In terms of NATO affairs, the United States holds the upper hand. President Joe Biden, en route to the summit, plans to make a stop in Finland to meet leaders from the Nordic countries. This gesture is aimed at demonstrating support for this new NATO member, with hopes that Turkey and Hungary will have been convinced to endorse Sweden’s accession to the military alliance by then. Regardless of the developments in the final days leading up to the summit, there is a consensus that the West must remain united in the face of the challenge posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territories. This incursion has prompted NATO members to reassess the security of the entire European continent. While Russia is clearly identified as the adversary, China has also entered the picture, blurring the objectives of the alliance by expanding its defense efforts beyond its original theater to include the Pacific region. Divergent trade interests between the United States and Europe influence their respective stances toward Beijing. Concerns are raised that the EU may find itself caught between Washington and Beijing, rather than Washington and Moscow.
Nevertheless, Ukraine remains the focal point at this stage. Since the beginning, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has been portrayed not as a “true” counter-offensive, but rather as a means to test Russian vulnerabilities and identify weak points where Ukrainian forces can penetrate the enemy’s defenses. Kiev and its allies have been swift to emphasize that the Western equipment (tanks, armored cars, etc.) destroyed by Russian forces were not the most advanced. Other factors that have emerged include the disputed origins of the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, potentially resulting from a combination of various elements in a war of attrition in a country where infrastructure has been poorly maintained for decades. Additionally, the “Air Defender 2023” exercise, the largest aerial exercise ever organised by NATO, took place from 12 to 23 June under German command, with Japanese observers present. NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg, during his numerous pre-Vilnius visits, reiterated that the exercise is not directed against any specific country (read Russia), but that the alliance stands ready to defend the territory of all its members.
As the war persists, President Zelensky’s attention must now encompass a more complex situation that includes reconstruction efforts. The “Ukraine Reconstruction Conference” on 21-22 June in London, which he addressed via video conference, reiterates the commitment of Ukraine’s allies to stay for ‘as long as necessary’ and support the reconstruction process. However, private investors, crucial to the endeavor, have their own conditions. In any case, Zelensky’s primary objectives remain unchanged – NATO and EU membership – and he appears to have recognised the need to follow specific paths to move forward. Unlike the head of the European Commission, the NATO Secretary-General cannot take personal initiatives such as promising a special status during a press conference without a mandate from all member states. The Alliance depends on internal agreement and a green light from Washington. It is also the only entity capable of guaranteeing Ukraine’s security during both war and peacetime. However, Ukraine’s membership remains a divisive issue, particularly concerning the risks associated with Article 5, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all, a concern for a country still at war with a nuclear power stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific. This power has claimed for almost two decades that NATO enlargements pose a significant threat to its own security, particularly if Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for three centuries, were to be included. While Washington and Brussels share the same ultimate objective, divisions exist within Washington circles and in Europe where national interests are divided.
In the weeks leading up to the summit in Vilnius, Kiev has stuck to its habit of disregarding diplomatic subtleties. They forcefully emphasize that Ukraine has paid for its membership rights with blood and destruction, and that its soldiers are fighting not only for themselves but for Europe and the entire free world. This consistent narrative, maintained since February of last year, has been skillfully distributed among different ministers and officials. The tactic involves repeatedly presenting the same arguments, ignoring obstacles, and escalating demands until the receiver feels compelled to make some form of commitment, fearing the perception of abandoning Ukraine.
As hopes for quick peace fade, a new emphasis has been placed on “decoupling”: the West will continue to provide Ukraine with all the means necessary to enter negotiations from a position of strength. This may even include explicit statements by American military personnel to “kill as many Russian soldiers” as possible, not just destroying equipment, to ensure that Russia does not entertain thoughts of reinvasion in the future. To prevent any void, Ukraine will receive security guarantees on a bilateral basis, avoiding direct involvement of NATO and the risk of direct confrontation between NATO and Russia.
The transformation of Ukraine into a heavily militarised country positioned between the EU and Russia’s largest flank is not what the Ukrainian people desire. This formula postpones full membership in the short term, echoed by U.S. President Joe Biden’s declaration that Washington is “open” to removing a significant obstacle to Ukraine’s NATO membership after the war. Although no specific timeline was provided, sources close to Biden suggested, perhaps to gauge reactions, that he would welcome the removal of a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. This would mean that, even if reforms are incomplete, Alliance members could unanimously welcome Kiev into the club at any point after the war.
This is certainly not the message Ukrainian President wanted to hear, but he cannot entirely ignore the level of anxiety among most of his allies that the counter-offensive risks further escalation with Moscow. It remains to be seen whether Zelensky, as he threatened, can afford to boycott the Vilnius gathering if members fail to propose a clear path for Ukraine’s accession. Shortly after, the Ministry of Defense reiterated that Ukraine seeks security guarantees directly from NATO, not just after the war. He also introduced a new concept: Kiev desires an “algorithm” outlining the process, rather than a simple list of stages, and of course modern air defense equipment. Even without last-minute incidents or disagreements, the Vilnius summit will require an exceptional level of diplomatic finesse to navigate through the issues without compromising the promised support for Ukraine. The consensus is that Kiev will continue to fight until the last minute to have more, and the “wiser camp”, including President Biden, will strive to persuade the more “radical” elements to exercise patience until the next NATO summit in 2024, to be held in Washington.