How NATO can prove its enduring relevance at the Washington summit

In a dangerous world, NATO’s role has never been more important. Yet, to remain relevant, the Alliance needs to adapt to today’s security challenges at greater scale and speed. After Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it took three years for NATO to deploy the enhanced Forward Presence battalions in Central and Eastern Europe. Now, two-and-a-half years into Russia’s full-scale invasion, the allies have neither defined Ukraine’s path to NATO membership nor delivered what Ukraine needs to win. This “too little, too late” approach from NATO neglects the security interests of member states and empowers the Alliance’s adversaries.

At the latest NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Prague, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised Ukraine a “bridge” to NATO. For a start, US President Joe Biden at the Group of Seven (G7) meeting in Italy delivered a three-pronged blow to Moscow­—a new package of sanctions targeting Russia’s financial sector, a fifty billion dollar loan to Ukraine from several nations backed by payments from Russia’s immobilized assets, and a new bilateral US-Ukraine security pact to ensure long-term aid.

Additionally, NATO’s new report on defense spending shows that twenty-three out of thirty-two allies are on pace to meet the 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) benchmark for defense spending this year. As Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted, twenty-three allies is “more than twice as many as four years ago and demonstrates that European allies and Canada are really stepping up and taking their share of the common responsibility to protect all of us in the NATO alliance.”

These are positive steps, but they do not solve the lack of speed and scale that plagues NATO’s decision making. NATO should tackle three big sets of deliverables at the Washington summit that began today. At the summit, the Alliance should invite Ukraine to start accession talks, augment military support to Kyiv, and substantially elevate member states’ defense budgets to reach a collective 3 percent of GDP, with an allocation of 0.25 percent of GDP to Ukraine’s military assistance. Only then will NATO be operating at the appropriate speed and scale to address the Alliance’s security challenges and deter further threats from its adversaries.

First, NATO must provide Ukraine with a credible path to membership. Ukraine’s long-term security is impossible without membership in the world’s most powerful military alliance, while Europe’s security cannot be guaranteed without Ukraine in NATO. Statements from leaders of NATO member states that they will do “whatever it takes” to support Kyiv are no longer sufficient—real steps to absorb Ukraine into the NATO family are needed.

I had a chance to serve as a member of the International Task Force (ITF) on Ukraine’s Security and Euro-Atlantic Integration, co-chaired by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak. The ITF report released in May has proposed a clear path for Ukraine’s membership in NATO, which should start with NATO inviting Ukraine to start accession talks at the Washington summit this week. To empower the process, the NATO-Ukraine Council should define specific conditions for membership. The ITF also recommends setting a timeline for Ukrainian membership of no later than July 2028, provided specific conditions are met.

Second, NATO must commit to augmenting Ukraine’s warfighting capabilities to tip the balance on the battlefield. At ITF, we recommended five concrete initiatives on which NATO member states can agree at the Washington summit: 

  1. Lift all the caveats on the weapons delivered by allies to Ukraine;
  2. Create an extended air defense shield in western Ukraine;
  3. Deploy a freedom of navigation and demining mission in the Black Sea;
  4. Ramp up the training of Ukrainian forces, including inside Ukraine;
  5. Provide the so-called “fix forward” logistics support on the ground in Ukraine rather than transporting it back abroad, which wastes time and money.

The members of the ITF believe that “[t]aken together, these measures would help Ukraine deny Russia the possibility to escalate its conventional war. They would also constitute an enhanced commitment to Ukraine’s security in the interim period between an invitation and full membership.”  

Third, NATO allies must increase military spending. To address the perennial resource question, the Alliance should set an ambitious multiyear trajectory for members’ defense budgets, committing every ally to spend 0.25 percent of their GDP on military assistance to Ukraine. When NATO defense ministers first proposed the 2 percent of GDP defense spending guideline in 2006, the target was not enforceable, and many allies did not take it seriously. Many NATO members failed to meet this target even after the Wales summit in 2014, where NATO leaders signed the Defense Investment Pledge. At the Vilnius summit in 2023, 2 percent of GDP became a “floor” rather than a goalpost. That year, total NATO defense spending, which stood at $1.3 trillion, accounted for around 2.5 percent of NATO’s collective GDP, thanks in large part to the United States’ massive defense expenditure. To reach a 3 percent of GDP spending target for NATO, the allies in 2023 would have been short $234 billion. In other words, an additional 18 percent increase in defense spending would have been required on top of the already steep 18 percent growth last year. 

Adequate increases in spending will take time. At the Washington summit, NATO allies should commit to a multiyear plan of uninterrupted defense budget growth with an aim for all allies, but especially European countries and Canada, to contribute enough to breach the 3 percent spending threshold for the Alliance’s collective defense. 

At the same time, allies should agree to allocate 0.25 percent of their GDP to military support for Ukraine, which would amount to around $125 billion per year. Such an agreement could directly institutionalize NATO’s security assistance and training to Ukraine. The planned NATO command in Wiesbaden, Germany, which will coordinate training and aid to Ukraine and is set to include more than seven hundred personnel, is an important preparatory step for Ukraine’s eventual membership in the Alliance. In addition, the Atlantic Council’s Ian Brzezinski is right to recommend that such arrangements that allow Ukrainian personnel to embed in NATO structures should be accompanied by a formal acknowledgment that Ukraine is ready to join the Alliance.

This week in Washington is an important test for the Alliance. Can NATO operate at the speed and scale of relevance? Progress on paving the way to Ukraine’s NATO membership, augmenting Ukraine’s warfighting capabilities, and unambiguously elevating defense budgets would serve as proof of the Alliance’s continued relevance in a time of uncertainty.

Giedrimas Jeglinskas is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a member of the International Task Force on Ukraine’s Security and Euro-Atlantic Integration. Previously, he served as NATO’s assistant secretary general for executive management and as Lithuania’s deputy defense minister.

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Image: A venue ahead of the NATO Summit in Washington DC, United States on July 9, 2024. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto)