NATO’s 2023 Summit: Modest Expectations, Modest Results (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 113

(Source: Kyiv Post)

How to respond to Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine was the central question confronting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) summit of heads of state in Vilnius on July 11 and 12. With the war well into its second year, the alliance again fell short of adopting eminently reasonable proposals that had been aired in the run-up to the event (see below). Disappointed commentators, however, do not seem to notice (or acknowledge) that the outcome of this summit compares favorably with the 2021 and 2022 summits regarding Ukraine.

The alliance (again) fell collectively short of pledging support for Ukraine to defeat Russia in this war. The shortfall was inevitable since the White House has yet to articulate the goal of enabling Ukraine to win. As the summit convened, the Ukrainian counteroffensive was faltering due to a lack of air support and long-range precision fires. Rather than arming Ukraine adequately for its counteroffensive to succeed, however, the alliance merely invoked its “steadfast … commitment to further step up political and practical support to Ukraine … for as long as it takes” (, July 11, Paragraph 10)—as ever stopping short of clarifying: to achieve what?

The communiqué averred that “Russia must immediately stop this illegal war of aggression, cease its use of force against Ukraine, and completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its forces and equipment from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters” (, Paragraph 8). These declared objectives, however, have yet to be backed up by adequate military resources, without which the injunctions to Russia sound merely hortatory.

NATO would, in any case, “never recognise Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexations,” would admit “no impunity for Russian war crimes and other atrocities” and insist that “all” those responsible must be held accountable (, Paragraph 7). This ought to preclude negotiating with the perpetrators. However, the issue of recognition is not the most relevant, given that certain unrecognized annexations and partitions are accepted de facto and even morph into red lines—for example, those by Russia in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Reversing the annexations would have been the relevant goal for NATO to announce.

The Vilnius summit does, however, slightly improve Ukraine’s membership prospects, compared with the alliance’s 2021 and 2022 summits. According to the communiqué, “Every nation has the right to choose its own security arrangements. … Ukraine’s future is in NATO. We reaffirm the commitment we made at the 2008 Summit in Bucharest that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. … Ukraine has become increasingly interoperable and politically integrated with the Alliance, and has made substantial progress on its reform path. … The Alliance will support Ukraine in making these reforms on its path toward future membership. We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” This summit has eliminated the Membership Action Plan as a precondition to Ukraine’s accession (, paragraph 11).

Furthermore, this summit has upgraded the old, ineffective Ukraine-NATO Commission to the NATO-Ukraine Council, “where Allies and Ukraine sit as equal members … for joint consultations, decision-making and activities, [as well as] crisis consultation mechanism between NATO and Ukraine” (, Paragraph 12). Somewhat disconcertingly, however, the communiqué does not mention Ukraine in the context of the Open Door policy; it only references Sweden in that regard (, Paragraph 4).

As an organization of 31 (soon to be 32) sovereign states, operating on the principle of consensus, NATO adopts collective decisions through laborious processes on the lowest common denominator. This modus operandi tends to limit the effectiveness or even relevance of the full NATO “as NATO,” placing instead a premium on coalitions-of-the-willing and bilateral arrangements among NATO members or between them and partner countries. This trend could again be noticed at this year’s summit.

Thus, arms supplies, training and most other forms of military assistance to Ukraine are bilateral matters between Ukraine and a large number of individual NATO countries. These bilateral arrangements are being coordinated within the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (informally, Ramstein Group), in effect an ad hoc coalition of more than 50 member and partner countries. This forum goes unreferenced in the communiqué.

For its part, NATO collectively provides only non-lethal equipment and technical assistance to Ukraine. The summit just held registered “commitments” (pledges) of more than 500 million euros ($560 million) in non-lethal assistance to Ukraine from the 2022 summit to date, without disclosing actual disbursements (, July 11).

With NATO postponing decisions on security guarantees to Ukraine into an unspecified future, solutions are being considered through a coalition of willing NATO members and partner countries outside of NATO’s framework. The heads of state of the Group of Seven (G7) countries (an informal grouping of seven of the world’s most advanced economies, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) issued a statement outlining such a solution on the sidelines of the Vilnius summit (not as part of it and not included in a NATO document). The G7 leaders announced that they have tasked their ministerial-level officials to start working on this project immediately. It envisages a multilateral framework agreement among the participating countries and Ukraine, underpinned by bilateral agreements between Ukraine and each participating country. This arrangement is open to any willing NATO country to join. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed this concept as a credible security solution for Ukraine pending its eventual accession to NATO as a full member (, July 12).

This proposal is fully consistent with (and possibly inspired in part by) the Ukraine Security Compact developed principally by NATO’s former Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (see EDM, December 16, 2022). Both proposals are potentially transformative in terms of Europe’s security architecture in that they exclude Russia from any common security arrangements. In addition, proposals are designed as temporary solutions for the period leading up to Ukraine’s putative NATO membership. They do not, however, provide security guarantees, but rather guarantees of security assistance to be provided to Ukraine, without an Article 5 equivalent.

*Read Part Two.