Centre for Defence Strategies

NATO Vilnius summit: NATO can’t afford to make another mistake on Ukraine NATO

Lesia Ogryzko, Head of Analytics and Strategic Advocacy in the Center for Defense Strategies

Maurizio Geri is a former senior NATO analyst who has worked at the NATO Allied Command Transformation in the U.S., NATO Southern Hub in Italy and NATO HQ in Belgium.

Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) NATO Secretary General has recently declared that the NATO summit would not formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance. What seems like a realistic outcome of the summit in Vilnius next month is a clearly defined path for Ukraine to become a NATO member as soon as the war ends. Despite multiple calls for a speedy accession, not all members are convinced yet: until now “only” 20 countries signed the declaration in support of Ukraine’s membership. For a consensus-based organization, this is not enough.

Since 1994 Ukraine has been a NATO partner in the Partnership for Peace program, covering a broad field of military cooperation, including the implementation of defense reform, policy and planning, civil-military relations, and programs of joint training and exercises. Back in 2008, during the Bucharest NATO summit, Ukraine received a promise that it would one day become a member of the Alliance. Fifteen years have passed, and Ukraine is hoping to hear more than just that at the Vilnius summit in July. 

The prolonged ambiguity from NATO, or rather an informal agreement between certain member states that Ukraine’s accession would not happen anytime soon, has contributed, at least in part, to the current situation: the largest war in Europe since WWII. NATO should finally have the courage to live up to its commitment and take a strong stance – the only language understood in the Kremlin. Importantly, Ukraine’s NATO membership would further strengthen this position. 

First and foremost, if NATO member states are genuinely committed to ensuring sustainable peace across the Euro-Atlantic region, only full membership for Ukraine can guarantee effective deterrence. Any half-hearted decisions, such as ceasefires or vague security guarantees, will only result in Russia launching another attack on Ukraine after a brief respite to replenish its arsenal. Europe faces the risk of a decade-long war on its borders, with ongoing global economic disruptions, waves of migration, and security threats spilling over.

Additionally, Ukraine has already become an essential pillar of NATO’s eastern flank and contributes significantly to ensuring Europe’s security. Even without being a member state, Ukraine is actively fighting against and significantly weakening Russia, which is considered NATO’s “most significant threat” according to the NATO Strategic Concept. This contribution sets Ukraine apart from all other NATO member states. The unique combination of knowledge and hands-on experience in Russian military warfare and tactics that Ukraine possesses is of immense importance to NATO as it enters a new era of security challenges. Moreover, with the United States shifting its focus towards security threats in Asia, it becomes even more crucial to have a strong security umbrella for Europe, with Ukraine being one of its guarantors. 

Lastly, Ukraine’s military is among the most capable and certainly the most battle-tested in Europe. Ukraine demonstrates agility on the battlefield, applies innovation and creativity, and benefits from the diverse non-military backgrounds of its fighters. This combination results in rapid solutions and new inventions, allowing military personnel to quickly adopt nontraditional military tactics. These factors serve as a significant prerequisite for military dominance in the coming decades, which is something NATO should aspire to for its future. Furthermore, Ukraine’s exposure to a wide range of NATO equipment and munitions ensures a high level of interoperability with the Alliance. This leaves no doubt about Ukraine’s ability to effectively cooperate and coordinate with NATO forces. 

Putting aside the benefits for NATO of Ukraine joining the alliance, the most controversial aspect arises when member states are faced with the question of how. Two popular misconceptions contribute to this challenge. The first alleges that an invitation to join NATO leads to an immediate accession. In reality, political processes, even in relatively straightforward cases like Finland, take time to complete. The second misconception arises from the interpretation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all. However, this article does not obligate every member to engage in immediate warfare. It rather stipulates that each member shall take “action as it deems necessary,” allowing room for maneuver and the possibility of abstaining from direct military aid. 

However, despite all this, some NATO allies still appear hesitant in the days leading up to Vilnius. The fear of being drawn into direct confrontation with Russia looms large, obstructing the adoption of a historic decision. What seems to have been agreed behind closed doors is the change of the Ukraine-NATO Commission to the Ukraine-NATO Defense Council. The Council is a higher-level body than the Commission as it foresees mechanisms for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision-making, and joint actions as equal parts. It is worth mentioning that NATO had a Council with Russia until it invaded Ukraine. Alongside obvious priority areas concerning the ongoing hostilities, the Council could furthermore assist the country in meeting its outstanding commitments covering a range of NATO standards and principles. NATO is a political alliance in the first place, hence placing great importance on building integrity, democratic resilience, human security, and specific programs like Women’s Peace and Security – all being part of the necessary improvements that need to happen. 

However, if the set-up of the Council were to be the only political refurbishment to occur in Vilnius, it would be a disappointment for many. As a minimally satisfactory outcome for Ukraine, a clearly defined timeline and steps for its accession should be established, contingent upon the cessation of hostilities. Ideally, this would replace the Membership Action Plan and serve as a fast-track accession procedure for Ukraine. This should be backed by meaningful security guarantees, such as Sweden and Finland received last year. While this may not fulfill all of Ukraine’s aspirations, it would demonstrate the resolute position of NATO allies and their seriousness in the matter. Without such decisive action, hesitation could result in yet another costly mistake and could demonstrate that Russia retains veto power within the alliance—an unintended message that no one within NATO intends to convey.

Source: Brussels Morning Newspaper