The Vilnius NATO summit, scheduled for July 11-12, 2023, is increasingly being regarded as a pivotal event and a milestone towards establishing a new security system on the European continent and worldwide. This summit is expected to significantly enhance the military and political capabilities of the North Atlantic Alliance, enabling it to exert influence on regional and global security. According to Gabrielus Landsbergis, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, this event “will either become historic because of its achievements or because of the missed opportunities.” It will soon become evident whether the member states of the Alliance are willing to elevate their preparations to address emerging threats and challenges, or if it will be yet another gathering characterized by customary declarations and concerns.
In this context, the significance of the Vilnius Summit is determined by the “Ukrainian issue.” The willingness of the United States and its allies to integrate Ukraine will serve as a testament to the strategic capabilities of the North Atlantic Alliance to assume a leadership role in global security. Despite the ongoing war, Ukraine appears to be an obvious candidate for membership in the defense alliance. It represents a valuable asset for reinforcing the Alliance’s military capabilities on the eastern flank and plays a crucial role in mobilizing Western civilization on shared values. While it is unlikely that Kyiv will receive an invitation to join the Alliance immediately, it is important to document and initiate the institutional and instrumental processes for Ukraine’s eventual membership. Currently, over two dozen member states are, in principle, ready to commence the necessary preparations for Ukraine’s integration. Although specific timelines have not been established, it is crucial to move beyond the decisions and philosophy outlined in the 2008 Bucharest Summit, progressing from mere declarations to concrete actions.
At present, it appears that the member states of the Alliance are not yet ready to take a decisive step towards Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. There are primarily two reasons for this: political and institutional. Firstly, Western elites strongly desire to avoid being entangled in a war with the Russian Federation at any cost, fearing that it could escalate into a nuclear conflict. Russian propaganda further reinforces the notion that Ukraine holds the West hostage, drawing it into a confrontation with Russia. These factors undermine the Alliance’s resolve to counter possible aggression from Moscow, despite possessing a significant military-technical advantage over the Russian Federation and its allies. Consequently, doubts linger regarding the Alliance’s willingness to respond with a similar retaliatory strike in the event of Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons against a member state from Central or Eastern Europe, and whether the Alliance will go beyond expressing “deep indignation” and imposing stricter sanctions.
Secondly, there is currently no mechanism in place for implementing Article 5 of the Charter, as NATO has yet not experienced an attack on one of its members in the form of a foreign state’s armed invasion. Therefore, the response procedure, or the protocol for engaging in conventional warfare, has not been fully developed, and the necessary infrastructure is lacking. The Alliance currently lacks sufficient forces and resources in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region to establish an effective defense against Russian military aggression. Additionally, the wording of Article 5 does not explicitly mandate the provision of military assistance by allies in the event of an attack, which some countries might exploit to evade their obligations.
Considering the aforementioned reasons, it can be concluded that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would require the Alliance to fulfill its commitments to one of its members, potentially leading to an inevitable war with severe and unpredictable consequences for the international system. How can this concern be alleviated? In reality, NATO is already indirectly involved in the war, and the United States and its allies should acknowledge this fact. They are engaged in substantial arms and ammunition deliveries, intelligence sharing, and operating repair and logistics bases in neighboring member states, adjacent to Ukraine. Our partners provide significant economic assistance and political support in international organizations. NATO’s final step would involve deploying its troops to repel Russian aggression. Thus, it can be confidently stated that the partnership between Ukraine and the Alliance has evolved into an alliance relationship. Consequently, the final step of formalizing this status should not be overly complicated. As for another concern, I believe that Kyiv, considering the domestic political sensitivities of some future allies, would not immediately demand the implementation of Article 5 upon joining and will continue to bear the burden of the war itself, thereby avoiding a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. However, certain security guarantees must still be provided to Ukraine by one or more member states of the Alliance, with the provisions of the draft Kyiv Security Treaty serving as a potential basis.
What would constitute a successful summit for Ukraine and the Alliance? Firstly, elevating institutional cooperation by transforming the Ukraine-NATO Commission into a Ukraine-NATO Council, thus enabling the initiation of a multilevel integration mechanism. Secondly, providing security guarantees to Kyiv during the preparatory period for membership, although this may seem unlikely given the ongoing war with Russia. Most importantly, the Alliance should initiate the process of Ukraine’s integration with clear intermediate stages and defined timelines.