What Happened at NATO's Vilnius Summit?

The leaders of 31 NATO allies gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week for the annual NATO summit. Attendees included new member Finland, prospective member Sweden, several non-NATO partner nations, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The meeting began on Tuesday, July 11, 503 days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. While Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership captured most of the headlines, the alliance made a range of decisions to strengthen deterrence, adapt for the future, and deepen global partnerships.

Q1: What is the status of Ukraine’s bid to join NATO?

A1: The position held by the alliance on Ukraine’s NATO application was the key question ahead of the Vilnius summit. While imminent membership was not in the cards, as all parties, including Ukraine, had already agreed to wait until the war ends, President Zelensky at least expected to receive an invitation. The language agreed on by allies in the Vilnius communiqué fell short of his request, stating: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” This position reflects the desire of the United States and other allies to minimize any risk of Russia escalating the conflict in Ukraine or beyond.

However, allies went further than ever before on Kyiv’s membership by removing the requirement for a Membership Action Plan and creating a new NATO-Ukraine Council. NATO also upgraded its Comprehensive Assistance Package to a multiyear program “to help transition Ukraine from Soviet-era to NATO equipment and standards.” Whether or not the Vilnius package fell short of expectations, the summit appeared to represent a step change in the discussion about Ukraine’s membership prospects. The Vilnius communiqué mentions Ukraine 48 times (compared to 13 mentions in the Madrid declaration). As UK defense secretary Ben Wallace said: “The win here for Ukraine is the sort of cultural acceptance that Ukraine belongs in NATO.” Or as President Zelensky himself put it: “For the first time, not only do all allies agree on this, but a significant majority in the alliance is vigorously pushing for it.”

Q2: What other support did Ukraine receive in Vilnius?

A2: Although NATO membership is the ultimate security guarantee, President Zelensky arrived in Vilnius seeking security assurances from allies to bridge the gap. In response, the G7—which includes the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Italy, France, and Germany—published a “joint declaration of support for Ukraine” which clarified their “unwavering commitment” to supporting Ukraine’s freedom “for as long as it takes.” The declaration seeks to hold Russia accountable, pursue Ukrainian reforms, offer Ukraine additional aid in the event of further aggression, and increase military and financial assistance to Ukraine.

The declaration does not detail specifics, instead providing a “multilateral framework” for signatories to make their own “bilateral security commitments and arrangements” with Ukraine. In effect the agreement launches bilateral “negotiations” between its signatories and Ukraine to begin “immediately.” This means it is now up to the G7 nations—and others, who “may join this Joint Declaration at any time” —to follow through. While further military aid was announced around the Vilnius summit—including U.S. cluster munitions, French long-range missiles, additional German tanks and vehicles, and more British tank ammunition and vehicles—Ukraine will now expect its allies to propose bilateral, multiyear packages of military and financial aid. Kyiv will hope this provides certainty its allies will keep military aid flowing in the face of unpredictable domestic politics and elections—most of all in the United States, its biggest backer. Meanwhile, NATO allies will hope the declaration influences Moscow’s calculation over the long-term viability of its war in Ukraine.

Q3: How did NATO strengthen its deterrence and defense in Vilnius?

A3: Building on their commitments at last year’s Madrid summit to strengthen deterrence and defense, in Vilnius NATO allies agreed on “significant measures to further enhance NATO’s deterrence and defence posture in all domains, including strengthening forward defences and the Alliance’s ability to rapidly reinforce any Ally that comes under threat.” These measures are designed to deter conventional and nonmilitary hybrid threats.

Conventional deterrence measures agreed to in Vilnius included the following:

  • Three new regional plans were agreed on to defend NATO allies on all flanks, along with new command and control arrangements.
  • Progress on the NATO Force Model (300,000 troops ready to deploy within 30 days) was hailed and a new “Allied Reaction Force” established. However, it is worth noting progress on the new force model appears slow—Chair of the Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer cautiously admitted before Vilnius that NATO is “working towards those numbers”—and no detail is available yet on the new reaction force.
  • The eight Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups “are now in place” and the ambition to scale up to brigade-sized units “where and when required” remains. Before the summit, Canada offered to double its contingent in Latvia, adding 1,200 troops, while Germany confirmed it would send a permanent brigade of up to 4,000 troops to Lithuania in the future.
  • Enhancements were made to NATO’s Integrated Air and Missile Defence posture, including rotating modern air defense systems across the eastern flank and increasing readiness. To further strengthen air exercises and activity, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania also signed a Declaration of Cooperation on cross-border airspace management.

Measures to deter nonmilitary hybrid threats included new resilience objectives; a new “Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure”; a new cyber defense concept, a cyber defense pledge, and “Virtual Cyber Incident Support Capability”; a NATO Space Centre of Excellence in France; and a commitment to protect energy infrastructure and secure energy supplies to military forces. NATO also opened a new Centre of Excellence for Climate Change and Security in Montreal, Canada.

Q4: What did allies agree to on defense spending?

A4: As expected, allies agreed on a new commitment to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. This commitment replaces the Defense Investment Pledge made in 2014, which has seen European allies increase defense spending by more than a third to $375 billion this year, according to NATO’s latest figures. The new pledge seeks to close the gap in NATO defense spending left by the 20 allies that currently do not meet the 2 percent guidance (although 26 allies meet the requirement to spend at least 20 percent on modernization). However, this still leaves the issue of the need for more investment in defense to deliver on the ambitious force goals announced in Madrid and Vilnius. The communiqué phrase that “in many cases, expenditure beyond 2 percent of GDP will be needed” may be viewed as inadequate by those nations who far exceed the 2 percent target, such as the United States, the Baltic nations, and Poland. Equally, divisions in threat perception, domestic politics, and economics—including fiscal debates in the European Union—will continue to make it difficult for all allies to exceed 2 percent.

