NATO after the Vilnius Summit: An Indian Assessment
Amb D.B. Venkatesh Varma, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The NATO Summit held in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, 11-12 July 2023, was momentous in many respects. It took place against the background of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine whose active phase of hostilities is now well past 500 days. The Summit offered no hope of an early end to the conflict. In fact, there has been a sharp escalation in hostilities after the Summit.

Reflected in a 90 paragraph Communique, NATO agreed on common positions on several global challenges facing the Alliance- those relating to the crisis in relations with Russia, the growing challenge of China, the advent of new technologies and weapon systems, transnational challenges as well as internal issues of membership, budget, operational doctrine, and the implementation of reforms that were decided at previous Summits. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s term was extended by another year.

New Members

Finland joined as the new and 31st member and Sweden is expected to join soon. Turkey which had held up the membership applications of both countries, emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the Summit. In exchange for its consent, Turkey bargained hard with the US, NATO and the two applicants concerned, for specific concessions - from the US on supply of F-16s and economic support and from Sweden on Kurdish issues in exchange for its support. Turkey also increased support to Ukraine - on its territorial integrity, supply of new weapons and release from custody several Azov fighters without informing the Kremlin. This pro-West shift in Turkey’s position may be related to its precarious economic situation, its assessment that it has extracted the maximum possible concessions on the issue of NATO membership and more significantly, for President Erdogan who has been re-elected, his relations with President Putin as being of lesser value now given the public weakening of his image following the Prigozhin rebellion. Through ruthless pursuit of its interests, Turkey gained considerably from the Summit.

Ukraine

Though Ukraine had high expectations on forward movement on its membership, the Summit results were disappointing. Ukraine had prepared hard for the summer offensives this year in the Donbass in the hope that military success on the ground would create an unstoppable momentum at the NATO Summit on its membership issue. Its failure to achieve battlefield success did not help matters. President Zelensky even deployed a high stakes public messaging campaign on the eve of the Summit, which backfired badly. The US delegated the task of disciplining President Zelensky to its trusted allies. In the event, the Summit, as determined by the US primarily and supported by Germany offered nothing more than a promise of an invitation for future membership when allies agree, and conditions are met. Ukraine was granted an exemption from the Membership Action Plan. For a country interested in membership since 2002 and promised one since 2008, Ukraine learnt the hard way, alliances are no guarantee of security. In fact, the pursuit of security through NATO membership set in motion the series of events that led to the current war with Russia. Ukraine learnt the bitter lesson that NATO was doing a lot for fuelling the conflict but will not offer it membership and fight on Ukraine’s behalf until the war was over. A truncated Ukraine may eventually join NATO, but NATO cannot and will not prevent that truncation. Tragically, Ukraine is paying a heavy cost in terms of its sovereignty and territorial integrity of being caught up in a proxy war between Russia and the United States.

US Leadership

The Summit once again demonstrated that the US remains the predominant power in NATO. In fact, in recent months its domination over Europe has only increased with its near total control over NATO policy, deployment, firepower, and organizational priorities. The 2% of GDP increase in defence budgets that the US has been insisting on for more than a decade is now no longer a ceiling but a floor, a standard that is now being met by only 5 of its 31 members- Finland, UK, Latvia, Poland, and the United States. The Ukrainian war has exhausted NATO ammunition stocks. It was agreed that at least 20% of the defence budgets would be earmarked for capital purchases and R & D. Parallelly, the Alliance took decisions to further deepen integration at defence industry as well as at the operational level – which means in practice that US weapons and defence suppliers would have a decisive say in NATO rearmament. During this period, arms exports from NATO countries would either focus on disposing of old stocks or adding a premium on arms exports to fund the new rearmament process now underway.

US and therefore NATO hesitation to grant Ukraine a specific timeline for membership during wartime is reflective of the more fundamental uncertainty surrounding the proxy war with Russia. Despite massive infusion of arms, close ISR support, tight sanctions on Russia, and support for the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives, the US is faced with the prospect of Ukraine turning into a new geopolitical quagmire in Europe. While Russia has scored some battlefield gains it continues to demonstrate weakness of a nature the exploitation of which the US finds irresistible. Russia has inflicted considerable losses on the Ukrainian army and if the trend continues, Ukraine faces the prospect of a military collapse in the coming months. While this prospect may be taken as a basis for the US to find a peace settlement that falls short of the complete vacation of occupied territory by Russia but also averts a collapse of Ukraine, the other prospect – of a collapse of Russian military combat power pulls the US in the opposite direction of pursuing the war.

