Unpacking the NATO summit

Alexander Vershbow, the former deputy secretary-general of NATO and current Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Perry World House, offers his takeaways from the two-day gathering.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are seated next to each other, separated by a side table with flowers and in front to the American and Ukrainian flags on each side of them. Behind them is a sign reading NATO/OTAN Vilnius Summit/Sommet.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023. (Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

After two days of meetings in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, the NATO summit wrapped up Wednesday with Turkey agreeing to lift its hold on Sweden’s membership bid and Western allies offering continued support to Ukraine amid the protracted Russian invasion but stopping short of outlining a timeline for eventual NATO membership.

Shortly after the summit, President Biden gave an impassioned speech at Vilnius University, saying the member nations of NATO and other allies “will not waver” in their support of Ukraine. “Putin still doubts our staying power. He’s still making a bad bet.”

Penn Today spoke with Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary-general of NATO and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, to get a clearer idea of the ramifications of deals struck at the summit and what it all means going forward. Vershbow is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Perry World House.

Why did Turkey change course on Sweden’s membership?

I think Turkey was trying to extract additional concessions from Sweden but was not ultimately intending to block Sweden’s entry permanently. Turkey has some legitimate but exaggerated concerns about the activity of some Kurdish extremist groups within Sweden. Sweden is a democratic country where people are free to protest and express their views, but Turkey saw Sweden’s NATO accession as an opportunity to push the Swedes to curb the activities of some of these groups and to get NATO to intensify its counter-terrorism efforts more broadly. Sweden has done a lot in furtherance of the agreement last year at the Madrid summit, where they effectively entered into a contract with the Turks to take additional steps such as passing anti-extremism legislation and responding to Turkish requests for extradition of particular individuals. Turkey always knew that it was going to have to decide when to quit while it was ahead.

Developments in Russia may also have played a role, as Erdogan saw that Vladimir Putin had been weakened by the attempted mutiny last month, making this a good time to re-cement his relations with NATO and emerge from the summit as one of the good guys for a change. So, a lot of different things came together to convince the Turks that now was the time to cash in their chips, and I think they will live up to the deal.

What does adding Finland and Sweden to NATO this year say, both to Russia and in general?

In general, it demonstrates that NATO is still the world’s strongest and most successful alliance and the key to security in Europe. Finland and Sweden for years felt that it was enough to be partners of NATO, contributing to NATO operations, participating in NATO training and exercises, but maintaining their overall nonaligned status. After the Russian invasion, however, they both came to the conclusion—and with tremendous public support in both countries—to abandon the policy of non-alignment and join NATO as the only reliable guarantee of their future security.

What this says to Russia is that the invasion of Ukraine has been totally counterproductive in terms of Russian interests. Instead of curbing NATO’s presence along their borders, they face a bigger and stronger NATO, with two countries joining that have very substantial military capabilities and a tradition of standing up for their own security and defense. It’s just one of the many areas where Putin has totally miscalculated in pursuing his war of aggression. This summit shows that any thought on Putin’s part that he might ultimately be able to break NATO or outlast NATO is simply not happening.

Before arriving at the summit, Zelensky had said it was ‘absurd’ that a timeline on Ukraine’s NATO membership had not been set. What are your thoughts on the lack of a timeline for Ukraine?

It would have been nice to have it, but it was never in the cards. Zelensky himself has said many times that he knew Ukraine wasn’t actually going to become a member while the war was continuing. The U.S. and Germany and many other allies argued that NATO couldn’t set a timeline for bringing Ukraine in without knowing the timeline for the war. At this point it’s unknown how much longer this conflict is going to go on and whether it’s going to be a success for Ukraine on the battlefield, driving the Russians out of most of the occupied territories, or whether it will turn into a protracted stalemate. Given the uncertainty, it was unlikely that there would be consensus on giving the Ukrainians a timeline at Vilnius.

In any event, NATO leaders agreed on a package of other measures in support of Ukraine that will bring Ukraine closer to NATO and to future membership. Zelensky backed away from some of his more acerbic comments and, on the second day of the summit, focused more on what Ukraine is getting out of this, both from NATO and from the G7 meeting that took place in Vilnius on Wednesday. They got an expedited process for ultimately achieving membership as a result of NATO’s decision to drop the requirement for Ukraine to go through the membership action plan, which Finland and Sweden were able to do as well. It gives them the possibility of a fast-track accession process when the alliance is ready to pursue that.

Biden said in his speech right after the summit that NATO’s commitment to Ukraine ‘will not weaken.’ But some have raised concerns about what could happen if Biden loses in 2024 and his replacement is not as supportive. What are your thoughts on this?

I was in Europe about a month ago, and just about every European asked me if it was really possible that Trump could get reelected. I told them it is possible, even though it is a nightmare scenario. I think this possibility has reinforced the drive toward unity and toward ramping up the military support for Ukraine in the hope that Kyiv can achieve a decisive breakthrough on the battlefield by the beginning of next year. That would reduce the risk of Ukraine fatigue setting in the U.S. and in other countries as well.

What would you say is the most important development to come out of this NATO meeting?

Even though the U.S. held its ground on the issue of a timetable for Ukraine’s membership, I think the U.S. also will come away impressed that the vast majority of the allies, including some who have been cautious in the past like France and Germany, are now much more supportive of Ukrainian membership. There’s a sense that whereas this was something of a pro forma promise up until the Russian invasion, the security environment has completely changed. The idea of Ukraine ever living peacefully side-by-side with Russia without the security guarantee of NATO membership is now harder and harder to imagine, especially after all the Russian atrocities and war crimes. So even those who were skeptical of NATO membership for Ukraine a year or two ago now recognize it’s the only reliable guarantee of peace and stability in Central Europe.

The summit meeting in Washington next year could be a major milestone in this process if Ukrainians continue to improve their position on the battlefield, and the Russians increasingly see that they’re not going to win this war. This may create opportunities both to bring the war to an end and to advance Ukrainian membership at the 75th birthday summit of NATO in July of next year.