What Will Happen at NATO’s Summit in Vilnius?

The next NATO leaders’ summit will take place July 11 to 12 in Vilnius, Lithuania. The summit arrives at a critical time for NATO and European security as the war in Ukraine enters a critical phase amid Kyiv’s counteroffensive and growing instability in Moscow. The summit also comes one year after the historic Madrid summit where NATO allies agreed a new strategic concept, which designated Russia as a direct threat and set out a new strategy of forward defense to deter Russian aggression against allies. This Critical Questions addresses six key points on what will be on NATO’s agenda at Vilnius.

Q1: Will Ukraine join NATO in Vilnius?

A1: Although Ukraine formally applied to join NATO last year, all parties have now admitted that Ukraine will not join the NATO alliance before the war in Ukraine ends. As President Zelensky noted at a press conference last week: “I emphasize once again: we . . . understand that during the war we cannot become a member of NATO, but we must be confident that after the war we will be.” Ukraine will therefore be looking for NATO allies to send a strong signal at the summit that its membership bid is in the works.

However, NATO allies are not on the same page about what they can offer Ukraine in Vilnius. The most cautious allies, including the United States, Germany, and southern European countries, are wary of repeating the 2008 Bucharest declaration, where Ukraine and Georgia were offered future membership without practical steps to follow through—after which Russia instigated frozen conflicts in both countries. The more assertive allies, including the Baltic nations, Poland and central European allies, feel Ukraine has proved its worth to NATO on the battlefield and that its growing military prowess would serve the alliance well in deterring future Russian aggression. They also argue any hesitancy effectively gives Russia a veto over Ukrainian membership. The most likely outcome is found between these two poles, where allies such as the United Kingdom, France and northern European nations favor going further than Bucharest but stopping short of accession. For example, President Macron has said Ukraine should be granted a membership “path” while the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary James Cleverly said London would be “very supportive” of a fast-tracked accession process.

To avoid the Bucharest trap, any Vilnius agreement requires tangible deliverables. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has already announced the ambition to hold the first NATO-Ukraine Council in Vilnius with President Zelensky in attendance. Another concrete step might be the removal of the requirement for Ukraine to complete the Membership Action Plan, or MAP—which was also waived for Finland and Sweden’s accession process.

Q2: Will Ukraine receive security guarantees in Vilnius?

A2: The debate around the provision of security guarantees or assurances to Ukraine against future Russian aggression may also come to a head at Vilnius. Ukraine will be looking to improve on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that provided “security assurances” that neither Russia, the United Kingdom nor United States would use force against Ukraine after it gave up its nuclear weapons. President Zelensky has made clear he does not see security assurances as a substitute for NATO membership, but an enabler. Recent precedent exists with the United Kingdom’s provision of “mutual security assurances” to Finland and Sweden during their accession process. The United Kingdom, along with Germany, France and the United States, have also considered a joint guarantee focused on the long-term provision of military assistance. However, no clear consensus has yet appeared on what assurances Ukraine’s allies might be willing to offer outside of NATO. Meanwhile, Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kallas succinctly summarized one school of thought: “The only security guarantee that really works is NATO.”

Q3: Have the commitments allies made in Madrid been met?

A3: To implement the new strategic concept presented at the 2022 Madrid summit, allies agreed to strengthen defense and deterrence through three key commitments to more forward-deployed combat forces, an enhanced program of collective defense exercises, and a much larger high-readiness reserve for rapid reinforcement in the event of crisis. At the time Stoltenberg admitted “the biggest overhaul [of] our collective defence since the end of the Cold War” will not happen straightaway: “When it comes to the increased readiness forces, I expect them to be ready by next year.” However, implementation has been mixed and it now seems unlikely these three commitments will be fully met by the Vilnius summit.

Commitment 1: “Allies have committed to deploy additional robust in-place combat-ready forces on our eastern flank.”

An important Madrid pledge was to scale up the eight existing Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) multinational battlegroups (around 1,000 personnel) to “brigade-size units where and when required” (up to 5,000 personnel). Yet while the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada have all pledged high readiness brigades to the EFP missions they lead, their forces remain based at home. Lithuania in particular has been vocal about the need to forward-base forces. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius was the most recent German politician to indicate Germany will send a permanent brigade to Lithuania during a speech last week, but in reality this may not happen until the end of the decade given the readiness of German combat forces and Lithuanian infrastructure to host them.

