engage in the EU-facilitated dialogue”.
  • The next steps in operationalising NATO’s new regional defence plans were discussed, but no new information was provided on the assigned forces and capabilities being assembled. The plans cover the Atlantic and European Arctic; the Baltic region and central Europe; and the Mediterranean and Black Sea. They have not been made public or independently assessed.
  • It was noted that NATO will start its annual nuclear exercise “Steadfast Noon” next week.
  • The ministers expressed strong solidarity with Estonia and Finland as they work to establish the facts surrounding the damage to critical undersea infrastructure in the Baltic Sea. Secretary General Stoltenberg said NATO would have a "united and determined response" if it was proved the incident was a deliberate attack.
  • Ten NATO member states agreed to further develop the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), which aims to bolster European air and missile defence through joint acquisition projects.
  • Two initiatives were signed to strengthen joint air power cooperation: Germany and the UK joined the NATO Flight Training Europe (NFTE) High Visibility Project, bringing the total number of participants to 12; and 13 member states and invitee Sweden signed an agreement to cooperate on cross-border airspace.
  • Ministers expressed strong support for a speedy ratification of Swedish accession.
  • Assistant Secretary General Thomas Goffus was appointed as NATO’s first Special Coordinator for Counterterrorism.

Read more in the attached pdf.