The 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, was poised to be a pivotal gathering focused on myriad issues impacting both the transatlantic and global communities. From the ongoing war in Ukraine, security guarantees for Kyiv, and the country’s hopes for NATO accession to defense spending among member states, Sweden’s held-up membership bid, and an increasing focus on China and the Asia-Pacific region, the Summit covered an extraordinarily wide range of issues. Ultimately, Allies departed Vilnius having made concrete headway in some areas as well as limited and discouraging progress in others. Here are four key takeaways from the Summit:

“The Future of Ukraine is in NATO” – But when and under which conditions?

The question of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, along with further security guarantees, remained a central focus of the Alliance in Vilnius. NATO leaders first expressed their intention that Ukraine and Georgia eventually join the bloc at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. At that time, Germany and France voiced strong opposition to giving the two countries a more concrete pathway in the form of a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) over fears of unduly antagonizing Russia.

As history has shown, this strategy failed spectacularly. Just months after Bucharest, Georgia suffered a Russian invasion, while Ukraine suffered the same fate in 2014 (with the Russian annexation of Crimea along with a Russian-backed incursion in Donbas) and has been engaged in a full-scale land war with Russia since 2022.

The war in Ukraine reinvigorated the push for NATO to provide a clear pathway for Kyiv’s ambitions. Still, reluctance among member states remains. Specifically, of paramount concern is the inclusion of a member state embroiled in an ongoing armed conflict and the resulting challenges related to the application of NATO’s collective defense arrangements under Article 5.

Shortly before the Summit commenced, U.S. President Joe Biden stated Ukraine was not yet ready for NATO membership, cooling expectations for a swift accession process. This view was largely echoed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz but not as much by leaders of central and eastern European member states. Ultimately, the 2023 NATO Communiquè offered some progress on the issue but also further uncertainty.

Allied leaders announced the creation of a NATO-Ukraine Council, which met for the first time on the second day of the Vilnius Summit. The body is meant to provide an official forum for Kyiv to hold meetings with Allies and further deepen Ukrainian integration into the Alliance. NATO also recognized the Ukrainian military’s interoperability among Allies as well as Kyiv’s increasing political integration within the bloc. The Communiquè thus announced that Ukraine had progressed beyond the need for a MAP, similar to the cases of Finland and Sweden last year.

However, one particular line in the Communiquè dampened hopes for any expedited timelines or clear pathways for Kyiv’s accession. Specifically, NATO leaders stated they would be in “a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” This non-committal language was rebuked within many circles, most notably by attending Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called it “absurd.”

In reality, NATO’s position on the matter is intentionally murky. On the one hand, NATO will almost certainly be unable to admit Ukraine while it is engaged in a war with Russia. Nevertheless, NATO’s noncommittal language sends the same message to the Putin regime – as long as the conflict continues, Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO.

For NATO, Ukraine’s pathway into the Alliance has one critical step, ending the war. The best approach to accomplish this step, in its collective view, is for individual member states to provide Ukraine with the various forms of aid it requires to end the war as soon as possible.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary General of NATO and author of the Kyiv Security Compact, stated, “The best path of admitting Ukraine to NATO focuses on security guarantees in the short-term.” The closing act of the Vilnius Summit proved key in this regard. While NATO as an organization has not provided security guarantees, the G7 announced a joint framework for providing such long-term support on a bilateral basis.

The framework, highly praised by President Zelenksyy, which expresses the G7s intention to provide military, economic, technical, and financial support, is still subject to negotiations between foreign governments and respective democratic bodies. Thus, these commitments still require concrete follow-through from participating member states to help Ukraine bring an end to the conflict.

Re-affirming commitments on defense expenditures and military capabilities – an ongoing credibility gap?

The Summit addressed the topic of defense expenditures, noting that since the original 2014 pledge to commit a minimum of 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defense and at least 20% of defense budgets to investment in major military equipment, many Allies have made remarkable progress.

However, the Summit Communiquè also notes that more spending is urgently needed to meet military commitments and adequately equip mainly European Armies. Therefore, in many cases, spending beyond 2% will be required “to sustainably meet our commitments as NATO allies, including to fulfill longstanding major equipment requirements and the NATO Capability Targets, to resource NATO’s new defence plans and force model, as well as to contribute to NATO operations, missions and activities.”

Given that NATO Allies are facing the largest land war since the Second World War in their immediate neighborhood, the Alliance’s continued urging of its members to spend more on defense seems almost quaint. While NATO’s Eastern European members (particularly Poland and the Baltic States) have reached this target, many Western European member states have yet to fulfill their pledges made nine years ago at the Wales Summit.

Visit the RANGE forecasting platform, where the following question related to the 2% defense spending debate is open:

How many NATO member states will meet the 2% defense spending target by December 31, 2023?

