NATO summit Madrid

NATO Summit Madrid, June 2022 (Photo: Vlada Republike Slovenije CC BY-SA 2:0)

Knife sharpening at the NATO summit
11 minutes

The NATO meeting in Vilnius on 11-12 July initially announced itself as a regular transitional summit between that in Madrid (June 2022), where a major New Strategic Concept was adopted, and a yet-to-be-scheduled anniversary summit in 2024 to mark the 75th anniversary of the military alliance. The new geopolitical reality resulting from the ongoing war in Ukraine is changing the nature of the summit. It is expected that Vilnius will provide a major boost to European militarization.

Not so long ago things were rumbling in NATO’s internal kitchen. US President Trump called the military alliance “obsolete”. According to French President Macron, NATO was even “brain dead”. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, propelled NATO into a seldom-seen display of unity. In the words of the same President Macron , “the war provided the electric shock needed to give NATO greater strategic clarity”. The military alliance also boasts growing popularity, at least according to recent polling commissioned by NATO. In 2022, an average of 72% of all respondents supported their country’s membership in NATO, up 10% from 2020. The number of respondents who think their country’s military spending should increase (as requested by NATO) has risen from 28% to 40% over the same period .

It is undeniable that Moscow’s war policy – which NATO invariably calls “unprovoked”, but which cannot really be dissociated from Russia’s frustration with NATO’s enlargement policy – strengthened the military alliance. The centre-left government of formerly neutral Finland – which shares a long border with Russia – applied for membership (in 2022) and was granted membership in record time. Sweden is also expected to join soon.

NATO has succeeded in showing a united front over military support to Ukraine and the sanctions policy against Russia, even though there are different views within the organization about the nature of arms transfers to Ukraine and possible future membership of that country to NATO.

It also seems that most NATO member states will still meet the promised 2% target for military expenditure (2% of Gross Domestic Product, GDP) within a few years. This target was agreed at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, but at that time until more recently it was unthinkable in several member states that military budgets would increase substantially, given the abysmal state of government budgets following the COVID crisis.

A number of important decisions will be taken in Vilnius that will further encourage the militarization of Europe.


At the NATO summit in Bucharest (2008), the administration of US President George Bush pushed for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. That was against the will of countries such as Germany and France. The then French Prime Minister explained that this would upset the balance of power in Europe. The compromise then consisted of the fact that Ukraine could in principle become a member, but that the associated procedure (the ‘membership action plan’) was not started. Russia saw this as endangering the presence – based on an agreement with Ukraine (Kharkiv Pact) – of its Black Sea fleet on the strategic Crimean peninsula. The issue was also very sensitive among Russian nationalists who see Kyiv as the cradle of Russian civilization. Moreover, if Ukraine were to join NATO, Russia would suddenly have to share a long border with the Western military alliance.

Six years later, shortly after the ‘Euromaidan’ change of power in Kiev – which was unfavourable to Russia – Moscow chose to annex Crimea. This caused suspicion among the Eastern European NATO member states, which united shortly after this annexation in the Bucharest-9. They are striving for the rapid integration of Ukraine into NATO. In Vilnius they will insist that there is a timeline for this and that corresponding concrete steps are agreed. Several powerful allies, the US, France and Germany, however, are on the brakes.

Washington wants to continue to give priority in the short term to the structural expansion of military support to Ukraine. The issue of Ukrainian membership should be put on hold for now as part of a future agreement to end the war. Most countries agree that Ukraine cannot join while it is still at war with Russia, in order to prevent Article 5 of the NATO treaty from coming into effect. That article obliges the other member states to take military action if one of the NATO members is attacked, which would entangle the entire NATO in a war with Russia.

At a meeting in Oslo of NATO foreign ministers in early June 2023, the plan was put on the table to upgrade the existing NATO-Ukraine committee to a new NATO-Ukraine Council with accompanying security guarantees and substantial funding. The Ukrainian army must also be further converted to NATO standards.

In addition, a consensus will also be sought in Vilnius on the expected outcome of the war. Ukraine and a number of NATO member states see it as the ultimate goal that Russian troops should be driven out of the entire territory. Other NATO member states think this is a vain hope. A common approach must be agreed in Vilnius, including what Ukraine’s best possible negotiating position should be.

Swedish membership

Finland and Sweden were accepted as candidate members at the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022. One country caused difficulties: Turkey. Ankara demanded that both Scandinavian countries end their alleged support for “terrorist” Kurdish movements, extradite their members and end the arms embargo they maintain against Turkey. The presence of political opponents in Sweden, in particular, was a thorn in Turkey’s side.

The three countries involved signed a three-page trilateral agreement that reduced the Kurdish question to a “terrorist problem”. Finland soon got the green light from Ankara. Although Sweden has since tightened its anti-terror legislation and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg emphasized that Stockholm has fulfilled its commitments in the agreement, Turkey continues to be uncooperative. Ankara seems to want to get as much out of the closet as possible. The US is eager to welcome Sweden as its 32nd member by the summit in Vilnius and appears to be working behind the scenes on a deal that would include the Turkish purchase of 40 new F-16 fighter jets – a purchase that has so far been blocked by the US Congress. In mid-April, shortly after Turkey approved Finland’s NATO accession, Washington paved the way for the upgrade of F16 aircraft already in Turkish possession.

Rising military expenditure and reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank

In 2014, NATO leaders decided that each member state should aim to spend 2% of GDP on military spending within ten years. For the time being, only 7 Member States meet this standard. A number of other countries are expected to join the list this year and next.

Wherever NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg goes, he not only insists on this obligation, but also insists that it will be agreed in Vilnius that the 2% standard is not a ceiling, but a minimum target. While NATO member states collectively account for more than half ($1,052 billion in 2022) of global military spending – or spending 13 times more than Russia ($86 billion in 2022) which already spends more than 4% of with its GDP (partly a result of the war against Ukraine) – Stoltenberg believes that is too little to meet the threats of a world “that has become much more dangerous”.

