The NATO Summit in Washington: it’s all about impressing three presidents—Zelensky, Putin and Trump


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This coming week, NATO’s heads of state and government will be meeting in Washington D.C. to mark the 75th anniversary of the alliance. Anniversaries are always tricky because both institutions and individuals can easily fall into the trap of complacent self-congratulation; or cherrypick the past in a way that recalls only successes and draws a veil over failures or missed opportunities. Yet even with this pitfall in mind, NATO can afford to give itself a pat on the back. It is the longest political-military alliance in history and, contrary to the experience of most alliances of the past, it has actually become larger and stronger over time. Not only in terms of NATO members, going from the original 12 to today’s 32, but also through its pulling power in persuading others to work with it. Four Asia-Pacific democraciesAustralia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand will participate in Washington along with Israel and six Arab states as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan from the Caucasus. NATO not only defends its own members but is fast becoming a hub for global security cooperation and diplomacy.

The 75-year-old history of the alliance is rich and often colourful. Inevitably there have been ups and downs: from the catastrophic successof 1989-90 when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end in miraculously peaceful circumstances, to the successful integration of central and eastern Europe into the transatlantic structures, but also alas the delays and inconsistencies in intervening in the Balkans in the early 1990s and the botched operations in Afghanistan and Libya this century. It might be useful at the summit to reflect on this history of multiple crises successfully overcome (even if often managed rather than prevented), and endless NATO transformations to meet new security challenges in order to determine the lessons to be learned. What clues does this history hold in illuminating how the alliance can manage the challenges of the future? What does it tell us about the strengths and vulnerabilities of NATO as a transatlantic security organisation moving forward?

But unfortunately, there will be no time and space for the leaders to ponder these interesting but weighty questions in Washington next week. Three Presidents have invited themselves to the anniversary festivities, each with a sceptical scowl on his face, and each challenging the NATO leaders to show that they can assuage his doubts and pass the particular credibility test that he poses. One, Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, will be physically present in the room. The other two, Donald Trump of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia, will be uninvited guests looking on from afar. But their ghostly shadows at the back of the room will still be on the minds of all the participants.

First, Zelensky. He will be unhappy that this will be the third NATO summit that he has attended since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 where Ukraine has not received a formal invitation to join the alliance nor had a timetable towards membership nor a specific set of conditions that Ukraine has to meet in order to qualify as a NATO member state. Indeed, in recent weeks US officials have brought up other targets that Kyiv has to meet such as the fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary which go beyond military modernisation and interoperability. NATO allies have made clear, if not explicit, that Ukraine cannot become a member of the alliance in wartime as systems of collective defence and deterrence can only be constructed in peacetime. If Ukraine’s accession means that NATO has to go to war against Russia not to defend Ukrainian territory but to liberate most of it from prolonged Russian occupation, this will not be in NATO’s own security interests nor an acceptable level of risk for security benefits. So, if there will not be much on Ukraine’s path to membership in Washington, as things like taking Ukraine out of the Membership Action Plan process and the establishment of a NATO-Ukraine Council have already been conceded at previous summits in Madrid and Vilnius, what can the allies do to convince Zelensky to see the glass as half full rather than half empty? They will try to come up with new language for the communiqué to show that Ukraine is indeed moving closer to membership rather than father away from it. Some allies would like to mention an irreversible momentum although others, who do not like notions of automaticity or inevitability given the homework that Kyiv still needs to do, are resisting this terminology, at least at the time this article was drafted. Yet the main focus will be on stepping up the flow of military supplies to Ukraine on the basis that the overwhelming priority is to push back the Russian advance and help Ukraine to win the war – the essential precondition for both NATO and EU integration at a future date.

So the allies are seeking a summit deliverable in the area of air defence where Kyiv urgently needs more Western anti-missile batteries. The US Patriot is the most valuable as it can intercept high-velocity Russian missiles, including hypersonic rockets, as well as the more common drones. Ukraine currently operates four Patriot batteries and NATO is aiming to announce in Washington that it is supplying more: one each from Germany, the US and Romania and one based on Patriot components supplied by the Netherlands. That leaves three more to find and Spain, Poland and Greece have been approached but these allies have been reluctant (Spain has agreed to transfer some Patriot interceptors). So, there is still work to do here if the target of seven Patriots is to be realised.

