As the war in Ukraine has entered its fourth month, NATO leaders are meeting in Madrid for their annual conference from 28 to 30 June to discuss the most important security issues facing the military alliance, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's growing influence. NATO has also announced its decision to fast-track previously neutral Sweden and Finland's membership applications at this 'historic' summit.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has described as "historic" this year's summit from June 28 to 30 in Madrid, which assembles the leaders of NATO's 30 member countries and key partners as the alliance prepares the biggest defence operation seen since the Cold War. This includes significantly increasing the number of troops that it can deploy at a moment's notice, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and formally offering fast-track membership to previously neutral Finland and Sweden, after addressing concerns by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara had initially refused to support the two Nordic countries' bids on the grounds that they were allegedly harbouring Kurdish armed groups that have been engaged in guerilla warfare against Turkey since 1984, and their bans on selling some arms to Turkey. Ankara says it will seek to extradite 33 "terror" suspects from Sweden and Finland in exchange for its support.
Other important topics up for discussion include China's growing influence and NATO's next Strategic Concept, a document that is updated approximately every 10 years to reflect the most pressing security challenges facing the military alliance and outline how NATO plans to address them.
FRANCE 24 spoke with William Alberque, Director of Strategy, Technology and Arms Control at The International Institute for Strategic Studies on the historical significance of the Madrid summit.
FRANCE 24: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the alliance is meeting in Madrid "in the midst of the most serious security crisis we have faced since the Second World War". What impact has the Ukraine war had on NATO?
William Alberque: Both of the Russian invasions of Ukraine have had major impacts on NATO. In 2013, the alliance was drifting towards the Wales Summit, with no clear deliverables - perhaps a declaration of victory in Afghanistan (remember that?) - but militarily, the alliance was hoping that it would remain viable if it conducted exercises. Instead, the alliance set off a process that led to it becoming significantly stronger between 2014-2021. This included introducing forward-deployed tripwires (the enhanced Forward Presence, or eFP) [used in booby traps and defence tactics], enhanced Baltic Air Policing and permanent logistics teams on the territory of the eastern allies (NATO Force Integration Units). Furthermore, most allies' defence spending was in free-fall from 1990-2013 and NATO forces in Europe were becoming rare. The 2014 Crimean annexation put an end to those reductions.
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine has resulted in yet another sharp change in the alliance, with Finland and Sweden's membership (finally) moving ahead, around 16 of the soon-to-be 32 allies meeting their 2 percent pledge within two years, and a massive increase in permanent stationing in the east. Also, four more eFP forces (Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria) will be deployed as well as upgrades of existing eFP to each brigade, with an assigned home division, divisional HQ, and enablers, and a vast increase in the US presence in Poland. Germany's Zeitenwende promises to be the biggest change in German defence policy since the Cold War and even the Netherlands is going to hit 2 percent of GDP. This is an incredible change.
Last month, Russia threatened "retaliatory steps" if NATO accepted Finland and Sweden's applications for NATO membership. Now that NATO has agreed to fast-track their applications in this historic Madrid summit, what could this mean for the bloc and the ongoing war in Ukraine? Is there a risk that the war will be extended to Eastern Europe?
No, in fact, Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO vastly decreases the chances of war in the east. Finland comes into the alliance with the 2nd or 3rd largest artillery force in Europe (behind Russia and Ukraine), a new fleet of F-35 fighters, and an excellent defence system that sees them fielding more than 200,000 troops in case of war. Sweden adds maritime and air capabilities which now, with NATO, have transformed Baltic and Nordic security (and secured the entire Baltic Sea), reducing the chances of any Russian adventurism to the point of implausibility. They would lose, and lose badly, if they attempted to approach Estonia, for instance, due to the long-range Finnish HIMARS [a light multiple rocket launcher developed in the late 1990s for the US army.] The Russian Baltic Sea Fleet would be sunk by the combined NATO, Finnish, Swedish anti-ship missiles, and so on.
The Russian retaliatory measures likely will include increasing the number of nuclear weapons stationed in the Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg, and Pskov regions, probably some Bastion missile systems in the Karelian Peninsula [neighbouring Finland], and some Soviet-style "ghost units" - that is, units with commanders that have some equipment, but no troops. I say this because firstly, they don't have the troops, frankly, to man substantial new bases in the region, and likely will not have them for some time if this war goes on, and secondly, the Russians reversed the Soviet practice, as they reduced the number of General Officer posts since they were never likely to need those units. They probably could be restored - the theory behind having them is that in wartime, they would be able to round up tens of thousands of recruits to staff the ghost units and go into the fight.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, the host of this week's NATO summit, has said that Russia - which had previously been considered a strategic partner - will now be established as NATO's "main threat". Given that NATO was established to, in its words, "provide collective security against the Soviet Union", what is the significance of this new terminology?
The previous Strategic Concept 2010 called Russia a partner. Allies - principally but not only Germany - resisted calls over the years to call Russia an adversary. This has complicated defence planning at NATO, because how can you make military plans to defend yourself against a partner? How can you use missile defence to defend allies against a partner's cruise missiles? Now, by referring to it as a threat, this means that the eastern allies have won the argument and NATO can adjust its plans and policies accordingly to defend against what, in reality, is NATO's main threat.
China will also be discussed at this NATO summit in Madrid, as it poses "challenges to our values, to our interest and to our security". For the first time, the leaders of Japan and South Korea will be attending this summit as observers. What is the significance of this and for the future of this traditionally Western bloc?
They've been close before! Japan and ROK [Republic of Korea] attended previous summits at a lower level - for instance, to participate in the Afghanistan meeting in Warsaw [in 2016]. And [Japan's prime minister] Shinzo Abe attended the G7 in Brussels immediately after the NATO Special Summit there. Their ministers also attended a NATO Ministerial [meeting] for the first time in 2020. But this is the first time that the political leaders are attending. It truly demonstrates that NATO recognises its security is reliant upon peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Some allies have direct interests in that region (e.g., France, US, Canada), and all allies recognise the security interests of NATO's key partners in the region - Japan, South Korea, and Australia. So, this is a historic moment, as the Euro-Atlantic family is meeting with its Asian friends and partners to discuss common interests, especially regarding China and Russia.