19.04.23 Review

A New Era: The NATO Summit in Vilnius will decide what steps the Alliance will take to adjust to a new era of strategic confrontation, with a focus on financing

According to a major report published by the Atlantic Council on the topic of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12, member states will be forced to deal with an unexpectedly wide range of existential challenges which are now facing the alliance. Although members recognise the alliance's fundamental role in ensuring global security and addressing new critical challenges, adapting to the new realities requires alliance members to overcome not only political differences but also the financial constraints associated with current levels of defence spending that are inadequate to tackle these new challenges.

The Vilnius Summit was not intended to be historic; it was envisioned as a bridge between the 2022 Madrid Summit (at which a new strategic concept for the Alliance was adopted) and the forthcoming 75th-anniversary summit in the United States in 2024. However, the year that has passed since the previous meeting has clearly defined the contours of the new reality which has resulted from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Over the past year, the Alliance's immediate tasks, challenges, and the range of vulnerabilities and factors behind its unpreparedness for the new geopolitical reality have all been highlighted. Existential issues include ensuring Ukraine's military success and post-war negotiating position; the Russian threat and its nuclear capacity; China's influence and the threat of military confrontation surrounding Taiwan; but most importantly — the financial constraints caused by the vast majority of Alliance participants' insufficient defence spending, especially considering other new challenges. Atlantic Council experts claim these will be the main points of discussion at the summit.

Ukraine: rapprochement strategy, war outcome

According to the analysts at Atlantic Council, the alliance's primary goal in the near future is to ensure Ukraine's swift victory in its war with Russia, which would strengthen Western solidarity. Providing Kyiv with enough modern weapon systems to allow Ukraine to destroy Russian bases and firing systems, including those on Russian territory, is critical to achieving this goal.

At the same time, the question of Ukraine’s membership in the bloc will be a serious test for the summit participants. The report's authors call the decision to admit Ukraine and Georgia to the bloc at the 2008 Bucharest summit ‘a black spot on the alliance's reputation.’ NATO will be unable to commit to security guarantees for Ukraine at the level of Article 5 of the NATO Charter until Kyiv wins the current war. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Council analysts believe that a multi-year programme is required to help Kyiv convert its army to NATO standards and to conduct annual joint exercises with Ukraine.

The second important issue for the summit to address is to reconcile member states' positions on the expected outcome of the war between Ukraine and Russia. While Ukraine and some allies expect Russian troops to be pushed entirely out of Ukrainian territory, other members doubt that such a goal is achievable. The Vilnius summit should outline a common approach to this issue and ensure that Ukraine has the best possible negotiating position with Russia.

Nuclear deterrence, the Russian threat

The summit is expected to define concrete steps for the implementation of enhanced deterrence against Russia based on the new Eastern Flank Defence Model approved in Madrid. According to Atlantic Council experts, this concept is reminiscent of NATO's Cold War-era approaches, which appears to be entirely appropriate for current circumstances. NATO leaders in Vilnius are expected to approve the expansion of eight existing battlegroups to brigade level, as well as the establishment of division headquarters to coordinate operations with host nation forces. 

Nuclear security discussions will occupy a significant portion of the summit's agenda. According to the Atlantic Council analysts, several factors have significantly altered the state of affairs in this field. These include the Kremlin's persistent use of nuclear threats, which has raised the prospect of Moscow breaking the nuclear taboo: Moscow's intention to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus; Russia's suspension from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START); and an expansion of Russia's nuclear arsenal, including the introduction of hypersonic missiles, has prompted a review of the alliance's nuclear capabilities. Alongside the Summit, NATO's Nuclear Planning Group will meet to discuss new commitments and measures to improve the overall credibility and efficiency of its nuclear deterrence forces.

Finally, another painful and pressing issue: adapting to the new reality will require that member states adjust their defence spending practices. It was decided at the Wales summit in 2014 that the Allies should aim to increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2024. Despite the favourable economic conditions of the previous decade, only seven of the alliance’s 30 countries had met this target by the end of 2022. Rising inflation, volatile energy prices, and uncertainty about the resources that will be required to rebuild Ukraine have put additional pressure on governments to consider reducing defence spending.


Against this backdrop, NATO leaders must make critical and time-sensitive financial decisions to address the need to resupply Ukraine with weapons and defence supplies, as well as to combat Russia and China's revisionist policies. According to the Atlantic Council experts, an adequate response to these challenges may require a new formula in which the 2% GDP figure would serve as a floor rather than a ceiling for Allied defence budget commitments. According to the Atlantic Council report, such lofty goals would necessitate a high degree of political cohesion among allies.

The Chinese Threat 

Finally, in addition to the Russian-Ukrainian war and the threat posed by Russia, one of the major topics on the summit’s agenda will be relations with China. Beijing's growing control over critical European infrastructure poses an increasing challenge to NATO. China already controls 12 European ports, including the two largest, Rotterdam and Antwerp, and Piraeus, the major Greek port. China's vast infrastructure holdings allow it to meddle in NATO, EU, or nation-state transportation operations. Chinese state-owned firms Huawei and ZTE have gained significant market penetration in the European 5G telecommunications sector, and this poses a threat to the security of EU and NATO members. China's political influence in Central and Eastern Europe remains high.

At the Vilnius summit, NATO will meet with its Indo-Pacific partners — Australia, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. The main issue will be the possibility of a conflict with China over Taiwan and the potential security implications of such a conflict for Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.

A second Cold War, which implies a high level of preparedness for an actual hot war, is becoming more than a metaphor. And the Vilnius summit will be a critical step in confronting and accepting this reality. The outcome of the war in Ukraine will be a critical determinant of success in the current phase of this new Cold War and an existential issue for the alliance in the new strategic confrontation. To secure Ukraine's victory and advance the alliance's other goals, there is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the new challenges NATO faces and its current financial capabilities.