July 7, 2023

IntelBrief: High Stakes for Upcoming NATO Summit

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The stakes are high heading into next week’s annual NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, with Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and the future of Sweden’s membership in the alliance on the docket.
  • Sweden has already been attending NATO meetings and discussing force planning, security cooperation, interoperability, and other operational matters.
  • Disinformation from the Kremlin on issues such as immigration, Islamophobia, and far-right conspiracy theories have sought to derail Finland and Sweden’s NATO bids.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been vocal about Ukraine’s future membership in NATO, a controversial topic in many Western capitals.

The stakes are high heading into next week’s annual NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, with a range of issues on the docket, including Russia’s ongoing war of aggression in Ukraine, military readiness, and the future of Sweden’s membership in the alliance. Each of NATO’s 31 member states must agree to admit a new member, and with Sweden’s prospective membership, there are currently two outstanding holdouts: Hungary and Türkiye. Budapest has signaled that it is willing to back Sweden once Türkiye drops any objections. Senior officials from Sweden and Türkiye are meeting to discuss Ankara’s remaining issues. Some have accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of witholding consent to Stockholm’s NATO membership to extract concessions from current members, including the United States. The delay has been a source of frustration, as NATO countries are attempting to maintain cohesion in their efforts to support Ukraine a year and a half after Russia’s re-invasion in February 2022. Resources, posture, and planning will be a core component of the summit.

Sweden has already been attending NATO meetings and engaging in discussions about force planning, security cooperation, and interoperability, among other operational matters. Sweden would be a strong addition to the alliance and bring military and intelligence capabilities that would greatly enhance NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently stated: “The time is now to welcome Sweden as a full member of NATO.” Earlier this week, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C. to discuss Sweden’s plans to join NATO. Finland formally joined NATO in April 2023 and Sweden, which had a long-held policy of military neutrality prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, is hoping to follow suit.

Stockholm has already taken several important steps to assuage Türkiye’s demands, amending the Constitution to make it easier to pass more stringent counterterrorism laws by limiting freedom of association with alleged terrorist groups. On July 6, a Swedish court found a Turkish citizen guilty of terrorism financing for fundraising for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK. The ruling marked the first time that Sweden had sentenced someone for terrorist financing related to the PKK. Some analysts believe a quid pro quo could help solidify Sweden’s accession if, in return for NATO membership for Sweden, the U.S. agrees to sell Türkiye $20 billion worth of F-16 fighter jets. Ankara was booted from NATO’s F-35 stealth jet fighter program after it purchased S-400 air defense systems from Russia in late 2020. The question of to send F-16s to Türkiye in exchange for Sweden’s NATO membership is currently the subject of much debate in the U.S. Congress.

Geopolitics serves to further complicate Turkey’s relationship with European and other Western countries. Last week, a Quran burning at a mosque by an Iraqi Christian immigrant in Stockholm caused an international uproar, further fueling Erdogan’s grievances. A similar incident in April 2022 took place in another Swedish city, sparking with major demonstrations in Iran and Bangladesh as well as riots in Sweden. While some believe the 2022 burning could have been orchestrated by foreign actors, most notably Russia, the act itself was carried out by a Swedish far-right political party known as Stram Kurs. Particularly in the lead-up to his re-election campaign, Erdogan channeled anger over Islamophobia to his advantage, making it a rallying cry in some of his campaign speeches. Moscow has ties to far-right groups throughout Europe and has a strong interest in preventing further NATO expansion towards its western borders. The Kremlin has pushed disinformation narratives surrounding issues such as immigration, Islamophobia, and far-right conspiracy theories in an attempt to derail NATO bids from Finland and Sweden.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been vocal about Ukraine’s future membership in NATO, a topic that remains controversial in many Western capitals. And while it is unclear how much progress Kyiv will make in pushing that conversation, what is certain is that the summit will focus on the Ukrainian counteroffensive and other battlefield developments, as well as ways to exploit the recent chaos surrounding the Wagner Group’s aborted mutiny. Russian missiles pounded Lviv in western Ukraine this week, while Zelensky accused Russian forces of placing mines around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, suggesting that Ukraine possessed intelligence indicating that Moscow may seek to stage some kind of false flag attack that could lead to a catastrophic incident at the plant. Representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said they had not yet seen evidence of the mining, but needed greater access to the site to confirm whether this was true. There were also recent reports that backchannel diplomacy was underway between delegates from the United States and high-ranking individuals within the Russian government. Ukraine’s counteroffensive is designed to retake maximum territory from Russia and push the Kremlin into a position where it will feel compelled to negotiate. One major flashpoint will be Crimea, and whether retaking the peninsula is a part of Ukraine’s strategy on the battlefield, or around the negotiating table.