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'The truth is here': NATO's future will be hashed out in the Baltics this summer

Officials are gearing up for a key NATO summit in Lithuania, where questions about its Eastern flank and Ukrainian membership will be decided.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Associated Press
May 26, 2023, 3:30 p.m.

TAPA and TALLINN, ESTONIA—The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is at a crossroads.

Grappling with how to respond to the first major land war in Europe since its inception following World War II, the members of the Western military alliance are now tasked with crafting the new future of transatlantic security.

Two of the biggest questions on the table are what Ukraine’s future pathway into NATO will look like and whether to revamp NATO’s security architecture on its Eastern flank. Those debates are expected to come to a head in the Baltic region this summer, with NATO holding a major summit in Lithuania in mid-July.

“The truth is here. We have to make decisions about what the world will look like after the war,” Margus Tsahkna, Estonia’s minister of Foreign Affairs, said during the Lennart Meri Conference in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn, where policy experts and government officials discussed the upcoming summit. “But somehow, I feel that we have not agreed among ourselves.”

In the years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea, NATO has used a strategy known as Enhanced Forward Presence, placing multinational rotating battle groups in countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to deter Russian aggression against NATO member states. That strategy was partly informed by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which limited Western troop presence in Eastern Europe based on the assumption that relations between Moscow and the West would remain relatively calm after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, many allies agree that it’s time to adopt a new strategy called Forward Defense, or a return to the tougher security posture of the Cold War era.

What that means practically, however, hasn’t been hashed out yet. The U.S. has pledged to increase the number of troops stationed in Romania, while the United Kingdom has said it would do the same in Estonia. NATO has also committed to increasing the rapidly deployable troops that could respond within 30 days of an attack against a NATO member. But questions remain about whether NATO should begin permanently stationing troops in Eastern member states, and what the plans might be for the first 30 days of an attack. Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš has also publicly called for an increase in troops to his country.

Col. Andrus Merilo, commander of the first Estonian infantry brigade at the Tapa Army base, said Western allies should use the NATO summit to spell out what consequences Russia would face if it attacked a NATO country. He noted that outlining a plan to knock out missile systems and artillery depots in Russia would more effectively deter Moscow than building up more brigades on NATO’s Eastern flank.

“Instead of talking at this NATO summit about the tactical solutions, openly communicate about the concept, what we are presenting, and what actions NATO will actually take if Russia were to launch a military incursion. That’s the key,” Merilo said. “Russia only understands one thing, and it’s power. One brigade more or less in the Baltics does not constitute power.”

Stephen Wilson, a commanding officer of the Queen’s Royal Hussars, a U.K. armored regiment, is currently deployed in Estonia as part of the country's enhanced-forward-presence battle group. His group began training with different types of equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles, based on the lessons learned in the 15 months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. NATO forces have observed the war carefully and crafted their defense posture in response, even in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit.

“We have to acknowledge that the performance of Russia has been pretty poor so far, but we can't assume that is the standard,” Wilson said. “When I plan for my battlegroup, I always consider what’s most likely and most dangerous. I essentially have to assume what I've seen in Ukraine is not what I might face were we to be defending Estonia or any other NATO action.”

Wilson acknowledged there are certain drawbacks to having a rotational force rather than a permanent one in the Baltics. But lengthening the stay of certain personnel would require upgrades to infrastructure and potentially bringing military families along to countries like Estonia. NATO allies are still split on whether that would make sense.

Preparations for NATO summits generally gear up about six weeks before a meeting, meaning that staffers will soon begin working around the clock to prepare each member state’s position in time for July 11.

The question of Ukraine’s NATO future will be one of the most significant points of contention. Politicians from the Baltic states have been making the rounds in Washington recently, calling for a clear pathway for Ukraine’s NATO membership to be laid out in Vilnius. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to attend the summit to make the case himself.

NATO allies will likely recommit to helping Ukraine win the war, and they’re expected to lay out a multiyear program to assist Kyiv’s transition away from using Soviet-era equipment, with the aim of making Ukrainian and NATO forces fully interoperable.

But the question of Ukraine’s membership is trickier. Officials admit they are still determining what member states are willing to deliver. Many Eastern European officials hope a process will be laid out with clear steps Ukraine must follow to join. They also hope to come to a consensus by the end of the July summit.

“Our position is that we should provide Ukraine with an additional step towards membership. What the eventual consensus agreement is, I don't know. But it's going to be a politically consequential decision, even if the summit officially says absolutely nothing on the topic,” said Jonatan Vseviov, the secretary general of Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We're not saying membership in five days,” Vseviov added. “Our position is NATO’s position—that Ukraine will be a member of NATO as articulated in the Bucharest declaration. What we're saying is that we need to demonstrate that there is some sort of a process towards that.”

The 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, ended with a declaration welcoming Ukraine’s “aspiration for membership in NATO” and agreeing that the country would eventually join the alliance. But that declaration has since been criticized for not being specific enough. Many experts have blamed vague language and lack of a clear road map for membership for the fact that Russia subsequently invaded both Georgia and Ukraine.

In a recent op-ed, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt argued that “we have all been living with the consequences” of NATO’s failure to reach a credible agreement on Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO membership.

Nevertheless, not everyone thinks the topic of Ukraine’s future membership should be on the table at Vilnius. One senior NATO official, who asked to speak on background, said it would be wise to defer the political discussion until after Ukraine wins the war.

“We just had our foreign ministerial [meeting] late last year reaffirming the Bucharest summit conclusions on the open door. It's not a question of if; it's a question of when Ukraine joins,” the official said.

“The point that we keep making is that we want to see a free, democratic, sovereign, whole Ukraine. And what's key to that, what's most urgent, is that Ukraine prevails militarily,” the official added. “Let's focus on that and have that be recognized as the most urgent, immediate priority, and defer that political discussion until that's all resolved.”

The Vilnius summit will be the first after NATO allies endorsed a new strategic concept in Madrid, Spain, last year. Allies are now expected to set out new defense-spending goals. NATO allies pledged that they would aim to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense by next year. Going forward, that 2 percent will likely be considered the bare minimum and perhaps more mandatory than aspirational.

Some members of Congress have also pushed that goal. GOP Rep. Ann Wagner, vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently visited the NATO parliamentary assembly in Luxembourg, where she stressed that NATO allies “must maintain and even exceed their nations’ NATO defense commitments of 2 percent of GDP spending.”

While many officials have ambitious goals for the summit, some in the Baltics are clear-eyed about what can be accomplished during one meeting.

“No summit of NATO’s ends history," Vseviov said. "I know there is a level of expectation in the world that we get to a point where we solve security issues. We won’t. Defense and deterrence will never be ready. Additional things need to be done. The world is changing; the threat picture is changing. But we're certainly on the right path now. We'll make good decisions in Vilnius, implement the decisions we made in Madrid, but then we'll have to go forward.”

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