The recent NATO summit in Vilnius is being labeled by many as a historic moment for the future of European security, and Ukraine's in particular. What were the summit's key results? How will the accession of Sweden to the alliance change the security role of the Baltic Sea? And is the plan for future NATO accession enough to satisfy Ukrainian society?


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Alexander Gabuev. Welcome to Carnegie Politika podcast. My name is Alexander Gabuev, I am the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. Today, we are going to talk about the outcomes of the NATO summit in Vilnius. I'm very thrilled to welcome two great colleagues. Sophia Besch who is a fellow at the Europe Program at Carnegie DC. Welcome, Sophia!

Sophia Besch. Hi, Sasha! It's great to be with you.

Gabuev. And Eric Ciaramella, who is the director of the Ukraine Initiative and a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC as well. Welcome, Eric.

Eric Ciaramella. Hey, Sasha! Great to be here.

Gabuev. There is so much talk about the role of the Vilnius summit as having historic importance. Sophia, what would be your three major takeaways? What are the three outcomes? If you could rank them one-two-three, that would be perfect.

Besch. So, rankings are always a bit tricky because it depends on your metrics, right? The three most important outcomes? It depends… What is it: the most surprising, the most interesting, the one with the greatest long-term impact? 

But if you ask me about my top three, I would have to say that, of course, the language that the allies agreed on Ukraine got the most attention at the summit. It was perhaps not the most surprising outcome, but it was certainly the focus of the summit. I think another really important outcome, which is difficult to talk about because it's mostly secret, is that NATO launched its new defense plans at the summit, which I think has the potential to have some of the most long-lasting impacts on the alliance. But as I said, it's a bit difficult to discuss.

Basically, NATO is in the process of reforming its defense posture right after the invasion of Ukraine last year. The allies have agreed on regional defense plans for how NATO would defend any of its regions if it were attacked by Russia. I think, is it's framed as a generational shift. The alliance says that they constitute these plans, that [it’s] the largest overhaul of NATO's defense posture since the end of the Cold War, that under these new plans, NATO will have, at least in theory, 300,000 troops ready to deploy to its eastern flank within 30 days. So that's pretty major.

And then the third thing that I think we have to talk about is the last-minute deal with Türkiye’s [President] Erdoğan on Sweden joining NATO. Perhaps the most exciting announcement, because it was very much unclear if Ankara would budge until right before the summit. 

Forgive me if I'm not betting all my money on this going without a glitch from now on, but I think we've definitely made progress in the accession of Sweden, and Finland also is really significant for the alliance’s posture in the East.

Gabuev. We'll talk about Ukraine in a second, but I think that we cannot talk about the defense posture of NATO since, as you rightfully said, it's classified. I think that accession of Sweden is really of paramount importance and it's surprising… I was going, in the morning, through all of the predictions of the Russian analytical community before the war, and there was a consensus that the war will not happen. None of the moral components that Russians slaughtering Ukrainians was unimaginable for many people. But some people said: “OK, since 2014 we’re having this war, Russia annexed Crimea, and Russians and Ukrainians are killing each other in Donbas, so that's something that has already happened. But the list of downsides for the potential invasion of Ukraine is just so obvious. Beefed-up strengthened NATO at Russia's doorstep is one. Then maybe even Finland and Sweden would want to join the North Atlantic Alliance, breaking with decades of their neutrality in Sweden's case and strong partnership with NATO, but not formal membership, in Finland's case”. There is a U-turn around that, is totally predictable with a big shift. 

Sophia, what does it mean, in practical terms, for European security, particularly for the Baltic Sea region? Because the conventional joke is now that “ha, Baltic is the NATO lake.” What does it mean in practical terms?

Besch. Yeah, it's a really good question. I think there is definitely some… in the West and what looks like a strategic miscalculation by Russia now that Sweden and Finland are joining NATO. I'm a bit less enthusiastic, in my use of the term, “NATO lake” and we can get to that. I think we're not quite there yet and there are some risks associated with that, but it's understandable why you would jump to that conclusion. 

Practically Sweden and NATO have been close partners for years, especially since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. They've cooperated really closely to increase interoperability with NATO standards. They've frequently participated in NATO exercises in the region. But now they're really able to integrate strategic planning, integrate defense planning processes for capability procurement and development, integrate political decision-making processes with NATO. And, of course, they also bring assets to NATO when it comes to their geography, their capabilities, and their expertise. 

Also, I think, the potential of politically unifying the formally fragmented region, which is this Baltic Sea region [which] matters hugely to NATO. It's a potential theater of confrontation with Russia. The Baltics are particularly exposed, and they were long considered, sort of, the weak spot of NATO defense. Freedom of navigation and secured lines of communication in the region are super important to NATO allies. The Baltic Sea hosts really important reinforcement and resupply routes. It hosts lots of critical infrastructure, communication infrastructure, and energy infrastructure. As the countries in the region are advancing their stand from Russia, the region is [becoming] a really important focal point for Europe's energy independence. 

A lot of that defense of that region, deterrence of Russia in that region becomes easier with the planned accession of Sweden and the accession of Finland. There's the geography aspect of it. Finland’s border with Russia stretches more than 800 miles. Sweden has the longest coastline in the Baltic Sea and in the middle of the sea lies Gotland, the island. As a really critical territory, war gamers reckon that in the case of an attack against NATO, Russia may be interested in deploying the air defense system Gotland, and the main attack against the Baltic States could be preceded by operations against Sweden. So, it's really important that Gotland is now part of the NATO defense and deterrence structure. 

Sweden brings capabilities, as does Finland. They bring the Gripen fighter jets and Finnish F-35 fighter jets. We also gain with Sweden a new fleet of submarines which is really important. We know that Russia’s undersea fleet is active in the region and the allies are particularly worried about the security of their critical infrastructure. Those Swedish submarines and the Swedish undersea expertise can really help in that realm. 

They're both spending enough money on defense. Finland easily meets the 2 percent requirements. Sweden is investing heavily. They also have a really good understanding of the Russian threat and they've indicated their readiness to contribute to NATO's posture in the region, air policing, sending maritime forces, and enhanced forward presence. But I don't want to go on too long. 

I just want to say that one last aspect that I think is important and I mentioned at the outset. We are creating a sort of new political bloc. That is what people refer to when they refer to the “NATO lake”. Or sometimes you hear this idea of a shift in the center of gravity as well with Sweden and Finland joining NATO. This region now, the Baltic Sea region brings together a really interesting group of countries: you have the Nordics, you have the Baltics, you have Poland and Germany. This has the potential to be a really powerful Northeastern Bloc. 

The Nordic countries could add some gravitas to Baltic States' concerns if they can manage to work together and overcome some of the fragmentation of the past. Subregional groupings have always worked really well together in the region, not so much in between the Nordics and the Baltics… There are obviously issues with Germany's credibility in the region, and Poland's credibility in the region with its current confrontational point. But they can build on some of the existing formats and with Finland and Sweden joining NATO, I think, it'll be easier to unify that region and to stress test (this is the point I’ve made in the past) some of the European responses to security challenges in that region, like challenges to critical infrastructure which will yield lessons for other operational theaters in NATO as well, including, for instance, in the Arctic.

Gabuev. Thanks! 

Obviously, the most pressing security challenge in Europe right now is Russia's aggression against Ukraine. I think that NATO at this point is out of harm's way, but also very vigilant and very alarmed to all of the potential risks. It's no surprise that NATO is increasingly busy thinking [about] whether the war can escalate or expand outside of Ukraine's borders. A lot of what Ukraine can manage to defend itself is coming (be [it] intelligence sharing, be it weapons, munition, or training) from NATO countries, particularly the United States. 

Obviously, all of the focus was on Ukraine. We saw that there is a lot of coverage and discussion about the wording of the future of the relationship between NATO and Ukraine. Whether Ukraine will be granted NATO membership? Well, didn't happen at this summit and nobody expected it to happen. But what will be the time frame? Should we have a clear timeline or a clearer promise than the promise made back in 2008 in Bucharest? 