Ukraine apart, the other focal point of the summit will be European efforts to take on a greater role and responsibility in the alliance

The second proposal pushed by the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, is to use NATO more to coordinate the weapons supply and training activities. These have so far been carried out ad hoc using a number of bilateral and multilateral arrangements. This had produced a good deal of duplication and led to Ukraine using over 130 different types of weapons systems with all the bureaucracy and complications of different maintenance requirements and different ammunition. Ukraine has been given what nations can spare rather than what it needs. NATO has the permanent civilian and military staffs and the multinational military commands and planning expertise to bring all these strands of effort under one roof, matching Ukraine’s needs to available Western stocks. It also has its own procurement and contracting agency, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency in Luxembourg. NATO can also link Ukraine to its own capabilities development projects, to its training and exercise programme, and to its research and innovation funds such as DIANA, based in London. This integration of Ukraine will also provide a bridge to Ukraine’s ultimate membership of NATO by enhancing joint interoperability. The other argument for NATO taking on more responsibility is that it will Trump proofthe Western support for Kyiv if Donald Trump returns to the White House next January and reduces US financial and military aid for Ukraine. The current mechanism, the Ukraine Contact Group, is led by the US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, and meets regularly at the US Ramstein air base in Germany. The US wishes to maintain this group as the overarching supervisory body for Ukraine assistance as it includes 20 or so non-NATO members and is thus broader than the alliance. Many of these non-NATO countries are NATO partners like Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand  who already work closely with NATO and are familiar with the NATO structures, having participated in NATO missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Western Balkans. In the past, the argument against NATO taking over the training and weapons coordination role was that a greater visibility of NATO would play into Putin’s narrative that Ukraine is in reality a confrontation between a hostile NATO and a defensive Russia. It is this kind of escalation that the US and many European allies have been keen to avoid. Yet now the allies have agreed that the urgency of ensuring a more consistent, longterm and better-targeted flow of supplies to the Ukrainian army trumps all other considerations and that the NATO command structure has the best training experts, logisticians and planners to make a difference. So, NATO will agree in Washington to set up a special coordination centre at Wiesbaden with 800 planners to centralise the delivery of the Ukrainian war effort and to transform Ukraine’s current army half the old Soviet model and half Western into the NATO army of the future. Only time will tell if bringing NATO more fully into the picture really does accelerate the supply of weapons to avoid further bottlenecks and shortages and to rapidly train for battle the half a million new soldiers that Kyiv is trying currently to conscript.

A second Ukraine delivery should be an agreement to establish a $40bn rolling fund for arms supplies to Ukraine. This is also the idea of the outgoing Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and is designed to avoid further long delays in funding typified by the six-month blockage of US Republicans in Congress of the $61bn supplemental put forward by the Biden Administration. During this hiatus, Ukraine almost ran out of air defence missiles and 155mm artillery shells and Russia exploited its superiority in ammunition to go on the offensive in the Donbas and towards Kharkiv. A rolling fund of $40bn each year should help to plan for continuity in the longer term. But the problem with the Secretary General’s proposal is that the US, EU, G7 and individual allies such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France have already committed large sums to Kyiv as part of the bilateral security guarantees that were decided by the G7 on the margins of NATO’s Vilnius Summit last July. Seventeen such bilateral agreements have been concluded already. So, the countries involved will be hard-pressed to find extra money for a new $40bn NATO fund to be topped up each year. Will allies count the same contributions several times? The EU may also prove reluctant to transfer to NATO its own commonly funded budgets, such as the European Peace Facility and the Ukraine Support Fund, which have demonstrated the EU’s larger role in security and defence and promoting more European Strategic Autonomy. So, we will have to see how this debate plays out at the Washington Summit. Some allies are pushing for a review mechanism for the fund to allow annual assessments of the fund’s operations and utility in comparison to Ukraine’s continuing needs and other funding streams. What will also emerge from Washington should be agreement to launch a NATO study on what precisely individual allies have contributed and plan to contribute to Ukraine as a proportion of their total weapons stockpiles as this is an area shrouded in secrecy and lack of transparency. The results should help to foster better burdensharing within the alliance.

