From Bucharest to Vilnius: Will Nato expand its ranks?

The discussions at the Nato summit involve the potential memberships of Ukraine and Sweden

From Bucharest to Vilnius: Will Nato expand its ranks?

The Nato summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, taking place today and tomorrow, aims to address a host of pressing issues.

Among them, will be Ukraine's desire to join the alliance. The issue was first addressed 15 years ago in Bucharest Romania when Nato leaders acknowledged Ukraine's and Georgia's desire to join the alliance, both countries being situated on Russia's borders.

At present, there exists a division among Nato members regarding the provision of American F-16 aircraft and cluster bombs to Ukraine. Moreover, European countries are grappling with challenges related to immigration, refugees, acts of violence, and the rise of right-wing ideologies.

However, the central question on the table for Nato leaders and allied countries such as Japan, Australia, and others remains: "Will Ukraine be accepted into Nato?"

Nato successes

Ukraine achieved some of its objectives at the Nato summit in Madrid last year, with Nato recognising Russia as "the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area."

This acknowledgement led to the provision of arms, ammunition, and intelligence support to Ukraine in its ongoing conflict, which has persisted for a year and a half.

This support effectively foiled Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to swiftly change the regime in Kyiv and secure a quick victory within days.

Nato's acknowledgement of the Russian threat led to the provision of arms and intelligence support to Ukraine. This support effectively foiled Putin's plans to swiftly change the regime in Kyiv.

Consequently, Russia found itself embroiled in a protracted conflict marked by military engagements, casualties, and the involvement of militias, all reverberating back to Moscow.

Read more: Moscow strikes: A bitter pill for Putin to swallow

Moscow's incursion in Ukraine has quite obviously backfired. Contrary to its intention to weaken Nato, it has had the opposite effect. It bolstered the alliance's presence, enhanced unity among member states, increased defence spending, and expanded Nato's budget.

Additionally, it forged new ties with countries that were previously neutral (such as Switzerland) or had been defeated in World War II (such as Japan and Germany). Also, European nations agreed to impose sanctions on Russia and gradually reduce their dependence on Russian gas. 

Expanding Nato's ranks

At the Nato summit in Vilnius, the Ukraine war and two pending applications for Nato membership take centre stage: Sweden and Ukraine. While Finland has recently succeeded in joining Nato, Sweden's membership was up in the air – until Monday – awaiting decisions from Turkey and Hungary.

Stockholm has made efforts to fulfil many of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's requests concerning Kurdish organisations and issues related to Fethullah Gulen.

Moscow's incursion in Ukraine has quite obviously backfired. It bolstered Nato's presence, enhanced unity among member states, increased defence spending, and expanded Nato's budget.

However, the lengthy list of demands, coupled with the controversy surrounding the burning of a copy of the Holy Qur'an, has placed obstacles to Turkey's lifting of its veto on Sweden's inclusion in the alliance.

Therefore, Turkey's last-minute decision to remove its veto and support Sweden's request comes as a significant development for Nato. It adds to other well-received gestures, such as Erdogan's reception of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cooperation in handing over members of the Azov movement.

These actions flout Ankara's previous understanding with President Vladimir Putin concerning the Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange deal reached a year ago.

Read more: A look at Turkey's geopolitics through the lens of the war in Ukraine

Turkey's last-minute decision to remove its veto and support Sweden's request is significant. It adds to other favourable gestures, such as Erdogan's cooperation in handing over members of the Azov movement which flouts its previous understanding with Putin.

Erdogan's discourse advocating for Ukraine's Nato membership, particularly at a time when Russia is perceived to be in a position of weakness following drone attacks on Moscow and the Wagner mutiny, further emphasises the importance of this issue at the Nato summit.

Read more: Wagner 'coup attempt' reveals cracks in Putin's delicate power balance

Strategic objective

Ukraine's membership in Nato has become a strategic objective for Kyiv. President Zelensky formally and constitutionally declared this goal in September of the previous year by signing an official application to join the alliance.

This harks back to the Nato summit in Bucharest in 2008, where leaders "welcomed the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia for Nato membership and agreed for them to become members of Nato."

Indeed, the "welcome" statement for Ukraine's and Georgia's aspirations to join Nato was more of a political declaration than the start of a formal process.

Russia viewed Nato's eastward expansion as a direct threat to its national security and set its own red line regarding Ukraine's Nato membership, considering it a "hostile act." This stance was a key reason why Russia invaded Ukraine in the beginning of 2022.

Despite political statements and Ukraine's strong desire for membership, it is unlikely to obtain the full membership it seeks.

The main reason is straightforward: if Ukraine were admitted as a Nato member while being at war with Russia, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which is Nato's charter, would require the alliance to go to war in defence of an ally under attack.

Additionally, even if a peace agreement and cessation of hostilities were reached between Ukraine and Russia, there is disagreement among Nato members regarding the borders of any settlement.

This includes the borders of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and the borders of February 2022 or after the annexation of the eastern regions.

It is highly likely that certain Ukrainian territories, such as Crimea and eastern Ukraine, would remain under Russian control. In such a situation, Nato be reluctant to accept Ukraine's membership.

While Zelensky's position may seem extreme, he understands the political climate and is likely leveraging the position to obtain pledges from the Vilnius Summit for accepting its membership after a ceasefire, receiving deterrent and future security guarantees, establishing the Nato-Ukraine Council, and receiving increased military assistance. This comprehensive package would include provisions for planes, missiles, vehicles, and bombs.

China keeps close eye on summit

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping is also closely following Nato developments. China is interested in seeing if European countries will remain united against Russia and divided in their stance toward China.

Read more: Europe: United on Russia, divided on China?

The participation of neighbouring countries like Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand in Nato discussions, however, is not a reassuring message for Beijing.

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