We saw that nobody came out very happy with the final wording. There was a lot of discussion initially before it was passed. All of the Western politicians and Ukrainian politicians, including President Zelensky, did a lot of explanation job. 

Eric, since you've focused a lot on this issue in your time in the government and then outside of the government, is that a real issue? Is that something we should really spend so much time on debating the wording on future Ukraine's membership with NATO, given the really pressing need of Ukraine right now on the battlefield?

Ciaramella. Thanks, Sasha! 

I would just say that there was probably an excessive focus on the exact wording and syntactic structure and lexical choices that went into this communique. There are a lot of people whose main analytic focus is reading into the details of particular words. From my standpoint, just zooming out, it's completely understandable why Ukraine was pushing so hard for a formal invitation and for some timetable for membership, obviously. The horrors that they've been through the past year and a half have just reaffirmed this strategic desire in Ukrainian society to integrate as closely as possible into Western security institutions. 

As your listeners may remember, you mentioned the 2008 Bucharest summit, where the initial open-door policy was proclaimed that Ukraine and also Georgia would eventually become members of NATO. But at the time when that language was flushed out, President Yushchenko was in charge in Ukraine. Support in Ukrainian society for NATO membership was very split, and actually, there was a majority at that point, at various points throughout 2008 and the subsequent years, a majority actually was against NATO membership. It was a very divisive issue at the time. 

That started to change really significantly after 2014 and after Russia's initial aggression against Crimea and then in the Donbas. Obviously, after Russia launched the full-scale invasion last year, support for NATO membership, which for Ukrainians means the kind of security blanket that Poland, the Baltic States, and other countries that are inside NATO enjoy became the overwhelming strategic priority. Such that you see 80-85 percent plus support in Ukrainian society for NATO membership. I would say that it was very understandable why Ukrainian leaders, diplomats, and civil society as well were pushing so hard for an invitation. 

At the same time, it was never in the cards, and so all of this commentary afterward about how President Zelensky's tweet angered NATO's leaders and somehow changed the direction of the communique… In my view, that's all a distraction and people trying to put some sort of explanatory framework on something after the fact. [But] again, there was no way that NATO was able to grant a formal invitation with a timetable to Ukraine at this point because there is no clear timetable under which the war will end. As various analysts have written, including Mary Sarotte, a very good article on Foreign Affairs about the dangers of the West German model. About the idea that a divided Ukraine could enter NATO. 

The issue of NATO's security guarantee under Article 5 is inextricably linked to the question of territorial control and borders. The reason that West Germany was able to enter NATO in 1955 was that there was a fixed border with no conflict with East Germany. Of course, there was the occupation zone and hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in East Germany, but there was a fixed, understood border, and there was no fighting. That's completely different in this case, and there's no clear pathway to get from where we are now to an extended period of calm where there's effective demarcation. It's not clear yet that Ukrainians want to go in that direction to really accept some sort of long-term territorial partition, which would be required for NATO to be able to extend Article 5 guarantees to the territory that's under Ukrainian government control. 

So, as a result, it fell to the United States and Germany to a certain extent to hold a realistic position, which was that “we have no choice but to kick the can down the road, to focus on Ukraine's immediate defense, to take up this question at a different time, when the conditions are met and security consequences allow for us to ponder an invitation to Ukraine.” That leaves a very unsatisfying situation for Ukrainians that I completely understand. That provides a segue to pivot to what we should talk about next, which was this joint declaration by the G7 of long-term support for Ukraine. In my view, this received very little coverage, but it's actually an extremely significant document and much more meaningful than the language in the communique. So maybe let me pause there.

Gabuev. Right before the summit, you've written a very comprehensive report, which I really encourage all of the listeners to go and read. Eric has written a very long version, there is a perfect article in Foreign Affairs that's a shorter version of it. There is [also] just this snap-shot, political recommendations in Washington Post, and I think it's worth reading all three. The report is also available in Ukrainian and I think that's the first long-form report that we've produced. I got a lot of good feedback from my Ukrainian colleagues on the quality of the argument [that] people want to debate, but also the quality of the language. 