Commitment 2: “We will enhance our collective defence exercises to be prepared for high intensity and multi-domain operations and ensure reinforcement of any Ally on short notice.”

NATO has made significant progress on this commitment and held several significant exercises on land, air, and sea in the past few weeks and months. These included NATO’s largest ever air exercise, Air Defender, hosted by Germany; Exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS), a maritime exercise in the Baltic Sea that included 50 ships and over 6,000 personnel; and various ground exercises that proved the ability to reinforce Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland with brigade-level forces or at least brigade headquarters. However, only two of the eight EFP missions—in Estonia and Poland—have demonstrated the ability to scale up to brigade level forces.

Commitment 3: “We welcome the initial offers by Allies to NATO’s new force model.”

NATO’s new force model, which entailed increasing its response force of high readiness units from 40,000 to over 300,000 personnel, got off to a bad start, with some allies taken by surprise at the scale of the plans. Indeed, there is little sign it will meet the target set in Madrid of being “completed in 2023” as any implementation steps remains sparse. However, what is clear is the massive scale of the commitment, which is around 10 times larger than previous plans to deploy 30 battalions in 30 days.

Q4: When will Sweden join NATO?

A4: Even though Sweden and NATO allies would like it to join before the Vilnius summit, the two objectors to Stockholm’s application, Hungary and Turkey, are in no rush to ratify by then. Hungary’s parliament recently postponed ratification to its autumn legislative session while Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated that Stockholm should not expect to join the alliance anytime soon. While Hungary can likely be compelled to stand down, partly due to the economic and diplomatic instruments that can be leveraged through the European Union, Turkey’s dithering is the larger concern. Ankara had signed a joint memorandum to lift its objections to both Finland and Sweden’s applications ahead of the 2022 Madrid summit. Most observers believed that Erdoğan’s obfuscation would die out after the May elections, but the president has since doubled down by demanding that Stockholm extradite individuals with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and doing more to prevent pro-PKK rallies. While these demands are wholly unacceptable to Sweden given its commitment to free speech, Stockholm has taken credible steps to address some of Ankara’s concerns, such as passing anti-terrorism legislation and lifting an arms embargo on Turkey. In the short term, however, very little can be done to force Erdoğan’s hand, despite Congress’ attempt to condition the sale of F-16 fighter jets on the ratification of Sweden’s NATO bid.

Q5: What’s happening with NATO defense spending?

A5: The war in Ukraine accelerated the rise in defense spending across NATO, including among European allies who have invested a third more on defense since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Given the Defense Investment Pledge made by allies at the Wales summit that year to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense expires next year the Vilnius summit will catalyze discussion of new spending targets. Stoltenberg has urged allies to embrace 2 percent as a floor rather than a ceiling, while allies such as the three Baltic states have committed to spending 3 percent and Poland aims to reach 4 percent. However, what’s more urgent may be finding ways for allies to meet the existing target, as only seven countries currently do, according to NATO’s latest figures (the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Other defense investment issues will also shape the summit beyond spending targets. NATO’s new Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) initiative will become operational this June and expects to award 100,000 euros each to 30 individual startups this year as part of NATO’s one billion euro Innovation Fund. On industrial capacity, a new Defense Production Action Plan will be agreed at Vilnius to increase manufacturing capacity among allies, coordinated with the European Union’s Act in Support of Ammunition Production—or “ASAP”—initiative to ramp up ammunition and missile production capacity.

Q6: Will NATO get a new secretary general in Vilnius?

A6: The most likely outcome at Vilnius—or before the summit—is that current secretary general Stoltenberg will be asked by allies to extend for a second year, until NATO's 75th anniversary summit in Washington next July. Despite Stoltenberg himself saying in February that he would not seek another extension, allied consensus has stalled. Many allies were pushing for the first female secretary general in NATO’s history. Leading candidates included Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen, UK defense secretary Ben Wallace, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez, and Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas.

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. 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.

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