NATO Summit: Strong on Russia but a net disappointment to Eastern Allies and Partners

Official Portrait of NATO Allies at the NATO Summit in Brussels, June 14, 2021 (Source: nato.int)

Official Portrait of NATO Allies at the NATO Summit in Brussels, June 14, 2021 (Source: nato.int) 

International

Article by: Vladimir Socor, The Jamestown Foundation
Edited by: A. N.

The heads of state and government of the North Atlantic Organization’s (NATO) 30 member countries held a summit at the Alliance’s Brussels headquarters on June 14. NATO summits usually take two days. This year’s vast agenda—reflected in an unusually long communiqué—clearly would have needed the accustomed two days for deliberation.

United States President Joseph Biden’s first-time participation concentrated much of the attention at this NATO summit. Biden was the only participating head of state to hold a press conference at the summit’s conclusion, during which he adopted a notably cautious tone vis-à-vis Russia. He went on to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin two days later in Geneva (June 16), at Biden’s solicitation. As part of its preparations for that meeting (see EDM, June 14), the White House made several concessions to Russia ahead of the NATO and Biden-Putin summits. The concessions include (inter alia) greenlighting Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and retreating from the accustomed US support to Ukraine-NATO and Georgia-NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) (see below), affecting a number of allied and partner countries along the Alliance’s eastern “flank” (Baltic to Black Sea). The term “flank,” hitherto the norm at NATO—and itself a euphemism for the eastern frontline, which is how the countries concerned see it—has now been replaced by the term “eastern part of the alliance” in this summit’s communiqué.

Biden’s overtures to Russia notwithstanding, the NATO summit’s communiqué is more strongly worded than ever in addressing the threats from Russia (Nato.int, June 14).

The current “threats to Euro-Atlantic security” are listed in this order (Communiqué, paragraph 3):

  • Russia,
  • terrorism,
  • “instability beyond our borders contributing to irregular migration,”
  • China,
  • “cyber and other hybrid and asymmetric threats including disinformation,”
  • threats from the space domain, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and
  • the erosion of arms control.

Russia not only tops the list but is also associated with most of the other threats down the list.

Cataloguing Russia’s dangerous advances in military modernization and its repertoire of hybrid tactics, the communiqué unusually acknowledges Russia’s potential to achieve “intimidation” and “coercion” vis-à-vis NATO and its member countries (paras. 11–13). Furthermore, NATO openly declares its mistrust in Russia’s word: “Russia continues to breach the values, principles, trust, and commitments outlined in the agreed documents that underpin the NATO-Russia relationship” (para. 9). NATO remains conditionally open to dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council, in which case “the conflict in [sic] and around Ukraine is the first topic on our agenda” (para. 15).

NATO is prepared to broaden the applicability of its Article 5 collective defense clause to a range of nonmilitary or below-the-threshold conflict scenarios.

The Alliance could decide to assist a member country targeted by hybrid warfare or a cyber warfare campaign, up to invoking Article 5 by decision of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) on a case-by-case basis (paras. 31, 32). Such a decision would, however, notoriously require instant unanimity among the NAC’s 30 countries.

In a closely related context, NATO is moving from the definition of resilience as a national responsibility toward a more integrated approach to resilience. The change apparently involves Alliance-wide procedures to guide nationally developed resilience plans. This summit has agreed on a “Strengthened Resilience Commitment,” based on a set of NATO Baseline Requirements for national resilience (paras. 6 and 30). NATO member countries on the eastern frontline abutting on Russia are undoubtedly more exposed than other allies to those types of hybrid and cyber attacks testing their resilience.

The Biden administration’s recent go-ahead to Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project inevitably affected this summit’s atmosphere.

Although this is not technically a NATO issue, the White House’s decision runs counter to the interests and the national strategies of a number of loyal allies in Central-Eastern Europe as well as partner Ukraine (see EDM, June 10). Conversely, it is a bonanza to Germany, a derelict country on defense spending and preparedness. As an aggravating circumstance, the White House finalized its Nord Stream concession with Russia in mind. It changed its tune at the point in time when Biden solicited a meeting with Putin (April 13) and announced its decision officially on the same day when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Reykjavik to prepare the Biden-Putin summit (see EDM, May 24, 27, June 1).

The White House made its decision unilaterally, contrary to its “multilateralism” dogma, and notwithstanding its esteem for the European Union, which actually opposed Nord Stream 2 but lost out to the German-Russian tandem.

NATO’s position on energy security, as per the Summit’s communiqué, calls for a “diversification of routes and suppliers […] to ensure that the members of the Alliance are not vulnerable to political or coercive manipulation of energy” (para. 59). This is, in a nutshell, the European Union’s position and the grounds on which the EU had opposed the Nord Stream expansion project. Instead of diversification, Nord Stream 2 concentrates both the supply and the transit in Russian hands.

Four setbacks to Western credibility in Ukraine (Part 1)

NATO’s rotational presence with three reinforced battalions in the three Baltic States is known to be adequate merely for a tripwire but not for deterrence.

This summit has again fallen short of rectifying the situation.

“We continue to improve our enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland […] by ensuring the ability of the four combat-ready battlegroups to operate with national defense forces” (para. 37). This suggests no increase in the rotational presence in the Baltic States.

