NATO Vilnius summit

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NATO Meets a World of New Threats

Colin Robertson


The NATO leaders meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania next Tuesday and Wednesday (July 11-12) is a test of Alliance support for Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia. It is also a test of whether NATO leaders are prepared to back up their rhetoric with the money, the forces and the kit necessary to ensure continued deterrence against our changed geo-political situation.

After the Oslo meeting (May 31-June 1) of foreign ministers leading up to the Vilnius summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said leaders need to figure out how Ukraine can be brought closer to NATO “where it belongs.” Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister whose term as secretary general has been extended for another year, said that the Alliance is working on a multi-year package of support for Ukraine. This could include language on security guarantees but neither an Article 5 commitment nor a definitive timeline for membership. With the outcome of the war unknown, the  Biden administration is not ready to commit to American boots on the ground in Ukraine.

The recent recovery conference in London netted significant funding pledges of support for Ukraine from the US, EU and Canada and a recognition that the massive rebuilding project will require significant private sector involvement.

Last year’s Madrid NATO summit adopted a new Strategic Concept, its roadmap for the Alliance in the coming years. It defines Russia as the “most significant and direct threat” to NATO Allies’ security. China is explicitly called out as challenging “our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order.” The Strategic Concept also states that climate change is “a defining challenge of our time”.

Leaders also agreed to further reinforce NATO’s deterrence and defence, including a digital backbone and enhanced cyber-capacity. It means fulfilling the multi-domain new force model and enhancing regional, forward forces. This means strengthening eastern defenses, including by expanding NATO’s high-readiness forces nearly tenfold and expanding multinational battle groups deployed in Poland and the Baltic states into brigade-sized formations (an increase from about 1,500 to 5,000 troops in each location).

These promises remain largely unfulfilled.

Canada leads the 10-nation battlegroup in Latvia and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit Riga before the summit to meet with Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš. Our Latvian presence is Canada’s largest overseas mission. Its expansion to brigade level will require both a tripling (from 700 to 2100) and permanent deployment of troops with 15 Leopard tanks. By comparison, the United States has increased its troop presence in eastern Europe from 5,000 to about 24,000.

Leaders at Vilnius will be asked to commit to a new Defence Investment Pledge, with 2 percent of GDP on defence spending as the minimum rather than just a target. Only about 1/4 of the 32 members have achieved the 2 percent target set for 2024 at the 2014 Wales summit.

NATO conducts an annual survey in member countries. The most recent (November 2022) indicates that 74 per cent of Allied citizens support maintaining or increasing defence spending. A Nanos survey (May 2022) of Canadians showed that 79 per cent of Canadians hold mostly favourable views of NATO.

Canada spends about 1.3 percent of GDP on defence. According to the leaked ‘Discord’ documents’, Trudeau told NATO officials he will not commit to 2 percent although in announcing his participation at the Vilnius summit, Trudeau acknowledged that we areexperiencing “multiple global challenges: Russia’s war against Ukraine, which is also causing food and energy insecurity around the world, other armed conflicts … threats to human rights and … the impacts of climate change.”

Trudeau said his objective at Vilnius is to continue “working with NATO Allies to reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine while addressing multiple challenges facing the world and making life better for people.”

Any NATO defence production plan will require member nations to address their defence industrial capacity, including multi-year procurement. According to the Kiel Institute, Ukraine has received more than $70 billion in military aid since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The Ukraine war has highlighted the shortfalls in ammunition and armaments within the Alliance. Restocking will require closer collaboration between industry and governments.

NATO marks its 75th anniversary next year. The trans-Atlantic alliance has ensured collective security since 1949. As Trudeau recognizes, we face more and different threats.

As part of NATO’s 360-degree approach, there will be discussion of challenges in Africa and about deepening partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. HMCS Montreal recently participated in a freedom of navigation transit through the Taiwan Straits in which a Chinese warship cut across its path. Canada’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy promises a greater Canadian presence in the region but this must include more attention to security and defence. Announcing the timetable for acquisition of new submarines would make a difference. As Helmut Schmidt once told Pierre Trudeau “No tanks, no trade”, whom Trudeau sought more trade with Europe but planned to reduce the Canadian forces based in Germany.

NATO discussions now consider security in the Arctic. A series of recent reports, including from the Canadian Senate and the NATO/EU Hybrid Threats Center have underlined the changed environment.

The Center’s May report specifically looks at Chinese and Russian activity concluding that “hybrid threats from China, in particular, are emerging at the gaps and seams of these vulnerabilities, undermining both Arctic security and Canadian strategic interests.”

The June report of the Senate committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs declares, “Canada’s North is militarily exposed, economically underdeveloped and threatened by climate change — while world powers covet its rich resources and Arctic waterways.”

In the past, Canada has resisted NATO involvement in the Arctic. In August 2022, Mr. Trudeau accompanied Secretary General Stoltenberg who spent three days to “underline the High North’s strategic importance for Euro-Atlantic security.”

The Americans are keen to see more Canadian action in the North and they regard the announced funding for NORAD modernization and continental defence as simply a down payment. Successive Canadian governments have declared sovereignty. Now we are expected to exercise it.

Presumably, NATO’s role in the North will be addressed in the Defence Policy Update to the 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged policy document. Originally anticipated for release last year, the Update should also address missile defence and much needed improvements to infrastructure as well as procurement reform.

When asked in January whether Canada’s armed forces were ready for the challenges ahead, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, replied ‘no’, later telling the CDAI annual defence conference in March that force readiness is “one of the things that keeps me awake at night”.

The Alliance expanded to 31 nations this year with the addition of Finland in April. Sweden applied concurrently with Finland but admission requires unanimous approval and both Hungary and Turkiye have withheld assent. Ankara cites what it deems Swedish leniency toward members of the Kurdish independence group the PKK, which Turkiye labels a terrorist entity, living in Sweden. For now, the Swedes are effectively participating in NATO exercises.

However unfortunate and frustrating, the impasse reflects the NATO principle of consensus in a collective alliance. As a Chinese PLA colonel once told me, China envies the Western alliance: “The US has allies, we do not.” Alliances are difficult but as Winston Churchill observed “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is fighting without them.”

Vilnius takes place against the backdrop of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the evolving fallout from the abortive putsch within Russia by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group.

The counter-offensive is going slowly but as President Zelensky told the London Recovery conference, it is not a “Hollywood movie” and given the Russian defenses, including the heavily-mined battlefields, progress is incremental at best because “What’s at stake is people’s lives.”

The Russians continue to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Strategists also say the Russians may try to shut down the port of Odessa and interrupt the lifeline of armaments through Poland or launch an offensive from Belarus. There is also concern they could wreak the kind of havoc at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that they did with the Kakhovka dam.

NATO marks its 75th anniversary next year. The trans-Atlantic alliance has ensured collective security since 1949. As Trudeau recognizes, we face more and different threats. Just as personal insurance costs have gone up, so are the fees we need to spend to protect and preserve our sovereignty – with three oceans, we have the world’s longest coastline — and to ensure deterrence against aggression.

Spending on defence, diplomacy and development is an investment against chaos. Doing it collectively through multilateral institutions such as NATO is a force-multiplier. It is money well spent. And if the Ukraine experience teaches us anything, it is that we need to invest now if we are to be prepared.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.