NATO membership of Ukraine, Sweden in focus at Vilnius summit

NATO leaders will meet in Lithuania this week to discuss Russia’s aggression, as well as overcome differences over the perspective membership of Ukraine and Sweden.

NATO leaders gathered for a key summit in Madrid, Spain, pose for a group picture.
NATO leaders gathered in 2022 for a key summit in Madrid, Spain [File: Kenny Holston/Pool via Reuters]

Brussels, Belgium – The 31 leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are set to convene for a two-day summit in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius this week.

The military alliance members will seek to reaffirm their support for war-torn Ukraine on Tuesday and Wednesday, overcome differences over Sweden’s perspective NATO membership, and display a united stance against Russia’s aggression.

“This week, at the NATO summit, we will strengthen our deterrence and defence, including with more investment. We will step up our support for Ukraine, and move Ukraine closer to NATO,” the military alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Vilnius.

“Lithuania seeks this summit to be remembered as the summit of decisions – not just declarations,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said in a tweet on the eve of the summit.

No membership but more guarantees

For Ukraine, a key decision after the Vilnius summit is to gain confirmation on its NATO membership.

Kyiv applied to become a member of the alliance last September, seeking to fortify its borders with Russia.

Since then, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his officials – and Ukrainians within the country and around the world – have been lobbying NATO nations to speed up Kyiv’s accession process.

But NATO members remain divided over the issue of offering Kyiv the alliance membership amid an ongoing war despite a broad consensus to signal strong support for Ukraine.

Nations like the United States and Germany have displayed a restrictive stance towards the idea, compared to NATO’s Baltic members like Lithuania and Poland.

In an interview with broadcaster CNN over the weekend, US President Joe Biden said that Ukraine was still in the middle of a war with Russia, and if Kyiv became a NATO member, then it would drag the entire alliance into the battlefield – a sentiment shared by Germany, Turkey and some other NATO members.

“For example, if you did that, then, you know – and I mean what I say – we’re determined to commit every inch of territory that is NATO territory. It’s a commitment that we’ve all made no matter what. If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case,” Biden said.

The US leader was referencing NATO’s cornerstone for collective defence – Article 5, which states that an armed attack against one NATO member is an armed attack against all.

But a day before the onset of the summit, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet that “following intensive talks, NATO allies have reached consensus on removing MAP (Membership Action Plan) from Ukraine’s path to membership”.

He welcomed this decision and said that it offers Ukraine clarity on becoming a NATO member.

Moreover, on Friday, when Stoltenberg was asked whether NATO’s declaration regarding Kyiv’s Ukraine membership will be stronger than the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration, when Ukraine and Georgia were promised a similar future in NATO, Stoltenberg said that there are differences this year.

“One important difference is that Ukraine has come much closer to NATO, because NATO allies have worked closely with Ukraine for many years, especially since 2014. So, this has ensured a much higher level of cooperation and interoperability between Ukraine and NATO,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has said that Ukraine becoming a member of NATO would demand “a harsh response” from Russia.

But NATO chief Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Friday that at the Vilnius summit, he expects the alliance to agree to a multiyear programme of assistance to Ukraine, in the face of threats from Russia.

“We have already pledged 500 million euros [$548m] for critical needs, including fuel, medical supplies, de-mining equipment and pontoon bridges. We will also help build Ukraine’s security and defence sector, including with military hospitals. And we will help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era to NATO equipment and standards,” he said.

He added that NATO will also upgrade its political ties with Kyiv by setting up a NATO-Ukraine Council, which Zelenskyy will inaugurate as a part of this week’s summit.

According to Stoltenberg, the Council would act like a consultation mechanism between NATO members and Ukraine, whereby if Kyiv feels threatened, specific issues could be instantly discussed and decided by the Council, bringing Ukraine closer to the alliance.

“The NATO-Ukraine Council is a step in the right direction for Kyiv because it will send quite a strong message not only to Ukrainians but also to the Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Harry Nedelcu, geopolitics director at Rasmussen Global and leader of its Ukraine Advisory Service, told Al Jazeera.