Poland’s situation is different, relying as it does on US forces on rotational presence under bilateral US-Polish arrangements (see EDM, December 9, 2020). Similarly, Romania hosts US ground and air force units under bilateral, not NATO arrangements. NATO’s “tailored forward presence” in Romania consists mainly of headquarters. According to the Alliance communiqué, regarding the tailored forward presence, “we remain committed to its full implementation” (para. 34)—an oblique acknowledgement that the program, for all its modesty, remains incompletely realized.

NATO’s next summit will be held in 2022, in Spain, and will probably focus on the Alliance’s southern neighborhood.

The summit after that (year unspecified) will be held in Lithuania, a good chance for the Baltic States and perhaps Poland to be allocated more NATO troops on their territories.

Romania has long campaigned for NATO “coherence,” i.e. bringing the Baltic region and the Black Sea region into balance in terms of security, viewing NATO’s eastern “flank” as one whole. NATO has yet to achieve such coherence in its “eastern part.”

The quasi-annual charade surrounding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Membership Action Plans (NATO MAP) for Ukraine and Georgia took a different form at the Alliance’s June 14 summit in Brussels.

The Joseph Biden administration has retreated from the United States’ accustomed support for a NATO-Ukraine MAP.

While Ukraine remains highly motivated in this respect, the Georgian government now looks demotivated and stopped seeking a MAP.

The summit routinely reaffirmed the Alliance’s Open Door Policy, with the right of all states to seek their own security arrangements, and no third party but only NATO having a say (Nato.int, June 14, Brussels Summit Communiqué, paragraph 66). In practice, a group of Western European countries have, since 2008, blocked not membership but even a fairly long path toward possible membership for Ukraine and Georgia. That path is MAP and it can last up to a decade.

The nay-saying countries have blocked it for fear of irritating Russia, thereby in practice giving Russia an indirect, de facto say on a NATO policy matter.

NATO unexpectedly decided in early May to scrap the session of the NATO-Ukraine commission that was to be held on the sidelines of the Brussels Summit. The timing of this decision also coincided with the inflection moment at which the Biden White House decided to hold its summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled clearly, while in Kyiv on May 6, that the United States would, this time, not support a MAP for Ukraine (see EDM, May 6, 10). So did President Biden by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Whitehouse.gov, Ukrinform, June 4).

Zelenskyy and his close circle apparently did not comprehend those signals. Instead they launched a last-moment, frantic, awkward public relations campaign for approval of a MAP at the summit.

Their effort only made things worse for Kyiv (see EDM, May 27, June 1).

The summit duly checked the box for Georgia and Ukraine in one shot, using identical language for both countries in their respective compartments: “We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that [Georgia/Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance with the MAP as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision… We stand firm in our support for [Georgia’s/Ukraine’s] right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference” (paras. 68, 69).

Furthermore, the two countries “should make full use” of the Georgia-NATO Commission/Ukraine-NATO Commission, and their respective Annual National Plans, which—in NATO’s majority view—contain all tools (instruments) to advance their membership aspirations (paras. 68, 69).

That wording about MAP is carried over ad litteram from previous summits. It reflects the position that a MAP is a prerequisite for a country’s future membership to come under NATO’s consideration. At the same time, the nay-sayer countries refuse to authorize a MAP. Thus, the aspirant country is required to go through the MAP process, but the MAP process will not be approved for lack of consensus.

With this, MAP has been turned into a stumbling block instead of an avenue to membership.

The wording about Ukraine and Georgia having all necessary tools (instruments) implies that they do not need a MAP, or even that they should fall silent about MAP. In practice, however, MAP is a higher-grade instrument than those cited, and it is a proven fact that the road to membership passed through a MAP in every case since the program’s initiation in April 1999 (Nato.int, accessed June 17).

At his post-summit press conference, President Biden said that Ukraine’s MAP “depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. The fact is they have to meet other criteria to get into the Action Plan” (Whitehouse.gov, June 14).

Four setbacks to Western credibility in Ukraine (Part 2)

Biden’s construction seems to insert a new hurdle to MAP. Until now, corruption disqualified Ukraine from membership. Now, corruption apparently disqualifies Ukraine even from MAP, the only real program of preparation for membership. MAP includes civilian dimensions, including anti-corruption actions. And the membership prospect inherent in MAP provides political motivation for the aspirant country to perform.

Setting new pre-conditions to MAP would deprive Ukraine of a tool and motivation to tackle corruption seriously.

Georgia’s then-president Mikheil Saakashvili had completely cleaned Georgia of corruption by 2008; and his reforms were an inspiration to many countries, including certain NATO member countries. Regardless, Georgia was and remains excluded from MAP.

Georgia seems for the first time to be losing motivation. The government informally but de facto controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili did not seek a MAP ahead of this summit. President Salome Zourabichvili (a ceremonial figure) visited NATO Headquarters in April, and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili gave a speech at the Brussels Forum just before the NATO summit. Neither of them raised the issues of Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations, MAP, or military exercises on Georgian soil. Instead, they spoke about other matters (Civil.ge, April 22, June 14). On Georgia’s civil society side, usually active and vocal, there was no significant advocacy or publication campaign ahead of NATO’s summit this year.

That may not be surprising after 13 years of NATO officially recognizing Georgia’s (as well as Ukraine‘s) membership aspirations but, nevertheless, blocking their MAPs for lack of consensus within the Alliance. The latter needs to re-motivate Georgia and avoid a spread of demotivation to Ukraine.

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Edited by: A. N.

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