July 13, 2023

IntelBrief: Was the NATO Summit in Vilnius a Success, or Did it Fall Short of Expectations?

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Sweden is poised to join NATO after Türkiye withdrew its veto threat just ahead of NATO’s annual summit this week in Vilnius, Lithuania.
  • Türkiye’s course correction came after receiving positive responses from the U.S. regarding sales of F-16s to Ankara, while Erdogan’s demand for an improved relationship with the European Union will be more cumbersome and take time.
  • Ukraine’s future NATO membership remains murky, with the alliance offering new security guarantees short of membership, with a possible future invitation if certain benchmarks were achieved over time, drawing a rebuke from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
  • As France agreed to supply Ukraine with new long-range missiles and a group of NATO members formed an F-16 training program for Ukrainian pilots, the United States faces criticism from human rights groups over its pledged cluster munitions, which are banned by over 120 countries due to civilian casualty risks.


As heads of state and high-level international officials gathered in Lithuania for NATO’s annual summit running from July 11-12, several major issues faced the alliance, including Sweden’s stalled admission, Ukraine’s long-promised, yet unfulfilled, membership, and additional military aid commitments to support the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Vilnius Summit also comes at a remarkable time for the alliance and the war in Ukraine: not only is Ukraine’s counteroffensive underway, but it also comes a mere two weeks after a major military mutiny by the Wagner Group exposed the fragility of NATO’s primary adversary, Russia. The summit’s hosting of four Asia-Pacific states – Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan – illustrated NATO’s increased wariness toward China.

In a surprising about-face on the eve of the summit, Türkiye announced that it would drop its months-long opposition to Sweden’s admission to NATO. The news broke not long after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a new condition for his approval of Sweden: Türkiye’s own addition to the EU community, though few serious observers gave this much credence. The deal was seemingly done on the back of U.S. promises to sell Ankara F-16s, although the connection has been dismissed by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Türkiye’s veto threat was Sweden’s last major barrier to ascendance. The only other holdout, Hungary, had stated it would back Sweden once Türkiye’s block was lifted. However, even prior to its formal admission, Sweden was already collaborating with NATO in certain respects, even participating in the alliance’s largest-ever air exercise in June. Yet, as a non-member, Sweden could not fully participate in the full-range of the alliance’s benefits, such as intelligence-sharing and operational planning.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, announced that the Council had invited the EU Commission and its High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to submit a report on “reenergizing” EU-Türkiye relations. While analysts are rightly doubtful that this week’s negotiations will result in Türkiye’s outright addition to the union, early reports suggest Michel is willing to make concessions regarding immigration, visa requirements for Turkish travelers, and economic links. Türkiye’s 26-year-old EU bid had been considered defunct following Erdogan’s domestic political crackdown in 2016, as he increasingly contradicted key tenets of democratic governance and human rights that predicate EU membership.

While NATO reaffirmed its 2008 commitment to integrate Ukraine, the alliance’s joint statement did not give any clear indication of when that could be expected to occur, saying only that it would happen once NATO’s membership was in agreement and “conditions are met.” The news did not sit well with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, who blasted the statement as “absurd” and suggested that his country’s membership was being withheld to provide a future bargaining chip with Russia in the event of a negotiated settlement of the war. The conditions for Ukraine’s addition to NATO will evidently no longer include fulfilling the obligations of a Membership Action Plan traditionally required of alliance prospects. In waiving this requirement, the joint statement said that Ukraine had become “increasingly interoperable and politically integrated with the Alliance.” The summit also served as a launchpad for a new NATO-Ukraine Council, which held its inaugural meeting yesterday.

In contrast, weaponry remains one area where it appears NATO can continue to deliver concretely for the Ukrainians. After initially refusing to do so over fears of escalating the conflict with Russia, French President Emmanuel Macron announced on July 11 that his country would join the United Kingdom in delivering long-range missiles to Ukraine. The United Kingdom became the first country to supply Ukraine with such missiles in May and remained the only country to do so prior to Macron’s announcement. Pressure is now building in the U.S. for the Biden administration to supply Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), which, if supplied, would provide Kyiv with critical capabilities in its counteroffensive. The summit also saw further progress on the fighter jet front, with the establishment of a training coalition designed to prepare Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s as well as a flight training center in Romania. While the coalition received the United States’ blessing to offer training, delivering the jets to Ukraine still has not received the necessary U.S. authorization.

As reluctance to deliver long-range missiles and fighter jets fades, controversy over U.S. cluster munitions shows that NATO members are still not all in complete lockstep on all military aid matters. A new weapons package announced by the United States on July 7 will provide Ukraine with a type of anti-personnel and anti-armor rocket/artillery shell which launches grenades over a wide area. Cluster bombs, however, risk civilian casualties, as undetonated grenades can remain on battlefield locations long after the fighting is over, where civilians can accidentally explode them. Over 120 countries have signed a treaty against the use of cluster munitions – including most NATO members like the United Kingdom, Germany, and France – though the United States, Ukraine, and Russia have not. In the initial days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Russia’s reported use of weapons like cluster bombs could “potentially be a war crime.”

Ukraine and the United States say the cluster munitions will allow Ukraine to clear out entrenched Russian soldiers and other Russian defensive assets amid what they claim are dwindling Ukrainian artillery munitions. Now, various U.S. officials are seeking to change the narrative around these weapons by distinguishing them from Russia’s own cluster bombs in two ways: by claiming that the U.S. munitions are more effective and by trying to establish a moral distinction between the invading and defensive forces. The former issue centers around the proportion of bombs that go undetonated after launch. U.S. officials have claimed the so-called “dud rates” of the Gulf War-era grenades being sent to Ukraine are as low as approximately two percent – compared to the 30-40 percent some have alleged of Russia’s stockpile. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor Sullivan has suggested that there is a qualitative difference in the use of cluster munitions by an invading force less interested in providing for the safety of the residents of the foreign land from which they may one day depart, and Ukraine, who is fighting for its own national survival, and will be responsible for its land long after the war is over.

While the Vilnius Summit lifted the fog around Sweden’s own pathway into NATO, Ukraine’s remains as murky as ever. During the summit, NATO issued a vague invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance at an unspecified future date, recalling U.S. President George W. Bush’s infamous promise to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance during the 2008 Bucharest Summit. By declining to enumerate a clear action plan or timeline to do so, Bush ultimately failed to provide either country with any tangible security benefits to offset the ire they consequently received from Russia. Kyiv fears a repeat of 2008, halfhearted actions that encourage Putin’s continued aggression.