Despite excitable speculation before the Vilnius summit, there was never a serious prospect that Ukraine could join NATO while it is at war – as Kyiv has acknowledged. Membership cannot be granted retrospectively amid a conflict. Article 5, which sets out the principle of collective defense – an attack on one is treated as an attack on all – works as a deterrent, not as a do-over.
Nor was there much prospect of this meeting even agreeing to a concrete timetable for membership afterwards. The alliance operates by consensus, but the U.S. calls the tune because it pays two-thirds of the piper’s wages. It has made clear repeatedly that it regards membership for Ukraine as a distant prospect.
There are significant disagreements over how best to guarantee Ukraine’s security in future, while reducing the risk of Russian escalation now. Nonetheless, NATO looks stronger and more united than it has for years – while Russia is still regrouping after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny. Four years ago, Emmanuel Macron said that the alliance was “brain dead”. More recently, he acknowledged that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had revived it.
The renewed sense of purpose is reaffirmed in the outcome of this summit: an expanded alliance, with Sweden on course to join Finland as a new member after Turkey and Hungary dropped objections; agreement on much more detailed military plans; and increased commitments to Ukraine, albeit far short of its aspirations. With its counteroffensive yet to make significant progress, Kyiv must continue to press for more, faster, in both diplomatic and military terms. But it treads a difficult path. Both the British defense secretary, Ben Wallace, and the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, reminded Ukraine of the need for “gratitude” on Wednesday, July 12.
NATO has been strengthened more by necessity than choice. Europe’s challenges go far beyond Russia. The others were spelt out by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, in a speech last autumn that outlined how longstanding certainties had been upended: “You – the United States – take care of our security. You – China and Russia – provided the basis of our prosperity. This is a world that is no longer there,” he warned. There is an internal threat, too: “Inside our countries … the radical right is increasing.”
The greatest challenge is the prospect of another term for Donald Trump, who as president discussed withdrawal from NATO. Could pressure on Congress and the Pentagon see off such a threat in future? Perhaps. If not, European security minus the U.S. would be not only immensely militarily challenging, but would require extensive recalibration. Without Washington setting the line, decision-making might prove more difficult.
Even without a second Trump presidency, the U.S. pivot back to Europe may not survive its growing tensions with China. While spending across the European continent has risen markedly in recent years, there are questions about whether shifting rhetoric has been fully matched by reality, especially in Germany’s case. Living up to promises would both encourage the U.S. to remain engaged, and ready Europe for a world where Washington does not. The need to “keep the Americans in” is not a new problem – it was a key part of the founding principle of NATO, as described (unofficially) by its first secretary-general. But it has rarely been more challenging.