As NATO’s leaders gather in Vilnius, Ukraine will dominate everything
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine war Editors note (July 10th): This article has been updated since it was first published. A SUMMIT OF NATO leaders in Vilnius, Lithuanias capital, opened in dramatic fashion on July 10th. On the eve of the gathering, which begins formally on July 11th, Turkey lifted its hold on Swedens application to join the alliance. It means that Sweden is likely to become the 32nd member of NATO, essentially turning the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake and potentially ending a saga that has dragged on for more than a year. NATO officials warn that Swedish membership is not a done deal. A similar eve-of-summit agreement in Madrid last year proved less of a breakthrough than it seemed at the time. But Jens Stoltenberg, NATOs secretary-general, tweeted that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkeys president, had agreed to forward Swedens bid to Turkeys parliament ASAP and to ensure ratification. The news came shortly after a meeting between Mr Stoltenberg, Mr Erdogan and Ulf Kristersson, Swedens prime minister, which itself capped off weeks of intensive diplomacy between the three sides. A NATO statement published on July 10th indicated that Sweden had promised further measures against Kurdish movements that Turkey regards as terrorists and that the alliance had agreed to establish a new post, Special Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism, reflecting Turkeys priorities. Bloomberg, a news outlet, reported that the European Union had also agreed concessions over a customs union and visa-free travel. It is not clear whether Joe Biden, Americas president, also offered inducements: Mr Erdogan was widely believed to have been using his hold on Swedens application as leverage to secure the purchase of F-16 fighter jets from America. Mr Biden did not mention the issue in a short statement welcoming the news, but Turkeys state-run Anadolu news agency said that Americas State Department had supported the provision of the jets. If Mr Erdogan follows through on his promise, it is a triumph for Mr Stoltenberg, who has been accused by some allies of having been overly indulgent towards Mr Erdogan. Mr Stoltenberg, the alliances secretary-general since 2014, had been due to retire in October 2022 to take over Norways central bank. His term was extended by a year after Russias invasion. Allies have been struggling to agree on a replacement. Debates over succession overshadowed a NATO summit in Strasbourg in 2009, recalls Jamie Shea, a former NATO official, holding up proceedings by hours. Vilnius has been spared that fate: on July 4th Mr Stoltenbergs term was prudently extended by another year. The relief over Swedens progress will be short-lived. The thorniest challenge at the summit is how to handle Ukraines bid for NATO membership. In 2008, at a summit in Bucharest, the allies agreed that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, but did not say how or when. Many now believe that was the worst of all worlds: a red rag to Russia, without any benefit to Ukraine. Ukraine and even its most hawkish allies agree that membership is a question for the future. We understand that we cannot be a member of NATO during the war, acknowledged Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraines president, last month, but we need to be sure that after the war we will be. A French official says that there are now intense discussions among allies on the conditions that would apply to Ukraines bid. Britain, France, Poland and other eastern allies want Ukraine fast-tracked after the war, much like Finland, which in April entered NATO less than a year after formally applying, compared with the eight years it took Montenegro. We need something much more substantial and we need a path towards membership, said Mr Macron in May. America and Germany are more cautious. I dont think [Ukraine is] ready for membership in NATO, said Joe Biden, Americas president, on July 9th. Theres other qualifications that need to be met, including democratisation and some of those issues. America and Ukraine seem to be talking past one another, suggests Eric Ciaramella of the Carnegie Endowment, a think-tank in Washington. Ukraine sees the question of nato membership in symbolic terms, he suggests, as a signal to Russia. America takes a legalistic approach. There is a very serious concern about advancing the language in a way that we have no clear path to...make good on that promise, says Mr Ciaramella. Some European officials also suggest that the promise of nato membership should be withheld for now, because it might be needed as a sweetener for Ukraine in any future deal involving territorial concessions. That will disappoint Ukraine. The consolation prize in Vilnius is likely to be a separate document agreed by a smaller coalition of countries on the margin of the summit, pledging long-term military aid. The aim will be to signal to Russia that the flow of arms from allies to Ukraine is locked in for years to come, and insulated from the vagaries of national politicsincluding the possible re-election of Donald Trump next year. Individual countries will then publish details of their specific commitments. A fourth question at Vilnius concerns major changes taking place in NATOs defence posture. Leaders will approve the alliances first comprehensive defence plans since the cold war, spanning 4,000 pages of text, including three regional plans covering the north, central and southern parts of Europe. Though Turkey had held up approval, the issue was resolved on July 10th. The plans set tougher expectations for how individual allies organise, train, exercise and equip their national forces. But there is still a political debate over the best way to arrange military forces in Europe for the purposes of deterrence. America, Britain, Canada and Germany have positioned relatively modest battlegroups on Polish and Baltic soil, with the intention of reinforcing them quickly in a crisis. The Baltic states retort that Russias invasion of Ukraine, however botched, swallowed an Estonia-sized swathe of territory within weeks, and that war crimes occurred during even brief periods of occupation. They accordingly favour larger peacetime garrisons, and a strategy of forward defence. In recent weeks Germany has indicated that it is willing to upgrade its presence in Lithuania from a battalion of around 1,000 troops to a brigade of 4,000 or so. Yet there are also doubts over the wisdom of concentrating forces in the east. Very generally, in military terms you want flexibility, warned Admiral Rob Bauer, the chair of NATOs military committee, I would be cautious to have all the forces fixed along the eastern flank, because we do not know where the enemy will come. Keeping stockpiles within range of Russian rocketry presents other problems, he noted. If you have huge dumps of ammunition, they are vulnerable as well. In private, even Baltic officers have misgivings. I am not a great fan of more NATO boots on the ground in the Baltics, says an Estonian field commander. There is no point talking about additional brigades. Instead, he emphasises long-range strike weapons. What we really need is a capacity for targeted effect against critical nodes in the Russian system. Ultimately, making the new plans reality will require a substantial increase in defence investment. In 2014 allies agreed that they would aim to spend 2% of GDP annually on defence by 2024. Most will miss the target. Some want to raise it regardless. It is important to recognise that 2% should be a floor rather than a ceiling, notes Camille Grand, an assistant secretary-general at NATO until last year. Others are sceptical that such levels of spending can be sustained. Thats a discussion that largely ignores the realities of how hard its going to be to maintain that defence spending and...the threat perception of Russia in some western European states in particular, says Sophia Besch, also of Carnegie. Even NATOs newest ally-in-waiting, Sweden, is not due to meet the 2% target until 2026, following years of under-spending. The effects of electroshock therapy do not last for ever.