COLUMN-Weeks of high-stakes politics to shape July NATO summit: Peter Apps

(Views expressed here are those of the author, columnist for Reuters)

By Peter Apps

LONDON, June 8 (Reuters) – As Lithuania prepares to host the NATO summit next month, the government in Vilnius knows exactly what it wants – a tripling of NATO forces led by the Germany in the country to deter any Russian ambition in its direction.

The July 11-12 meeting will give the 74-year-old alliance an opportunity to present a unified response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the increasingly public politics holds out the possibility that it can bring divisions to light.

Any NATO country can veto major decisions, with Turkey and Hungary still blocking membership from formerly neutral Sweden, which was invited to join the alliance in March last year along with Finland .

Sweden’s membership, NATO officials and diplomats say, should be one of the “crown jewels” of the Vilnius summit – but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made it clear this week that re-elected Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has yet to acquiesce.

Also this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – who was due to be the guest of honor to inaugurate a new, strengthened Ukraine-NATO Council – suggested he could stay away unless the alliance is ready to offer a faster accession to NATO, a decision on which the members remain even more divided.

After his trip to China this year, French President Emmanuel Macron now appears to have his own dispute with the alliance, suggesting he opposes a plan to open NATO’s first Asia office in Japan and claiming that the alliance should remain focused on Europe.

But several leaders from Asia and the Pacific, including Japan and South Korea, will be in Vilnius, suggesting the alliance will stick to its hawkish line on China.

Behind the scenes, several Eastern European states are also pressuring major troop-contributing countries to increase their numbers on their soil. An increasingly public contest is also underway to succeed Stoltenberg, who has made no secret of his desire to return to Norway after nine years in power, but some diplomats suspect he could be persuaded to stay on to the top. of the 75th anniversary in Washington in April.

Traditionally, NATO likes to have its major public statements and agreements lined up months in advance before a big meeting, with meetings of defense and foreign ministers several times a year seen as stepping stones to the top. While many of these discussions are taking place behind closed doors, highly public lobbying ahead of a summit appears to be becoming more commonplace.

Just a week before the Madrid summit last June, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas went wild over the alliance’s military planning to defend the Baltic states during a public briefing in Brussels, warning that existing plans would see his country invaded and the NATO battle groups would be defeated if attacked. by a force equivalent in size to that launched by Putin against Ukraine in February 2022.


This intervention helped give impetus to the agreement in Madrid of some of NATO’s most ambitious military plans since the end of the Cold War, putting up to 300,000 alliance troops under a system of multi-level alert. These plans, however, remain publicly ill-defined.

The Vilnius summit would have to go very badly to be worse than the one held in Brussels in July 2018, which saw then-US President Donald Trump berate Stoltenberg for several minutes in televised comments before a dinner party. This meeting would also have seen him suggest that the United States could refuse to honor its commitments to defend Europe under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, in which an attack on a member is considered an attack on all.

The Trump-era near-death experience, followed by the invasion of Ukraine, gave the alliance something of a new lease of life. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance has steadily stepped up its forces and exercises, especially in Eastern Europe, even as nations most at risk want more.

However, the challenges of reaching consensus in a group now made up of 31 members seem to be steadily increasing. The strength of Turkish opposition to the expansion of the alliance to Sweden and Finland surprised some. The intention was for them to unite, imposing another clear and swift cost on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, Erdogan accused the two nations of harboring and supporting Kurdish separatist PKK militants. In Madrid last year, Sweden and Finland signed an agreement with Turkey to share intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation and end their respective arms embargoes – but while Turkish officials say Finland has done enough, the Turkish parliament, now joined by its Hungarian counterpart, has repeatedly failed. endorse Sweden.


NATO officials hope that the end of the Turkish elections will make Ankara more docile. Sweden has just adopted an anti-terrorist bill, provoking demonstrations by PKK supporters in Stockholm this weekend. During his press conference in Turkey, Stoltenberg stressed that these protests themselves were not “terrorism”, saying that Sweden had now kept its promises in Madrid.

Turkish officials expressed fresh outrage over the burning of a Koran during a right-wing protest in Stockholm earlier this year. Some diplomats at NATO headquarters suspect Turkey is waiting for further concessions from the alliance and Washington, potentially including sales of F-16 fighter jets, a freer hand in Syria and may -even being the appointment of a Turk to the post of Deputy Secretary General of NATO. .

Resolving disagreements over Ukraine’s membership may be more difficult.

In 2008, France and Germany opposed a Bush administration plan to fast-track Ukraine’s membership, a move that many Ukrainians say left the door open for Russian invasion. . Most NATO countries oppose Ukraine’s membership as the war still rages, although some Eastern European countries want a quicker move.

Last week Macron, who called the alliance “brain dead” in 2019 but said it was “shaken” by the invasion of Ukraine, reversed his position last week, saying the summit of Vilnius should give Kyiv a path to membership and security guarantees until that happens.

It remains difficult to say whether other Member States change their position.

How Ukraine’s counteroffensive unfolds between now and the summit could also shape perceptions – although new Western supplies of tanks and F-16s appear unlikely to reach the frontline in time to affect significantly. significant front-line fighting for some time.

This will likely lead to war in Ukraine next year – and almost certainly another NATO Secretary General. With Estonian Kallas seen as too hawkish for some European states, the three most often touted favorites appear to be British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

Whoever gets the role will have to manage an increasingly difficult alliance.

September will see elections in currently pro-NATO Slovakia that could see a more pro-Kremlin right-wing administration come to power.

More importantly, however, next year will bring another US election, with some opinion polls raising the prospect of Trump returning to power.

* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist who writes on defense and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting on southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defense issues. He has been a columnist since 2016. He is also the founder of a think tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and since 2016 has been a Labor Party activist and British Army Reservist. (Editing by Nick Macfie)

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