The 2023 NATO summit was one of the most consequential meetings in the organization’s history. The summit, held on July 11-12 in Vilnius, Lithuania, addressed both NATO’s role in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and measures to bolster the long-term effectiveness of the organization.
From Ukraine’s perspective, the meeting was only partially successful. NATO refused to offer Ukraine immediate membership in the alliance or extend an explicit timetable for accession. The summit communiqué’s language on Ukraine membership is a study in carefully calculated vagueness (see paragraph 11, for example). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his displeasure public in a series of angry posts on social media, although he and NATO leaders publicly reconciled by the end of the summit.
Zelenskyy should not have been surprised by NATO’s decision. Immediate membership was never in the cards. Despite firm support for Ukraine in the war, the United States and some other major NATO members remain wary of being drawn into direct military conflict with Russia, and Ukraine’s accession at this time could well lead to such an outcome. In this light, Zelenskyy’s outburst may well have been for domestic consumption: The Ukrainian president is a shrewd politician.
Despite the disappointing decision on membership, there was much at the summit to encourage Ukraine. NATO was forthright and unified in its support for the country’s cause. The organization created a NATO-Ukraine Council to replace the existing NATO-Ukraine Commission. The new body raises the status of Ukraine to equal partner in joint deliberations. Moreover, Ukraine received a plethora of pledges from leading industrial nations attending the summit. These pledges from G7 countries included promises of more advanced military equipment, training, and intelligence-sharing.
While Zelenskyy might have mixed feelings about the summit’s outcome, U.S. President Joe Biden can certainly consider the meeting a success. The organization fell largely in line with Biden’s cautious approach on the issue of Ukrainian membership. The U.S. president did miss an evening dinner, raising the now-usual questions about his age (80). But, on balance, Biden’s performance was that of a strong, engaged leader. It surely compared favorably with former President Donald Trump’s often erratic or embarrassing behavior at international gatherings.
Biden envisions an approach to Ukraine modeled after the U.S.’ relationship with Israel. Under this template, the United States (and presumably European allies) would provide long-term military support and close security cooperation to Ukraine without ever signing a formal mutual defense pact (like NATO). Ukraine would clearly prefer the ironclad guarantee offered by Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. But, as Kyiv struggles to face the challenge of a possibly protracted war with Russia, an Israel model of U.S. support is a strong second choice.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has breathed new life into the Atlantic alliance. The Vilnius summit was an occasion for members to renew their commitment to the organization, which included making new promises to increase defense expenditures. (Such promises have been made in the past. Some member countries have failed to meet them — notably Germany, which boasts the largest economy in Europe.) A new member, Finland, attended the summit. And, in perhaps the summit’s biggest surprise, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dropped his opposition to Sweden’s entry into the alliance.
The 2023 summit occurred against the backdrop of the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia. To date, the counteroffensive has yielded unimpressive results. Russia’s defense in depth — notably its use of landmines — has hampered Ukrainian efforts to achieve a substantial breakthrough. There are even some rumblings of criticism from Ukraine’s allies about the management of the counteroffensive. Early on, Zelenskyy attempted to dampen expectations of a swift victory. He was surely right to do so: The Russians have had months to replenish units, replace equipment, and dig in.
Despite limited gains, however, the Ukrainians have now seized the initiative. And the Vilnius summit makes clear that the Ukrainians can count on the support of NATO in its efforts to expel Russia. War remains unpredictable. But the current fighting suggests that we should expect an ugly, slow struggle, rather than a swift, dramatic victory for Ukraine.
U.S. support for Ukraine seems solid — for now. Biden is very clear on the U.S. approach, which is strongly pro-Ukrainian but wary of direct military conflict with Russia. The president can look to substantial bipartisan support for his policies in Congress, although a faction of House Republicans has opposed military aid to Ukraine.
Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination have displayed a range of opinions about support for Ukraine. Former President Trump, the Republican front-runner, has declared that he could end the war in 24 hours, although he is light on the details of his plan. Given Trump’s long and well-documented admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, we can assume that any Trump plan would be strongly pro-Russian. Should Trump be elected in November 2024, all bets will be off in terms of U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine.
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