Ukraine apart, the other focal point of the summit will be European efforts to take on a greater role and responsibility in the alliance. Here is where Donald Trump will be the real, if barely mentioned target audience. With the US elections and Trump in mind, the European allies will use their platform in Washington to try to convince Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress, and the broader US public, that they are pulling their weight when it comes to transatlantic burden sharing. According to Stoltenberg, 23 of the 32 allies are on target to meet the 2% defence spending objective this year but, as this is only 60% of the membership, it will mean that a third of the alliance has failed to meet the target date of 2024 to achieve the NATO defence spending pledge made at the Wales Summit in September 2014. It remains to be seen whether Trump, back on the campaign trail after his court case in New York, and pulling ahead of Joe Biden in many swing states after Biden’s faltering debate performance, will attack NATO as a liability for the US or ignore the summit and campaign on the Mexican border, China and the economy. Some allies such as the UK and Poland want the defence spending pledge to be raised to 2.5 %, a figure both the Conservative and Labour parties were committed to in the recent British elections. But the low-spending allies have been reluctant to agree to a new target and the discussion on the 2.5% threshold has been postponed to NATO’s 2025 summit in the Netherlands. The Washington Summit may be a good opportunity for the European allies to communicate to the US public in an election year all the many positive contributions that they are making through NATO to the security and global power of the US itself. Not least of which is the fact that much of the nearly $700bn of extra money that the Europeans have spent on defence since 2014 has been spent in the US buying weapons and equipment from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Gruman and the like. Certainly, a boon to the US economy. But we will need to wait and see how successfully this message of transatlantic solidarity will be communicated.

Putin will be watching too. He will not be happy that NATO has invited Armenia and Azerbaijan to the summit and is therefore perceived to be meddling in Russia’s traditional backyard. Armenia has distanced itself from Moscow and recently announced that it is quitting the Russia-dominated Central Security Treaty Organisation. Yet for Putin, a key aspect of the summit will be NATO’s readiness and capability for effective conventional defence. The leaders must review their progress in implementing NATO’s regional plans for the defence of central and eastern Europe. These were drawn up by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Christopher Cavoli, and approved at the Vilnius Summit last July. NATO has spent the last 12 months testing its capacity to implement these plans on land, at sea and in the air. Exercise Steadfast Defender, which began back in April, is the largest combined arms exercise that NATO has conducted since the end of the Cold War, involving more than 90,000 troops and significant reinforcements from the US and Canada. Cavoli will give the NATO leaders a readout on the initial results of Steadfast Defender and draw attention to the gaps and shortcomings in NATO’s collective defence posture. He is expected to request more air and missile defence assets, data processing and electronic warfare capabilities, long-range precision artillery and more forward positioning of logistics and equipment. These requirements will have to be factored into NATO’s defence planning process. The eastern European allies closest to Russia will also undoubtedly call for more NATO units to be permanently stationed on their territories rather than simply rotated in and out during exercises or for short-term “enhanced forward presence” deployments to train with the local forces. Germany is leading the way by establishing a brigade headquarters and full equipment set in Lithuania and the Baltic States would like the UK and Canada to do the same in Estonia and Latvia. But the cost and commitment of doing so may be prohibitive for London and Ottawa. Yet the Russian threat is manifest in the area of hybrid activities too. Resilience of the home front is now equally important for the allies. In Washington, they are due to announce the setting up of a new civilian/military centre to handle the security of underwater energy pipelines and internet and telecommunications cables following a series of sabotage actions in the Baltic Sea attributed in part to Russian and Chinese vessels.

Big breakthroughs in NATO-EU cooperation will need to wait for later in the year, or even after the US elections given all the political uncertainty at the present time

This leaves military production and the incentives to industry to ramp up the supply of ammunition and weapons, especially at a time when a number of civilian and military figures in Europe have been warning of a war with Russia in as little as five years hence. NATO has come up with its Defence Production Plan and has stepped up its dialogue with industry. But the EU has been even more active in this area with the European Commission publishing a European Defence Industry Strategy and associated Plan backed up by an initial €1.5bn in EU funding. This comes on top of previous EU efforts to engage industry in collaborative EU military projects under PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) and the European Defence Fund for research and innovation. The aim of the new EU industry strategy is to have at least 50% of the weapons, ammunition and equipment used by the EU member states to be produced within the EU by 2030. Currently around 70% is bought outside Europe, particularly in the US or South Korea. Some see the 50% target as ambitious; others who want more strategic autonomy don’t see it as ambitious enough. So to achieve rapid and significant results in defence production NATO has to step up its coordination with the EU and work out some kind of complementarity or division of labour. But the timing of the Washington Summit is not ideal in this respect. The European Parliament elections took place on 9 June and the new leaders of the European Council, Commission and Parliament as well as the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy will not be in situ or approved by the European Parliament by the time of the summit. Ursula von der Leyen has decided to skip the Washington meeting to remain in Brussels to lobby MEPs for support for her re-appointment. We will also need to wait and see if von der Leyen’s proposal for an EU Defence Commissioner will be adopted and how this new role can liaise between the EU and NATO in coordinating work on defence production, innovation and emerging and disruptive technologies. So, big breakthroughs in NATO-EU cooperation will need to wait for later in the year, or even after the US elections given all the political uncertainty at the present time.