Financing Ukraine’s war effort against Russia requires significant budgets and military investments. The necessary resources must also be found to further strengthen NATO’s Eastern European flank. At the NATO summit in Warsaw (2016), it was decided to move to an ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ by deploying four multinational combat battalions in Poland and the Baltic States. Four more were added after the Russian invasion of Ukraine (in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia). At the NATO summit in Madrid (2022) it was agreed to raise the battalions to the level of a brigade. A brigade usually consists of several battalions and is more widely equipped.

In Vilnius discussion will probably focus on the implementation of this decision, in particular which country contributes which and how many troops. In Madrid it was also decided to significantly increase the manpower of the ‘Rapid Response Force’ from 40,000 to 300,000 troops. These are troops that can be deployed in the short term. This measure has yet to be put into practice, which will require enormous additional budgets and commitments from the Member States.

The Swedish Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently stated in a report on global military spending that in 2022 Western and Central Europe spent the most since the end of the Cold War on their military devices. It is expected – based on promises and public statements – that tens of billions more will be added in the coming years.

Nuclear weapons

In Vilnius it will undoubtedly also be about ‘nuclear deterrence’. The laboriously built nuclear disarmament regime that came into being at the end of the Cold War and shortly afterwards has been almost completely phased out in recent years. In 2002, the US renounced the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which imposed limits on the construction of a missile shield in order not to break the nuclear balance. From 2007 onwards, the US deployed a missile shield in Poland and Romania at NATO level, which is gradually being expanded with a system from the sea. In 2019, President Trump also ended the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned the production of long-range missiles, after accusing Russia of violating it. In reality, the US President thought that China should also be included in such a treaty to ban short and medium-range missiles.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war in Europe has suddenly become very real. The Kremlin broke a nuclear taboo by repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons. In February 2023, Moscow also announced its withdrawal from New Start, the last bilateral nuclear treaty with the US that limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed. At the end of May 2023, Russia also signed an agreement with Belarus for the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. According to Russia, this is a response to the growing threat from NATO on its borders. Russia also legitimizes this development by referring to the presence of US nuclear weapons in European host countries that have been there for 60 years.

In the margins of the NATO summit in Vilnius, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group will meet to discuss NATO’s nuclear threats and capabilities. This happens at a time when the US is fully engaged in deploying new high-tech tactical nuclear weapons (B61-12) in European host countries (including Belgium) within the framework of NATO’s nuclear division of tasks. They are there to replace old types of B61 nuclear bombs.

Poland has already announced that it wants to become more closely involved in NATO’s nuclear policy and to indicate in covert terms that it is prepared, if necessary, to deploy nuclear weapons on its territory. Hardliners of military think tanks are arguing in favour of cancelling the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997) in advance, which contains agreements on military-political and diplomatic relations and in which the parties have entered into a number of commitments, such as the NATO promise not to deploy nuclear weapons in new Member States, ie. in Eastern Europe. The question is whether and to what extent the door will be opened in Vilnius to a strengthening or expansion of NATO’s nuclear arsenal in Europe.


In Vilnius, NATO’s global ambitions, especially in Asia, will be extended. A meeting is planned with partners from the Indo-Pacific region: Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. The four countries mentioned were invited to the NATO summit in Madrid for the first time in 2022.

The new Strategic Concept approved there talks about “systemic challenges” that would emanate from China. In the previous Strategic Concept of Lisbon (2010) there was no mention of China. According to NATO, there is a “systemic competition” with China that challenges “our interests, security and values”. NATO is particularly concerned about the rapprochement between China and Russia that threatens to “undermine the rules-based international order” in light of numerous illegal military interventions (such as against Iraq in 2003), CIA coups and the excesses of the global ‘War On Terror’ (Guantanamo). This makes for a rather hypocritical passage in NATO’s Strategic Concept.

China is also accused of controlling technological and industrial strategic positions and using a “wide array of political, economic and military tools to expand its global footprint and project power.” The pot blames the kettle.

In April, the NATO Secretary General emphasized the importance of partnership with the four countries involved in the Indo-Pacific region. He left no doubt that NATO’s security role is global: “In a more dangerous and unpredictable world, it is even clearer that security is not regional, but global,” said Stoltenberg . The Madrid Strategic Concept already made it very clear that the Indo-Pacific region is important to NATO, “since developments in that region may have a direct impact on Euro-Atlantic security.”

The military buildup by the US and its allies in the Asian region threatens to add fuel to existing tensions. For example, China has reacted with great dismay to US diplomatic and military actions in Taiwan. Last year, the US approved the sale of $1.1 billion in arms to the island. The arms shipments are part of a military purchase list that Taiwan provided to the US in 2019 worth $17 billion. At the end of last year, the US decided on a financial package worth $12 billion (half in donations, half in loans) to finance Taiwanese arms purchases in the US. It is an often used technique to subsidize one’s own military industry.

Most countries, including the US and all other NATO member states, do not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan under the ‘One China Policy’. Chinese claims to the island are usually recognized, but also not officially recognized. For decades, there has been a consensus between China and the US to maintain the status quo and ambiguity about Taiwan. With the growing arms deliveries and diplomatic visits from the US to Taiwan, this seems to be changing.

In attempting to curtail and contain ‘overly ambitious’ superpowers such as China, NATO’s global ambitions will also undermine the role of the United Nations, which, according to the Charter, is the priority organisation for maintaining peace and security in the world. The Vilnius summit will underscore the global ‘glory days’ of NATO member states, that increasingly seem to want to take the law into their own hands.

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