Allies also stressed the need for a strong and capable defense industry, as the current state of ammunition stockpiles seems almost more important for military readiness than general commitments on overall spending. This means that NATO’s military readiness will likely continue to hinge on the capabilities provided by the United States.

Breakthrough on Swedish accession

Of all breakthroughs from the two-day Summit, NATO’s announcement of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for Swedish accession to the Alliance was pivotal. Hungary, too, had blocked Sweden’s NATO accession, but Prime Minister Orban announced his intention to support the bid to Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in late June. That position was confirmed by Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto immediately following the Vilnius Summit.

Erdogan, whose initial blocking of Finnish accession lasted until March 2023, had held up Swedish accession for nearly a year due to Sweden’s ostensible harboring of Kurdish dissidents whom Turkey classifies as “terrorists.” In his shift, Erdogan linked Turkish approval to renewed discussions on Turkey’s EU accession process, which the European Parliament had voted to suspend in 2019. Furthermore, U.S. approval of the transfer of F-16 fighter jets also undoubtedly played a role in Erdogan’s decision.

Still, subsequent to NATO’s announcement in Vilnius, Erdogan stated that his initial approval would be subject to Sweden’s efforts to mitigate Turkey’s security concerns. The ratification of Swedish membership would furthermore have to take its course in the Turkish Parliament, which will not address the matter until October.

The news of Turkey and Hungary’s change of heart on Swedish accession is a welcome development – over a year in the making. Still, Erdogan and Orban’s opposition highlights a long-term challenge for the Alliance. While NATO’s unanimous decision-making has its strengths, this specific case shows its potential pitfalls. It further emboldens member states to proverbially hold the Alliance hostage in exchange for national interests and domestic political support.

Enhanced cooperation with partners in the Asia-Pacific and a clear warning to China

While the Allies did not agree to open a NATO Liaison Office in Japan – partly due to France’s resistance – the presence of leaders from Asia and Oceania at the Summit (namely Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand) showed the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region. NATO also agreed to cooperate with Japan on arms control, new technologies, space, supply chains, resilience, and innovation.

Furthermore, China’s challenge to the Alliance’s interests, security, and values was addressed with unprecedented clarity. The Summit Communiquè directly addresses China stating: “The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security.

The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.”

Even though NATO expressed its openness to engage in constructive dialogue with China, it pulled no punches in warning the country that it is committed to enhancing its resilience and preparedness and protecting against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance. Additionally, it calls on China to call on Russia to stop its war of aggression against Ukraine and to abstain from supporting Russia’s war effort in any way.


In Vilnius, the Alliance managed to address important geopolitical and security challenges in a constructive, albeit incremental, way. The decision on Sweden’s accession to NATO can be seen as an unmitigated success. The strong joint language on China and the enhanced cooperation with Asia-Pacific Partners underlines that NATO Allies are united in addressing threats to their interests and values wherever they occur.

The re-enforcement of the 2% pledge was expected, but it remains to be seen how seriously especially Western European allies will take this. They have failed before. In particular, the German domestic debate points towards the country missing the 2% goal again this year and struggling to fullfil it in the medium term.

The elephant in the room was and remains the security guarantees and membership perspective for Ukraine. The Allies unanimously agreed that Ukraine’s future lies in NATO and that the country’s security is central to NATO interests, backing this with the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council and further arms deliveries. However, a concrete statement on the timing and conditions of Ukraine’s entry into NATO remains vague and weak.

Does it reassure the Ukrainians that NATO will ultimately not allow their country to be absorbed into Russia? Does it convey to Putin that the outcome of his war in Ukraine can only be defeat? No, it does not. To a degree, this was expected due to the fundamental – and wise – unwillingness of NATO to become a party to the conflict.

However, it would also have been a mistake to give assurances that aren’t fully backed up by all Allies. Ukraine has suffered one debacle with the Budapest Memorandum – it can’t afford another. Allies tried to address this shortcoming through the mechanism of bilateral security guarantees by G7 members, who are also NATO Members.

It remains to be seen how this is interpreted in Kyiv, and in Moscow. Ultimately, NATO managed to underscore its continued unity, efficacy, and relevance, but Allies need to make serious efforts to increase military support to Ukraine and defense spending at home for the Alliance to retain its credibility.

About the authors

Mark C. Fischer is a Senior Project Manager co-heading the Project Sovereign Europe at Bertelsmann Stiftung. He is an expert on transatlantic relations, EU and NATO Enlargement, European foreign and security policy, as well as development cooperation issues.

Brandon Bohrn works as a project manager for the “Europe’s Future” program at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. His work centers around U.S.-German and transatlantic relations. Previously, Brandon worked for the Bertelsmann Foundation’s transatlantic program in Washington, D.C.

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