You say that since Article 5 is now unavailable for Ukraine, for all of the reasons that you outlined, there should be something else done for Ukraine. There is a set of security arrangements that can make an approach called “deterrence by denial” so that the best guarantee for Ukrainian safety as a viable state is the strength of the Ukrainian military. That's where the West can really help in very practical ways. You then outline what should be done. 

Could you walk us through that a little bit with the short route? And then discuss how the outcomes of the summit aligned with the vision that you outline. Or there are some gaps that are needed to be filled in the future?

Ciaramella. Sure, thanks, Sasha! 

Yes, my view has been and continues to be that because we have to recognize the reality that NATO membership is not going to happen for Ukraine right now or for the foreseeable future, at the same time, it shouldn't be taken off the table. I'm not advocating for any kind of codified neutrality or anything like that. So as an interim measure, there should be some sort of robust security framework that formalizes a lot of what the Western allies have done for Ukraine since February of last year. In terms of sustained military support of a variety of capabilities that can build up a future Ukrainian force that's sustainable, capable of immediate defense, but also deterring Russian, a future Russian, larger Russian attack down the road. That's where you get into this idea of deterrence by denial rather than punishment, which instead of threatening some future action that would be taken if Russia launches an additional attack, which is kind of, you know… that's how Article 5 is structured. 

In this case what I'm arguing is that building up this really credible, robust Ukrainian force makes it so costly for Russia to launch military action that the perceived benefits that could be gained from it are outweighed by what would be the future cost which was not part of the calculation last year. When Putin decided to launch this invasion, he thought the Ukrainian Armed forces would crumble in three days and then there would be a victory parade and all that. Obviously, that has not been the case and Ukraine has put up a credible defense, impos[ing] costs on Russian forces. But we need to build on that and really send a clear signal that the Ukrainian army is going to be there, defending Ukrainian land in perpetuity, backed by NATO allies and the United States in particular.

My basic argument was a formalization of those structures. To include substantial political and ideally legally binding commitments from the United States and from key allies that would include equipping and training aspects, but also support to the Ukrainian defense industrial base and some sort of regular consultative mechanisms that would make it an alliance-like structure and develop bonds of trust over time as an interim framework until the NATO question comes onto the agenda.

Now, getting to your second question, which was how the outcome of the Summit lined up with that. We have this document, the “Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine,” which was signed by the leaders of the G7 nations plus the President of the European Council and Commission, and then it's subsequently been signed on to by several NATO members, including several Nordic countries, Spain, Portugal, Czechia, Netherlands, so on. There's a broadening coalition of countries that are backing this framework document and I call it a framework document because it's an initial look at what the structure of a long-term relationship between the West and Ukraine will look like. It's multilateral, in the sense that there are a number of countries that have signed it, but what it is it's a commitment by each of those countries to negotiate a much more specific formal bilateral commitment with specific capabilities on a multi-year basis. 

For the United States, we often talk about the Israel model here, because since 1999 the United States and Israeli governments have signed a series of 10-year Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), [which] are intergovernmental agreements that specify the funding levels that the executive branch of the United States will go to Congress looking for to provide military equipment and aid to Israel. It's a very predictable, sustainable framework that's negotiated in advance. It provides an overarching structure, such that there's not this ad-hoc emergency basis, and that's definitely what Ukraine needs.

So, we have this framework for formalization. Again, there are specific capabilities that are listed here, which to me… this document goes far beyond previous G7 statements and other kinds of declarations of support in terms of listing things like combat air capabilities, air defense, artillery, long-range fires, and so on and so forth. There's a specific callout that Ukraine's partners will support the development of Ukraine's defense industrial base. There's a part on economic stability, intelligence cooperation, and so on. 

