The Heads of State and Government of NATO countries convened in Vilnius, Lithuania for a summit that took place on 11 and 12 July. This, unequivocally, was the most important meeting of the summer 2023. Due to a plethora of international issues, politics, and global security, this year’s event became the epicenter and confluence of significant issues requiring Allied Leaders to take definitive action. These decisions will have impacts for years to come.

European security is at stake

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, the security of the European continent remains at the forefront, and this was discussed in depth at the summit. The world watched in late June as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s state-funded paramilitary group Wagner, directed his troops to move on Moscow, demonstrating just how unpredictable the situation continues to be in Russia. Accordingly, European security is the primary concern and NATO must remain unwavering and steadfast in its support to President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine.

The Alliance rightfully pledged its continued support to Ukraine during the summit, espousing its unabated commitment to a resolution of the conflict on Ukraine’s terms. Decisions and assurances to Ukraine were made regarding both lethal and non-lethal material support, funding, intelligence assistance, as well as continued training for the soldiers who will operate the provided equipment. In addition to sending a reassuring message to Ukraine, this pledge also sends a message to Moscow and other actors not aligned with NATO’s security interests, that it will remain committed to its mission and prevent miscreant leaders from thwarting NATO’s interests or causing fractures internally.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine (left), with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right), at the 2023 NATO Vilnius Summit. © NATO

Though Ukraine aspires to be a NATO member, it is wise to shelf the discussion about a set timeline for the foreseeable future, as a decision taken along these lines would risk putting the Alliance in direct conflict with Russia under the provisions of Article 5 (if Ukraine were admitted to the club amidst an ongoing hot war).

That said, it is imperative that NATO do everything it can short of directly engaging in the conflict, and must continue to be seen as a unified front committed to keeping Russian power in check. NATO continues to serve as a deterrent to Putin and his military, showing the resolve of the trans-Atlantic bond; this will unequivocally demonstrate that expansion of the conflict to contiguous NATO member countries will not be acceptable. NATO Leaders must be committed to contributing forces to the new NATO Force Model. Likewise, the Alliance must continue to invest in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) construct as it looks to still be able to support NATO Response Force (NRF) operations the world-over (as required). More to the point, the devil will be in the details as NATO looks to build on the regional defence plans agreed to at the summit.

More - in NATO’s case - is better

Two weeks ago, the efforts of the Secretary General and other NATO Leaders (most notably the US, UK, and Germany) to address Türkiye’s security concerns in allowing Sweden to join the Alliance realised success; with Türkiye’s and Hungary’s acquiescence, the process to welcome Sweden into NATO can now move forward, bringing membership to 32 countries. Finland joining in April and Sweden following suit helps to ensure a more formidable defence along NATO’s northern flank, which again, sends a clear message to Russia and others that the Alliance is relevant, adept, and committed to western democracy and security.

Left to right: Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden, President of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the 2023 Vilnius Summit. © NATO

Sweden is not new to NATO and has participated in many exercises with Allies in the past; as a nation, it has a lot to offer the Alliance regarding equipment and high quality, well-trained forces. Joining the Alliance now must give Russia pause, because any hostilities towards Sweden would trigger Article 5. Moreover, because of shared borders with other NATO countries in Scandinavia (Denmark and Norway), Sweden’s accession into the Alliance will send a clear message to Russia (and other would-be antagonists) that it is a force to be taken seriously as it looks to solidify its unity with trans-Atlantic partners on the continent.

Likewise, and moving beyond the Alliance, at the summit in Vilnius, NATO Leaders committed to deepen collaborative efforts with partner nations (beyond Europe and North America), particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region, who share values of peace and security. This will help spread security and stability to other parts of the world and is in keeping with the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

Increasing deterrence

During the summit, NATO Leaders committed to expanding deterrence and defence. This stems, in part, from the threat of nuclear confrontation that has become more worrying in recent months. Russia has pulled out of the New START treaty and made frequent nuclear threats in the context of the war in Ukraine. In doing so, Russia has created an escalation of the state of play pertaining to nuclear weapons, and by extension, their potential use. NATO has been, continues to be, and will serve as a conduit to demonstrate to Putin that other options are available in the interest of security that goes beyond capabilities centered on nuclear weapons. Leaders at the summit agreed to increase defence spending to counter threats and to bolster defence. They also committed to the modification and creation of new plans to protect member countries from future threats via new regional defence plans, and to ensure the ability to deploy up to 30,000 troops within just 30 days if exigencies arise. These initiatives look to increase the number of forces that could come under NATO’s command, guaranteeing higher readiness of forces in member countries, and aligning both forces and capabilities to defend specific geographical areas while NATO continues to support battle group efforts in Eastern Europe. NATO will not be cajoled into standing down.

Official photo of the NATO Secretary General and Heads of State and Government at the 2023 NATO Vilnius Summit. © NATO

The NATO summit was a success

We can call this year’s summit a success, but more must be done to deliver on promises like developing details on regional defence plans, moving forward with force generation conferences regarding new troops on standby, and remaining unwavering in supporting Ukraine in its fight with Russia. Though the war in Ukraine is a calamity, it has strengthened the resolve of NATO countries. The Secretary General (who has arguably served as the most effective and steadfast leader of the Alliance in its history) will continue to be the face of an intrepid transnational organisation, and two steadfast European countries (Finland and Sweden) will bolster NATO - one of history’s longest and most effective Alliances safeguarding peace and democratic values. In conclusion, NATO is now stronger and more united than ever before and, as an organisation, must be committed to building on the successes of the 2023 summit.