One perennial issue with blunt spending targets like 2 or 20 percent is that they are political rather than technical and do not provide an accurate understanding of the defense output actually generated by allies. For this reason, NATO should look again at the 2 percent metric to design better ways of measuring contributions and output, including accounting for the capabilities that allies actually provide in practice. The burden-sharing debate will likely be a big part of NATO’s next summit in Washington given it features prominently in U.S. domestic politics; NATO needs better information to inform the debate.

Q5: What did allies agree to on emerging and disruptive technologies?

A5: Beyond the Defense Investment Pledge, which partly aims to increase investments in research and development related to procurement of major equipment and through integrating innovative technologies into forces and capabilities, the joint communiqué included more specific technological initiatives. Allies agreed to accelerate “our own efforts to ensure that the Alliance maintains its technological edge in emerging and disruptive technologies,” specifically noting the recent launch of NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the forthcoming investments in deep tech from the NATO Innovation Fund, the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund. The communiqué also notes that the alliance will develop strategies for quantum technologies and biotechnology, in addition to recently announced alliance-wide plans for artificial intelligence and autonomy.

Q6: Where does Sweden stand in its application process?

A6: Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Vilnius summit was Turkey’s sudden realignment with its Western partners on key issues. On the eve of the summit, Secretary General Stoltenberg announced that Turkey had dropped its objections to Sweden’s membership bid and that President Erdoğan would “work closely with the Assembly to ensure ratification.” Hungary, the other holdout to Sweden’s application, also lifted its veto shortly thereafter. In the lead-up to the summit, Turkey also voiced its support for Ukraine to eventually enter the alliance and allowed commanders from Ukraine’s controversial Azov brigade to return to Ukraine, while Turkish defense company Baykar began construction of a drone plant in Ukraine. Ankara appears to have relented as part of a deal to receive F-16 fighter jets from the United States, a transfer which was announced by the Biden administration the following day. Turkey will also be pleased that the Vilnius communiqué includes Ankara’s preferred language on terrorism as a threat to NATO, “in all its forms and manifestations.”

While Turkey will likely remain a fickle NATO ally, maintaining amicable ties with the Kremlin, Sweden’s imminent accession is undoubtedly a boon to the alliance. Along with Finland, Stockholm will bring significant capabilities to bear, turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, streamline operational planning and information sharing in the Baltic-Nordic region, and strengthen NATO’s deterrence in the Arctic.

Q7: What was announced on NATO-EU cooperation?

A7: NATO summits are interesting barometers to appraise the evolution of the indispensable yet complicated relationship between the alliance and the European Union. The past year has displayed the great potential of complementarity between NATO, the cornerstone of collective defense, and the European Union, with its nonmilitary tools (sanctions, aid) and, increasingly, its security and defense instruments. But complementarity does not mean cooperation, which remains scarce.

The European Union was well represented at the summit with the European Council and European Commission presidents, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen. But the final communiqué does not signal a clear appetite to rev up the relationship, relying mostly on existing language either from the Strategic Concept adopted last year or from the joint declaration adopted in January this year. Although it reiterates NATO’s acknowledgement of the “value of a stronger and more capable European defence,” it also restates the usual caveats to cooperation, such as “unnecessary duplication.” Among the few interesting novelties is the establishment of a NATO-EU Staff Coordination on Ukraine.

Q8: What are the implications for non-ally partners?

A8: “NATO is a regional Alliance, but we face global challenges,” said Stoltenberg following the conclusion of the Vilnius summit. The leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand were present at the summit, demonstrating the alliance’s commitment to deepen ties with Indo-Pacific partners in response to “Beijing’s global assertiveness” that continues to challenge the interests, security, and values of the alliance. Deepening ties will happen through “tailored partnership programmes” on joint issues such as maritime security, cyber, climate change, resilience, and emerging technologies. This announcement came on the heels of disappointment following the absence of language in the communiqué on the proposed NATO office in Japan, which was reportedly rejected by France and criticized by China. When asked about the office in a press conference, French president Emmanuel Macron reiterated that the alliance should keep its focus on the North Atlantic region. Despite its absence in the communiqué, Stoltenberg noted in a separate press conference that there are still discussions happening on the idea and nothing has been set in stone quite yet.

Vilnius demonstrated that NATO remains committed to supporting non-allies who are on the path toward membership but face several democratic and security roadblocks apart from Ukraine. This was demonstrated by representation from not only Indo-Pacific partners but also the foreign ministers of Georgia and Moldova, as well as the deputy foreign minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Several sections in the communiqué are dedicated to emphasizing support for stability and security in the Balkans, Georgia, and Moldova through promoting the continuation of democratic and security reforms, as well as reiterating support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Strengthening stability and security in the aforementioned countries would be a benefit to the alliance, but work remains to be done for continued NATO enlargement.

Sean Monaghan is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow in the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Otto Hastrup Svendsen is a research associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Sissy Martinez is the program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Carlota García Encina is a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute.

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Sean Monaghan
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program
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Sissy Martinez
Program Manager and Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
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Otto Svendsen
Research Associate, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Carlota García Encina

Senior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute
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Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program