Another part of this document that is very interesting is that there's specific language on some sort of mechanism for, you know, in the event of a future Russian armed attack, there would be immediate consultations and that the allies in Ukraine will work on a program of enhanced security commitments that could be invoked, if there's a further presumably large-scale Russian attack in the future.

That goes from the deterrence-by-denial framework and adds a bit of punishment on top of it. And that's a way to lock in whatever deterrence comes from the denial part of it to send a further signal to Russia that there would be costs even on top of meeting Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. A couple of other just small points that are pretty significant, in my view. The declaration commits to continuing to have Russian sovereign assets immobilized until Russia pays for damages. That to me is the most forward-leaning language that we've seen on the issue of reparations and the $300 billion in Central Bank assets. 

Ukraine also has made some commitments in this declaration to continue the rule of law and law enforcement and security sector reforms. That's good. Again, this is a mutual pact in terms of commitments by both sides. Finally, I would be interested in Sophia's view on this too, the EU being there in addition to the G7 and saying, “As a block, we support this declaration and sign on to it, and then individual Member States can also join.” As I mentioned those several earlier that did. That provides an additional linkage to the EU accession process, which in my view is going to be the more immediate important process that Ukraine is going to go through for Western integration. That can begin, hopefully, by the end of this year: opening up chapters to start negotiating Ukraine's alignment of its laws with EU laws. To me, the interim security framework here, which, hopefully, will be further developed and formalized in the coming months, plus EU accession together, provide a pretty good interim solution until the question of territorial control and the resolution of the war itself come into focus.

Gabuev. Before we jump to Sofia, a question here. How sustainable is that framework or initial framework, given the political dynamics of political cycles in the US? A lot of concern you hear from Ukrainian friends and behind closed doors from Europeans as well (since we are based in Berlin, we hear that a lot). Should there be another president in the White House in 2025, if that's Donald Trump, who is known to be a NATO skeptic, do we have the bandwidth to support Ukraine? To revive the military industrial base that needs to be revived inside NATO to do everything, that Ukraine wants to get. To help the long-term revival of the Ukrainian military-industrial complex. And if there is this gap, what are the ways to overcome this? Pass Congress bill or what are the practical solutions, Eric?

Ciaramella. I would make two points.

The first one is that this framework provides an initial take and road map towards getting to a legal codification. Hopefully, in the next few months we'll see intensive diplomatic work to flesh out the details of a memorandum of understanding and additional specific US commitments to Ukraine, that, hopefully, the Biden administration can take to Congress and ask for some codification, which, I believe, there's bipartisan support for in both houses. Hopefully, the nature of our commitments once negotiated with the Ukrainian government can be legally codified.

If not, if for some reason that doesn't happen and we go into a very turbulent electoral cycle, the genius of this framework is that it actually doesn't succeed or fail with a single country. Obviously, US commitments are the backbone of military support, but that has evened out over time as European countries have become more and more invested in Ukraine. The fact that this doesn't depend on some consensus that a single country could back out of it, and the whole thing collapses. It means that countries like Germany, the UK, France, and Poland can step forward and as part of this framework, provide substantial long-term commitments to Ukraine. And you already see this happening with some of the more forward-leaning statements that President Macron has made in terms of providing long-range weapons, following on the UK example which even the United States hasn't done yet. German arms manufacturers are actually going into Ukraine, you have Rheinmetall signing agreements with Ukroboronprom to start up facilities inside Ukraine that could repair and eventually produce these armored vehicles. 

That's significant, this kind of stuff would not have happened prior to February 2022. There was a lot of, I believe, condescension in Western security discussions about the Ukrainian defense industry and all of that. Sure, it does need reforms, and there are practical issues related to the fact that Ukrainian territory is still under threat of missile attacks. But the fact that you have a major German arms manufacturer saying, “We're willing to take this risk,” presumably they're going to go in and build these factories with also their own air defense capabilities and all of that. But they're willing to take that risk and form these strategic partnerships with Ukrainian firms. To me, that signals a much longer-term commitment to Ukraine's ability to defend itself and sustain its force in the future.