One area of disappointment will be in transatlantic defence trade. Given the current emphasis on ramping up defence production to restock NATO arsenals and supply Ukraine over the long term, some NATO insiders were hoping for a specifically transatlantic initiative, which would make this important military relationship more of atwo-way street. But the Biden Administration has been protectionist and happy to see US companies benefit from higher European military spending (F35s, Patriots, Poseidon P8 maritime patrol aircraft and so on) without the Pentagon increasing its purchases of European weapons in return apart from the odd component or sub-system here and there as for the F35. So, hopes for more co-production agreements or for the US to relax its ITAR restrictions on technology sharing look to be dashed and will hardly happen under a future Trump Administration.

Finally, the Washington Summit will once again have an Asia-Pacific dimension. The four NATO partners in the region Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealandwill once more be invited to the annual NATO gathering. No breakthrough is to be expected here as the alliance is not about to invite Asia-Pacific countries to join the organisation nor will it offer them associate membership or something similar. All four partners have recently concluded new partnership and cooperation agreements with NATO, which will take time to implement. So, this is not the moment already to revise or upgrade these agreements which cover the usual issues of cybersecurity, space security, counterterrorism, environmental challenges and scientific and technical exchanges. The alliance will be happy once again to have the support of its four Asia-Pacific partners for its help to Ukraine and stress, as ever the common values of democracy and the rule of law. But given the cruciality of air and missile defence for security in both Europe and Asia and the big investments that Japan and South Korea are also making in this area, expect an announcement on stepped-up cooperation with NATO. The UK and Japan have already formed a consortium to build a sixth-generation fighter jet, and New Zealand and South Korea have made noises about joining the AUKUS arrangement for technology sharing that the UK and US have with Australia.

A last word on China. A NATO summit meeting in Washington during a heated US election campaign will find it hard not to adopt some tough language on China. All the more so after US accusations that Beijing has been aiding Putin’s war effort in Ukraine, particularly with weapons components and advanced electronics, and despite China’s denials and protestations of neutrality. There is general disappointment that Beijing did not participate in the Ukraine Peace Summit organised by Switzerland in Bürgenstock last month. The US and its allies were hoping to persuade as many non-Western countries as possible to participate in isolating Russia and generate diplomatic pressure on Moscow. Zelensky travelled to the ShangriLa conference in Singapore and on to Indonesia afterwards to rally more support in the Asia-Pacific region. There were also some testy exchanges over Taiwan at ShangriLa between the US and Chinese defence ministers. Arguably the atmosphere of relations between the West and China has deteriorated further since NATO’s last summit in Vilnius and allies will be under pressure from Washington to make some strong statements about China siding with Russia and undermining the liberal international order. The US has proposed secondary sanctions against Beijing and would like its European allies to follow suit. Yet many allies will want to be careful here. Over the past few months NATO military representatives have held productive talks on transparency with leaders of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, held a lengthy and frank meeting with the Chinese defence chief at ShangriLa. So, China is not Russia and both the US and NATO will not want to disrupt this nascent military dialogue. Watch therefore how the drafting of the Washington Summit Declaration turns out and if the language and tone on China differ significantly from the way Beijing was described as a “systemic challenge” in the previous Madrid (2022) and Vilnius (2023) texts.

Before closing the summit proceedings, the allies will say a formal goodbye to their Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg (although he is not departing until October) and welcome the new Secretary General, Mark Rutte, who has just stepped down after a decade as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Rutte will be at the summit as an observer and to prepare for his new mandate at the helm of the alliance. As he looks at Stoltenberg’s impressive performance over 10 years in keeping the occasionally disputatious NATO family together and steering the alliance through some difficult and challenging times both internally and externally he will need to decide what he wants to preserve and even imitate from the Stoltenberg style and legacy, and what he wants to change. Stoltenberg Mark Two or Rutte Mark One? Again only time will tell.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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