“But at this summit, the serious debate with respect to Ukraine is going to be on providing Kyiv with more security guarantees in the interim period, until the country joins NATO. These guarantees would include enhancing Ukraine’s military capabilities, and also helping the country develop its own military industry to sustain itself,” Nedelcu added.

So far, the US, Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries have said they would pledge to embolden Ukraine militarily in the face of Russian aggression.

Sweden’s membership

While strengthening and supporting Ukraine remains a key priority at the Vilnius summit, another pressing matter is Sweden’s future in NATO.

Sweden and Finland applied to become NATO members last May. While Finland has joined, Turkey and Hungary have been holding up Sweden’s membership.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Sweden of providing safe haven to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, both of which Ankara considers “terrorist” organisations.

Erdogan also asked Sweden to lift an arms embargo on Turkey imposed in 2019 after Ankara’s incursion into northern Syria.

He said these were important “security concerns” for Turkey that had to be resolved before he agreed to NATO’s enlargement.

While Sweden has passed an “anti-terrorism” law and lifted the arms embargo, the recent incident of the burning of the Quran in the country has once again angered Turkey, and Erdogan has repeatedly expressed that Stockholm has not done enough to quash Kurdish groups.

Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson will meet in the presence of Stoltenberg before the Vilnius summit begins to resolve their differences.

“A good scenario would be if in Vilnius, Erdogan says, ‘I am satisfied with the actions of the Swedish parliament and I am ready to put this in front of my Parliament’,” a senior NATO official told journalists in a press briefing before the summit.

“There are more than 50 percent of chances that this happens, but let’s see,” he added.

According to Bruno Lete, security and defence expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels, from a technical perspective there is nothing that prevents Sweden from becoming a NATO member.

“Sweden has one of the most performant armed forces in Europe. So, this is really a political problem,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey is using its veto on Swedish membership to pursue its self-interest. Turkey is interested in regaining access to the US F-16 jet fighter programme. The country was removed from the programme years ago after it decided to buy Russian S-400 systems despite warnings from Washington not to do so,” he said.

“At this point, negotiations between Turkey and Sweden are still in a deadlock. But the real kingmaker here is the United States, which has decision-making power on pulling Turkey back into the jet fighter programme. The problem is that Washington is not so keen to do so,” Lette said, adding that once Turkey ratifies Sweden’s membership, Hungary will follow suit.

In his interview with CNN, Biden acknowledged Turkey’s ambitions and said that Turkey is seeking to modernise its F-16 fleet, along with Greece.

“And so, what I’m trying to, quite frankly, put together is a little bit of a consortium here, where we’re strengthening NATO in terms of military capacity of both Greece as well as Turkey, and allow Sweden to come in. But it’s in play. It’s not done,” Biden said.

Prior to his departure to the Vilnius summit, Erdogan denied links between Sweden’s NATO membership and Ankara’s F-16 goal. But he said if Turkey became a member of the European Union, it would speed up Sweden’s NATO membership.

In a press conference in Vilnius before the summit, Stoltenberg said he supported Turkey’s EU membership and highlighted that it is still possible that Sweden could join NATO at the summit.


NATO in Asia

Another key priority for the transatlantic military alliance is countering threats from China, an integral issue for leaders from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea who are also attending the summit.

At the NATO summit last year in Spain’s capital Madrid, the alliance identified China as a “systemic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security” and has acknowledged Beijing’s “no-limits” partnership with Russia.

But according to GMF’s Lete, while the leaders from Asia, Australia and New Zealand want NATO to weigh in further on China, the alliance’s goal to partner with these nations is merely for information exchange and situational awareness and is not a military partnership.

“A recent proposal to increase the NATO presence in Asia by opening a representation office in Tokyo was actually blocked by France. The alliance focuses on addressing the Chinese strategic threat here locally in Europe, not by expanding its presence in Asia,” he said.

“I believe NATO is well equipped to deal with external threats and the rapidly changing world order,” Lete said. “Its core mission to defend Europe and bind both sides of the Atlantic is more relevant than ever. But in my opinion, the biggest challenge NATO will need to deal with in the future emerges from the inside.”

Source: Al Jazeera