Five Things To Know About The Upcoming NATO Summit

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Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s new newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

I’m RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I’m drilling down on big issue: The upcoming NATO summit in Washington, D.C.

The Briefing: Everything You Need To Know About The NATO Summit

Is Ukraine Really Edging Closer To The Alliance?

One of the main things to look out for during the summit is the wording about Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects in the final declaration. The drafting of this document, which usually stretches several pages, has been under way in NATO HQ in Brussels for weeks and the main bone of contention is how exactly to craft sentences pertaining to the chances of Kyiv joining the military alliance. Ukraine will not be invited to join now, that much is clear.

NATO has been adamant that Ukraine cannot join as long as the war rages on in the country, as members don’t want to be dragged into a direct confrontation with Russia. One can also rule out some of the creative but rather far-fetched ideas like allowing NATO’s mutual defense clause, Article 5, to cover the Ukrainian territory that Kyiv currently controls but not the part that Moscow has occupied.

According to NATO officials familiar with the drafting, the idea is to go a bit further than the Vilnius declaration from the summit in the Lithuanian capital last year. At that time, the new thing was that the allies recognized that Ukraine doesn’t need a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a sort of “antechamber” to membership that spells out various reforms that a country needs to complete before joining. This step was in fact made redundant when Finland joined in record speed in 2023 and Sweden a year later, without ever receiving a MAP.

But in fact, this isn’t so much about reform even if some allies are making noises about the need to combat corruption. It is about finding political consensus on when Ukraine can join and what to say in the meantime. In the Vilnius declaration, there was a nod to the 2008 summit in Bucharest when it first was declared that “Ukraine will become a member of NATO.” Expect something similar or even the same language this time around, even though there is likely to be no commitments to some sort of date. The Vilnius text spelled out that “we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree, and conditions are met.”

From what I have heard, two aspects could be included in the text. U.S. officials, like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have recently used the term “bridge to membership” when talking about Ukraine and NATO. So expect that this might make its way into the final communique in one form or another, even if it is unclear what exactly that phrase entails. Another word that also might be included is “irreversible,” meaning that Kyiv’s road to membership is set. So, the sense of direction is there, just don’t ask about the timetable.

What Will Ukraine Get?

First of all, many allies are expected to announce more bilateral arms deliveries to Ukraine at the summit. The question, as always, will be how quickly they will arrive on the battlefield. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected to be present at the summit and there is hope among NATO officials that there won’t be a repeat of the Vilnius summit, where he expressed frustration in a tweet prior to the meeting that Kyiv wasn’t given a clearer timetable of joining. This time, they point out that there is more expectation management in the build-up to the meeting, especially with Ukraine struggling at the front lines and the crucial presidential election in the United States just four months away.

In fact, the two big headline items to be announced at the summit are more or less already agreed upon. The first so-called “deliverable” is what you would call the “NATO-ization” of Ukraine aid and training. Essentially, the military organization will now start taking over the coordination of donations of weapons and ammunition deliveries to the war-torn country from the U.S.-led Ramstein Group, which brings together over 50 mainly Western states that have met on a near-monthly basis since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The German city of Wiesbaden will now become a planning center for both training and deliveries with logistical nodes in several eastern alliance countries, involving 700 personnel from NATO and partner countries.

The second announcement concerns military funding for Ukraine. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg first proposed around 100 billion euros ($108 billion) a year, for five years. Then it was watered down to 40 billion for multiple years, but in the end the 40 billion is committed only for 2024 and funding will be revisited again at the next summit in 2025. The contribution from the 32 allies would be based on their countries’ GDP and it is supposed to be fresh money to help the war effort but there are two question-marks here: will there not be some creative accounting on behalf of some member states? It could very well be that some will attempt to count aid already provided in their calculation or mix military with humanitarian aid. Secondly, this is not a binding commitment. That means that there really isn’t any legal requirement to provide that money going forward.

Trump’s Skepticism

There is no way around it. The former (and possibly future) U.S. President Donald Trump might be the most talked-about person at and around the summit without even being there. The Republican National Convention, where Trump officially will be nominated as the party’s presidential candidate, will kick off just four days after the summit. It’s simply hard not to escape the idea that the NATO summit, in one way or another, will become part of the presidential election campaign.

