Summit prepares ground for a more militarized Europe, future Ukrainian membership and expansion into the Indo-Pacific

Analysis of the NATO Vilnius Summit, 11-12 July 2023

By Dr. Ian Davis, NATO Watch

The NATO Vilnius Summit took place on the 11-12 July 2023. It was the fourth NATO summit since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This was to have been Jens Stoltenberg's last summit as Secretary General, but NATO member states agreed on 4 July to extend his mandate by a further year, until 1 October 2024. In a pre-Summit press conference on 7 July, Stoltenberg said, "Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine continues to rage on. For 500 days, Moscow has brought death and destruction to the heart of Europe, seeking to destroy Ukraine and divide NATO". The Secretary General indicated that Ukraine’s future would be front and centre in the discussions: "At the summit, we will make Ukraine even … stronger and set out a vision for its future", Stoltenberg said.

The attached briefing discusses key developments at the Summit under the following seven headings: I. Ukraine membership and security assurances; II. Strengthening NATO’s long-term deterrence and defence: (a) the new regional defence plans; (b) nuclear weapons and arms control; and (c) enhancing resilience; III. Sweden’s accession; IV. The challenge of China and NATO’s expansion into the Indo-Pacific; V. Military investments and burden-sharing; VI. Combating climate change; and VII. Combatting terrorism in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel.

Key decisions at the Summit:

  • A package of measures was agreed “to bring Ukraine closer to NATO", including (a) a multiyear programme of assistance to ensure full interoperability between the Ukrainian armed forces and NATO; (b) creation of a NATO-Ukraine Council; and (c) reaffirmation that Ukraine will become a member of NATO “when allies agree and conditions are met”. However, it was agreed to remove the requirement for a Membership Action Plan.
  • President Zelensky joined the summit for the inaugural meeting of the new NATO-Ukraine Council. After initially expressing disappointment with the Summit outcome, Zelensky said what Ukraine got from the summit was “unambiguous clarity that Ukraine will be in NATO”.
  • The G7 (and not NATO) launched a framework for bilateral negotiations to provide long-term security assistance commitments to Ukraine.
  • The most comprehensive regional defence plans since the end of the Cold War were approved to counter the two main “threats”: Russia and terrorism. 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.
  • To execute the new defence plans, NATO is putting 300,000 troops on higher readiness, including substantial air and naval combat power.
  • Sweden agreed a new bilateral Security Compact with Türkiye that assuaged Ankara’s previous objections, and the Nordic country will become NATO’s 32nd member state after the Accession Protocol is ratified by the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments.
  • NATO will establish its first Special Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism and will update its Policy Guidelines and Action Plan on Counter-Terrorism. A comprehensive review of the situation in NATO’s southern neighbourhood (the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel regions) has been instigated for presentation at the next NATO Summit in 2024.
  • A new Defence Production Action Plan was agreed "to accelerate joint procurement, boost interoperability, and generate investment and production capacity".
  • A new defence investment pledge was agreed to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP annually (i.e., the pledge has gone from being a ‘ceiling’ to a ‘floor’). Military spending across European allies and Canada in 2023 is already anticipated to increase by 8.3%, the ninth consecutive year of increases.
  • A new set of Alliance Resilience Objectives were agreed. Although allies are meant to “use these objectives to guide the development of their national goals and implementation plans”, and to promote “societal resilience”, the objectives have not yet been made public.
  • To address the threat to critical undersea infrastructure, it was agreed to establish a Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure and to set up a network of relevant actors to improve information sharing and exchange best practice.
  • NATO’s approach to cyber issues was enhanced by the endorsement a new concept to enhance the contribution of cyber defence to NATO’s overall deterrence and defence posture, and a commitment to new national goals to further strengthen national cyber defences. Neither the concept nor the goals were made public. A new Virtual Cyber Incident Support Capability (VCISC) was launched “to support national mitigation efforts in response to significant malicious cyber activities”. The first NATO Cyber Defence Conference will be held in Berlin in November 2023.
  • Three major reports were released with the aim of contributing to increased understanding of the impact of climate change on NATO’s strategic environment.
  • Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania signed a Declaration of Cooperation on cross-border airspace.
  • A commitment was made to deepen cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea that participated in a NATO Summit for the second time. No new measures were announced.
  • The next NATO Summit will be held in Washington, D.C. in 2024 (for NATO’s 75th anniversary), followed by a meeting in the Netherlands in 2025.
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