In fact, the summit revolved around three main subjects. The first was related to ‘internal’ affairs, including giving the green light for Sweden’s admission, agreeing to spend a minimum of 2% of national GDP on the NATO budget, and discussions about aid to Ukraine and its potential membership. The second aspect began with President Zelensky’s arrival, who had just published a scathing critique of NATO members for “sending the wrong signal.” In an act of defiance, he addressed thousands of supporters in Vilnius square before joining the other leaders and attending the NATO-Ukraine Council’s meeting. Finally, there was a third chapter, deemed ‘historic,’ as it involved the G7 providing the security guarantees promised to Ukraine in conjunction with NATO countries. On the second day of the summit, President Biden announced that together they would help Ukraine build “strong defensive capacities on land, sea, and in the air,” including investing in arms production for the Ukrainian forces within Ukraine’s territory.
This summit took place against a dramatic backdrop, which included:
- The mutiny of Yevgeni Prigozhin, still a major enigma. It exposed the vulnerabilities of “fortress Putin” but also highlighted the absence of a more palatable alternative for the West than the current president. Essentially, it is now acknowledged that the mutiny had no influence on military operations in Ukraine, and despite his brutality, Vladimir Putin preferred to co-opt the “traitors” rather than destroy them. In any case, the murky Wagner saga confirmed Putin’s role as the proverbial skeleton in the Western cupboard, with participants being repeatedly warned “not to play into Putin’s hands.”
- President Biden’s announcement on July 7th that the US would deliver cluster bombs to Ukraine, a highly contentious weapon banned by the 2008 Stockholm Agreement, which has been signed by all of Ukraine’s allies except the US, Russia, China, Ukraine, and Israel. President Zelensky welcomed this move, while allies expressed moral concerns. All parties are aware that their own stocks of cluster bombs have been depleted below the necessary levels to ensure their own security, and increasing production quickly is not feasible. The millions of cluster bombs stored in the US are readily available to support the slow counter-offensive, though it is not the ideal choice. Biden had received written assurances that Ukraine would minimize risks to civilian lives and strictly use cluster bombs in occupied territories, not against Russia.
- The tactical maneuvers of President Erdogan, who, up until the last minute, refused to give the green light for Sweden’s admission despite Sweden making difficult concessions regarding Kurdish “terrorist” refugees. Erdogan linked his support for Sweden’s membership to discussions about EU membership and subsequently received President Zelensky, sending back five commanders of the Azov regiment to Turkey as part of a prisoner exchange agreement with Moscow. Under this agreement, they will remain in Turkey until the end of the war. This was typical of Erdogan: snubbing President Putin enough to please the West while preparing for a summit with Putin later in the month; offering President Zelensky a diplomatic success while sending back Azov commanders who immediately declared their intention to participate in the war and “have a say.” Given the strained relations between Azov and President Zelensky during the war, including in Mariupol, Erdogan’s gift might be treacherous.
- The leaks in US newspapers, later confirmed in Moscow and Washington, that American individuals with deep knowledge of Russian and international affairs had established regular contact with Russians (Minister Lavrov’s name was mentioned), that the head of the CIA had discussions with his Russian counterpart in the secret services, and that the CIA prided itself on its deep involvement in Ukrainian affairs since 2004, including mitigating any potential spillover outside Ukraine. This might explain why the Vilnius summit did not even mention peace discussions, a highly divisive subject when all efforts are focused on military issues.
At the end of the two days, President Zelensky had little choice but to declare that the commitments, endorsed by the G7, were an “important victory for the security of our country, our people, and our children.” He had to accept the absence of a timeline for F-16 deliveries and an agenda for Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Members insisted that “the future of Ukraine lies in NATO,” but the alliance cannot open its ranks to a country at war. They agreed that “Ukrainians earned membership with their blood,” but ultimately, Ukraine would have to meet the same criteria as other countries. However, he gained certainty that the West has definitively shifted its military aid focus from purely defensive to offensive weapons. The West promised to restrict their use strictly to Ukraine and not to attack Russian territory. Nevertheless, one may wonder what would happen if military contingencies forced President Zelensky to reconsider his position or if certain military commanders believed that the risk was worth taking?
Another lesson from Vilnius is that, for the first time, Zelensky faced growing exasperation regarding his assertive behavior, particularly his endless lists of requests, seemingly unaware of the substantial costs involved, which need to be approved by the American Congress or other parliaments sensitive to the erosion of public support. The sharpest criticism came from an unexpected source when the supportive UK Defense Secretary stated that the West was not an “Amazon office” to receive lists of orders. Zelensky’s threat not to attend the summit in person if his requests were ignored was ill-advised as well.
As a result, President Zelensky had to control his frustration, express gratitude to the allies for their efforts, and prepare his communication campaign to sell the summit’s results to the Ukrainian people. Most importantly, thanks to the Ukrainian delegation’s efforts, NATO made it clear that “Ukraine has its place in NATO” after the war and acknowledged that “Ukraine’s path to full Euro-Atlantic integration has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan.” Currently, NATO members are focused on helping Ukraine defeat Russia.