Gabuev. Sophia, do you see this long-term commitment in Europe? And what about the European Union process? How impactful do you see that? Because talking to people in Brussels and also here, in various European capitals, you hear a lot of skepticism or at least people would acknowledge that “yes, the process should start, but we shouldn't expect that will be a swift and speedy one.” Accession of various countries which are far better prepared, where the legal system is far better synchronized with what the European Union requirements have taken years. In the case of Ukraine, that will be a very lengthy process and we should set the expectation bar for ourselves, but also for Ukrainians in a place that's realistic, rather than going to happen in a year or two or immediately, once the war is over.

Besch. You sound like a German, Sasha!

Look, let me just briefly respond to both of these points. One is, how sustainable are these commitments? I broadly agree with Eric. I think we got the best deal, the best conditions that we could have asked for in the past few days, and I'm hopeful that this is going to encourage a sustainable commitment. At the same time, there are no guarantees here. I think it is important to say that.

I agree with Eric. It's not just done to the US, but there are also some questionable sentiments in European countries. We've had Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense minister who said that the UK is not an Amazon delivery service for weapons to Ukraine, clearly speaking to a domestic audience that is showing signs of doubt. I think it's a really uncomfortable sentiment. This expectation of gratitude from Ukraine is because I don't think that we can actually separate Ukrainian security from European security, but that is just for the record. 

Right now the public is in favor of continued support. To be frank, it really depends on domestic economic situations. And where that is going, where our energy price is going, where is inflation going? That's why the defense industrial production capacity is so crucial. That's why planning security is so important for defense industries to ramp up their production. Because of the specificities of the defense market, they're not going to do that if they don't have that plan and security. 

And then we have to look at defense spending. Just really briefly. Obviously, Europeans have made huge strides here since the beginning of the invasion. We still only have six European Members that meet NATO's target of spending 2% on defense. Nevertheless, we had this agreement on 2% becoming a floor rather than a ceiling in Vilnius, which I think is a discussion that largely ignores the reality. The situation that… it's not going to be easy to maintain spending in real terms if high inflation persists. It's not going to necessarily be easy to sustain the threat perception that is currently there. There are question marks over this, not just in the US but also in Europe. That said, I think we're on the right path toward securing sustainable commitments. 

Just briefly on the EU question. Sasha, you did a great job outlining why this is not going to be easy. In fact, it's going to be hard. I think, over the past few months I've been in several rooms where you had Europeans on the one side of the table pressing at the US on membership of Ukraine and NATO, and the US on the other side of the table telling Europeans that Ukraine should become a member of the EU sooner rather than later. Both sides tell each other, “Well, it's impossible.” 

I think we are at a point where… I want to be optimistic [about] EU membership. Because I think this is a real opportunity for the EU to become much more strategic, and much more geopolitical in the way that it approaches these accession processes of super-important countries like Ukraine. In the past, these processes have been at the same time incredibly political and incredibly bureaucratic, and we've often left accession candidates hanging out to dry. I don't think we can afford to do that with Ukraine. I think this is an incentive for the EU to reform its internal processes in order to become more lenient and more effective and let Ukraine in sooner rather than later. And I'm hopeful. 

I think this is something that all of us as analysts and as officials and as politicians need to focus on right now. Right now that we can maybe stop talking about the phrasing of NATO communiques and we can start talking about what is actually necessary to accelerate those accession processes. So, we've got to work that out.

Gabuev. These are perfect concluding boards, Sofia. I think that focus on something that's really practical for the country that's under horrible attack for more than 500 days, bravely defending itself with a lot of help, but also with the look beyond the fight, whenever it will end, that it's also along the tough way ahead for Ukraine to be repaired, rebuilt. Not only physically, but also in terms of institutions, making sure that security safeguarded, prosperity is safeguarded within the European family, is a mounting challenge for everybody.

I thank you very much, Sophia Besch and Eric Ciaramella and I hope to see you in the future episodes.

Besch. Thank you!

Ciaramella. Thank you, Sasha!

  • Sophia Besch
  • Eric Ciaramella
  • Alexander Gabuev