And many of the decisions and messages coming out from the meeting will be a response to his skepticism of the alliance and of his lukewarm support for Ukraine’s war effort. The measures mentioned above, like providing Kyiv with a solid financial foundation for the years ahead and to institutionalize training and military deliveries, have been described by alliance officials as “Trump-proofing” in case he returns to power and attempts to unpick decisions already made.

And then there is the military spending by European allies that has been the big bugbear for Trump. Previously he has called those states that didn’t reach NATO’s own spending target of 2 percent of GDP on defense “delinquents” and noted the United States might not defend alliance members from a potential Russian invasion if they don’t pay up, questioning the fundamental principle of NATO.

In response to this, you will hear a lot of figures about how much the allies have stepped up in recent years. In 2014, there was a pledge that in a decade all the members should reach the 2 percent target. That pledge has not entirely been met as 23 out of the 32 members today splash out that or more on its military. But NATO will be quick to point out that Europe and Canada have added over $640 billion extra in defense spending since then. You are also likely to hear that the 2024 figures will show an 18 percent increase in military expenditure compared to last year — the biggest year-on-year increase for decades.

The Nuts And Bolts And China

Aside from the NATO-Ukraine Council on the leaders’ level, there will be two other full working sessions at the summit. The first one will deal with the nuts and bolts of the alliance — essentially how well-prepared NATO is in case it’s attacked. And here, the jury is still out to a certain extent. Last year in Vilnius, a number of regional defense plans were adopted in order to defend “every inch of NATO territory.”

Now it’s about checking if the plans actually are working — most importantly by seeing if the capabilities and logistics are in place. NATO has 500,000 troops on high readiness and is exercising at a scale not seen since the Cold War. But one well-placed NATO official conceded that the plans “are functional” but added cautiously, “if NATO was attacked today, they would work but there are pieces of the jigsaw still missing.” It has been noted that air defense over the eastern part of the alliance is in short supply, but the bloc also needs more long-range missiles and tanks and must brush up on the logistical side.

The second session is dedicated to China. While the alliance is still focused on the Atlantic theater, it is clear that it is keeping a watchful eye on developments in the Pacific region and Chinese influence there — a push that very much is dictated by the United States. Like the last two summits, the leaders of NATO’s four “Asia-Pacific partners” — Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea — will be present at the meeting. Expect a lot of cooperation agreements to be signed in areas such as cyber defense and maritime security.

What Does The Future Hold?

Of course, all eyes will be on U.S. President Joe Biden, the host of the meeting, especially after his poor debate performance. Scrutiny will be enormous, but the question is how many media appearances he will make during the week. At some point he should meet the press, but it is worth noting that he didn’t hold a presser at the Vilnius summit either, which is unusual for American presidents; back then, he didn’t even attend the leaders’ dinner. He has to be more active here. Behind in the polls in key swing states, it is clear that his advisers will want the summit to be carefully choreographed for him to avoid any unnecessary mishaps.

But Biden is not the only leader of a big Western country fighting for political survival. French President Emmanuel Macron will arrive in Washington after a disappointing parliamentary election result. His mandate expires in 2027 but he may now be wing-clipped domestically and will struggle to enact meaningful legislation with both the left and far-right influential in the new chamber. In Germany, Olaf Scholz and his coalition are also set to get a proper beating in next year’s national elections, meaning that Berlin, Paris, and Washington in many ways are represented by leaders who are politically weak. At least the United Kingdom will have a freshly minted prime minister, Keir Starmer, the first Labour Party leader in Downing Street since 2010 and with a huge majority in Parliament backing him up.

There will be, in other words, a lot to deal with for incoming NATO Secretary-General Mark Rutte, who officially takes over from Jens Stoltenberg later this fall. Stoltenberg, one of the longest-serving heads of NATO with over a decade at the helm, will be missed not least because of his ability to get along with most leaders and forging consensus.

In that sense, Rutte will be something of a natural successor. Having recently stepped down as Dutch prime minister after 14 years, he is known for and used to coalition building. He is reportedly also a workaholic and a stickler for processes and rules, which is always good at a military organization. He appears to have mended bridges with previous foes, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and is well liked in most of the big capitals, notably in Berlin and Paris. He apparently enjoys the respect of Trump to the degree that he is referred to as the “Trump whisperer.” Even in public, he has been unfazed about a possible return of Trump, stating recently that “we (Europeans) have to dance with whoever is on the dance floor” And he will need to pull out his best moves in his hometown, The Hague, which will host the next big NATO summit in 2025.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at [email protected].

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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