The Prigozhin rebellion and subsequent shake up of the Russian army chain of command offers for the US a long-term weakening of Russia which is its preferred goal rather than a negotiated settlement of the narrower issue of Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory. These conflicting tendencies prolong the war. US position in Vilnius – ‘as long as it takes’ – approach of President Biden, reinforced this assessment.

New NATO

The NATO that has emerged from Vilnius will be very different from the previous NATO of the Cold War period. NATO now has double the number of members, with a frontline perhaps four times longer than the past (including Scandinavia and the Artic) and with half its military assets. With double the commitments and half the resources- NATO faces a classic case of overextension and the gap between commitments and resources will take years to fill. The Vilnius Summit resolved to address this through larger defence outlays at a time of economic recession and when less than one third of NATO members have met their 2% commitments. The political and military center of gravity of the alliance has shifted easter wards and northwards, with Poland and the Baltic states strong supporters of the US emerging as influential NATO states. Finland and Sweden -substantial military powers with respectable capabilities, have strong views of their own, unlike many other NATO who blindly follow the US line, on issues of international peace and security. The Baltic Sea would look more like a NATO lake. An arms race for the militarization of the Arctic is now unavoidable. While NATO goes through a process of internal readjustment, the old powers of Europe - France, and Germany feel outflanked within NATO.

Tukey’s influence on NATO’s southern flank, including in the Black Sea area, which is currently being shaped by the Ukraine conflict has grown considerably. The goal is to have 300,000 NATO troops ready for deployment in 30 days, a standard that would strain both US and European militaries alike. The key point here is that NATO is undergoing a fundamental transformation and it may be a while before the European pillar of NATO is able to shoulder the primary responsibility for the security of Western Europe, for which a modus vivendi with Russia is as much a necessary condition as it is a distant prospect. NATO may pretend to have a global profile but its military footprint for years to come will be largely confined to Western Europe.

NATO and Indo Pacific

US allies from Asia-called the AP4- Japan, Australia, ROK and New Zealand participated in the Vilnius summit. The US has insisted that its allies from Europe and Asia contribute to the war effort in Ukraine and has worked out a division of labour – US, UK, and France have taken the lead on supply of longer range artillery and missiles; Denmark and Netherlands are coordinating a 11 nation effort to train Ukrainian pilots for the prospective supply of F-16s and Asian allies have provided armoured vehicles, ammunition, mine clearance and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The G7 countries have also made pledges for supporting Ukraine. Therefore, while the US retains the veto on when and under what conditions the proxy war in Ukraine would end, the task of supporting Ukraine until that moment has now be distributed amongst its allies.

While the Summit showed no let up in its confrontational posture with Russia, the Communique treated China differently. China was seen as a growing systemic threat in terms of interests, security, and values but one with which NATO was prepared to engage in a constructive engagement. The Communique papered over contradictions in a still evolving US policy on China and the substantial differences between US and European members of NATO on how far to take the US objective of aggressively constraining China’s growth and standing up to Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific and globally. While the security identity of the EU has now got wholly subsumed with that of NATO, EU is still faced with question whether subsuming its economic engagement with China with the security interests of the US is in its long-term interests. This inherent duality on China would be of relevance to countries like India which seek global partners in facing the China challenge.

Behind the rhetoric of common interests of NATO in the Indo-Pacific, the Vilnius Summit added little by way of a common strategic understanding that linked the length of the Eurasian continent. In fact, the only real common link for NATO and AP4 is the United States and its predominance in their respective security calculations. France rightly drew the line on a NATO representative office in Tokyo as in the face of an assertive China, such symbolic gestures do more harm than good. Besides it sends the message that NATO policy in the Indo Pacific is the US policy in the Indo Pacific, which France is averse to conceding.

Looking Ahead

As a powerful and expanding military alliance, the future of NATO is of relevance for India to the extent it can contribute to European security. The Vilnius Summit showed the countries that are the real movers in the new alliance. For Ukraine, it showed that while there are benefits of partnership with the US and NATO, there are also extraordinary costs of being a participant in a proxy war between the big powers. The Summit was also a window to the interplay between conflicting global trends- of the challenges posed by Russia and China. Given it increased commitments in Europe, NATO would do well to bring the Ukraine war to an early end, re-establish stable deterrence with Russia and rebuild European Security so that European instability is not radiated outwards. With a weakened Russia and an overextended America, China enjoys a golden moment of opportunity for geopolitical expansion on the Eurasian continent. NATO contributing to stabilizing the western periphery of Eurasia would be a good first step. While dual containment of both Russia and China is beyond the US capabilities now, its prospects for the future will depend on whether a modus vivendi is at all possible with Russia. A forever war of the US with Russia through proxies will provide an unbeatable geopolitical advantage to China. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.lrt.lt/img/2023/07/05/1543702-764872-756x425.jpg

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