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What are Lithuania’s goals and chances for NATO’s Vilnius Summit?

Preparations are in full swing for what will undoubtedly be the most important event for Lithuania in 2023: the NATO Summit in July. Vilnius, which will host the leaders of the world’s most powerful military bloc, has set itself ambitious goals. But security experts interviewed by New Eastern Europe’s partners LRT stress that although Lithuania is organising the summit, this does not mean that it will have more influence on the agenda.

April 14, 2023 - Justina Ilkevičiūtė LRT Mindaugas Laukagalis - Articles and Commentary

Lithuanian President Gitanas NAuseda speaking to the media at the NATO summit in Madrid in 2022. Photo: Belish / Shutterstock

Lithuania has already started to speak up about its goals for the Vilnius Summit. “The main ambition is for Ukraine to be the winner of this meeting,” said Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė at a conference in the parliament in January. Discussions are also gaining momentum in Brussels. The key objectives for the Vilnius Summit are taking shape: practical and political support for Ukraine, harder commitments to raise military spending, and maintaining as well as strengthening deterrence policy, particularly on NATO’s eastern flank. “The host country clearly has a lot of influence on the agenda. But with so many allies, it is hard to do it alone. You need a coalition of countries to influence the agenda,” Jamie Shea, who has served in the NATO Secretary General’s office for more than a decade, tells LRT.

Lithuania’s ambition – political commitments to Ukraine

In the run-up to the summit, Lithuania is seeking a commitment from the allies not only to continue to provide military support to Ukraine, but also to strengthen political cooperation, thus making it even clearer that NATO’s door is open for Kyiv. But would this mean Ukraine’s full membership or something else? “I don’t think there will be any big decisions on Ukraine’s NATO membership in Vilnius,” says Peter W. Brorsen, head of RUSI Europe, a Brussels-based defence and security thinktank. NATO’s relations with Ukraine are already on a very good track and membership commitments can be expected after the war, he believes. But there is more potential for EU membership, he notes. “I see openness on the EU side. There are discussions about Ukrainian MPs being observers in the European Parliament (EP), and there are continued visits,” Brorsen says, adding that this is where Ukraine should concentrate its efforts. 

Shea also believes that there will be no big decisions on Kyiv’s membership in Vilnius. He points out that NATO has two formats of cooperation: a country can be a full member or a partner. “Ukraine, on the other hand, has just joined the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. So something could be done to bring Ukraine into the NATO ecosphere, various centres of excellence, agencies,” says Shea, adding that NATO does not have formats such as “associate membership”. 

Hopes of resolving the long-standing strife

Shea believes the Vilnius Summit could be an ice-breaker for the long-standing conflict over the NATO-Ukraine Commission. This is a format for strengthening cooperation that was in place until 2017, when Hungary suspended regular meetings at ministerial level. According to Budapest, it is a response to an education law adopted in Ukraine that allegedly violates the rights of the country’s Hungarian minority. “I think that a good deliverable or Vilnius would be if the allies agreed with Hungary to go back to normal meetings. This would be an important symbol of a return to normality,” Shea says. It is also important to reiterate the commitments already made to provide long-term support to Ukraine’s armed forces once the war is over and to keep the “open door” for Ukraine’s eventual membership in the alliance.

Defence funding is a security issue for Lithuania

At the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, the allies set a target of raising defence spending to the target of 2 per cent of GDP within a decade, with 20 per cent of the budget going towards the purchase of new equipment. Some countries now believe that the target set during peacetime should be updated in view of a war in Europe. Several options are on the table: Lithuania is aiming for 2 per cent as an absolute minimum. However, there is some talk in the background of a more ambitious 3-per cent benchmark. “Financing defence and strengthening defence and deterrence are interlinked. If there is money, there will be more serious commitments, more technical and other means. The issue is very relevant for some countries. In other words, when, if not now, should we increase our defence budgets?” says Lithuanian Ambassador to NATO Deividas Matulionis. Shea, a former NATO official, adds that the increase in defence funding is necessary not only to help Ukraine’s military in the future, but also to replenish NATO’s war-ravaged equipment and ammunition depots and to strengthen capabilities across the alliance, including the eastern flank. “As we know, NATO’s ambition is to increase the rapid response troops from 40,000 to 300,000. Converting battalions into brigades is going to cost money as well,” Shea stressed.

Defence of the eastern flank

The 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid adopted a series of decisions that should strengthen the defence of the eastern flank. More decisions in the same direction are expected in Vilnius. “The expectation is that the decisions made in Madrid will be implemented at the Vilnius Summit. Maybe not one hundred per cent, but it is one of the most important objectives. If we want an effective deterrence and defence policy, we need to implement what was agreed in Madrid. I have some optimism that we will succeed,” said Lithuanian Ambassador to NATO Matulionis. Shea also believes that the 2023 Vilnius Summit will revolve around the defence of the eastern wing. “Implementation is important because it’s very easy to write a new communiqué, a new declaration, a new strategy. The key thing, of course, is to implement the existing ones. And I think that Vilnius will definitely be an eastern flank summit,” he says. Certain countries, including Germany and France, have yet to prove their readiness to defend NATO’s eastern flank. “I would hope that in Vilnius all of the allies that are participating in the battalions in the East will declare that they now have brigades, not just in theory, but with the headquarters, with the armour. […] That they have the logistic supplies, that they are able to constitute a brigade within seven days,” says the former long-serving NATO official.

There will also be the issue of air defence systems, he stresses, as the war in Ukraine has shown that this is a vital defence capability. RUSI Europe’s director Brorsen says it is too early to predict what specific commitments NATO will give to its eastern flank, and decisions will also depend on the battlefield situation in Ukraine. The future of Sweden and Finland’s membership will also be important. “What’s important, I think, for Lithuania is that we’re going to welcome Finland for sure into the alliance by the Vilnius summit. Finland definitely will be a member in half a year. Sweden, we are not yet sure,” says Brorsen.

Unfulfilled promises

The only problem is that, almost 10 years on, many countries have still not delivered on their 2014 commitments. Official NATO statistics show that only nine out of 30 countries have reached the 2-per cent threshold by 2022. The major European allies – France, Germany, Italy, Spain – are not among them. Countries are doing slightly better on their pledge to spend 20 per cent of defence spending on new equipment. Only five members fall short of this cimmitment: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Canada, Portugal and Slovenia, according to official NATO figures for 2022. “We still have two years to go,” says Brorsen. “Last year, with the invasion, there was a new commitment to go even further.” Germany, he notes, plans to commit an additional 100 billion euros, France has also came forward with new commitments. “So I think the big countries are making really good progress,” he tells LRT. Will countries commit to going even higher than the current 2-per cent target? “I don’t think we will see a decision in Vilnius to go above 2 per cent. But 2 per cent, I think, will be the floor,” Brorsen predicts.

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

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