Analysis

NATO Vilnius Summit and Georgia: a Bitter Aftertaste

The Vilnius Summit of 2022 demonstrated that NATO’s original purpose – to protect Euro-Atlantic democracies and their way of life from the existential threat posed by Russia (formerly the USSR) – has never been more relevant or clear.

What was the Summit about?

The Summit centered around Russia’s war in Ukraine and focused on strengthening the Alliance’s defenses. Ukraine got the boost of its defense capabilities, an upgrade in political dialogue and practical cooperation with the Alliance, and an easing of its path to NATO membership.

The final document’s language on Russia has never been so direct and clear in condemning its actions and so clear-eyed about an urgent need to shore up defenses.

The Allies agreed on specific measures to further enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense posture in all domains, reportedly adopting over 4 thousand pages of classified defense plans – NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said, “the most detailed and robust defense plans since the end of the Cold War.” These were designed to counter the Alliance’s two main threats – Russia and terrorism – and provide for 300,000 troops at high readiness, including substantial air and naval combat power.

The Allies have also agreed to put additional, robust in-place combat-ready forces on NATO’s Eastern Flank to “demonstrate […] resolve and readiness to defend every inch of Allied territory.” This is a significant shift in posture to “deterrence through denial” of access.

In addition, the Allies agreed to accelerate joint military procurement, boost production capacity and improve interoperability.

All of these plans require robust funding. NATO members reiterated their commitment to spend a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defense, and 20% of that amount has to go to major defense equipment. In 2023, the European Allies and Canada recorded an 8.3% increase in their defense budgets in real terms – the largest boost in decades. Eleven Allies have met or exceeded the 2% benchmark this year; many more are expected to do so in 2024. 

Allies also discussed the challenges posed to Euro-Atlantic security by China’s “coercive policies.” “China is not our adversary, and we should continue to engage,” the Secretary-General said at a press briefing, stressing that “Beijing’s increasing assertiveness affects our security” and challenges the rules-based international order.”

Enlargement on their minds

Allies welcomed Finland – as a full-fledged member. In a major breakthrough, just before the Summit Turkey has endorsed Sweden’s accession to the Alliance – completing a major boost of NATO presence in the Baltic Sea. The Summit was billed as a window of opportunity for breakthroughs for aspiring nations such as Georgia and Ukraine. But this promise was met only partially.

What did Georgia get?

The simple answer is – very little. The Vilnius Communique reiterates the 2008 Bucharest Summit decision that Georgia will become a member of NATO. Yet, as opposed to the language on Ukraine, which explicitly says that Ukraine will not need a Membership Action Plan/MAP to become a member, the paragraph on Georgia leaves MAP as a pre-condition for the membership. This marks the decoupling of the Georgia-Ukraine tandem as far as the membership perspective is concerned.

The language of the Summit Communiqué on Georgia is weaker than the previous ones, with important elements and agreed language missing from the document.

The paragraph on Georgia contains three important changes, compared with the 2021 NATO Brussels Summit Communique, which can serve as the direct point of reference since the 2022 Madrid Summit only issued a short Declaration.

One is the absence of the agreed wording of NATO Communiques since 2016: “Georgia’s relationship with NATO contains all the practical tools to prepare for the eventual membership.” This compromised language carried a special significance for Tbilisi and the partners sympathetic to its bid: it meant that when political alignment came, Georgia could argue that MAP was a little more than a formality and skip it altogether.

Second, the agreed language, repeated since Georgia and NATO started a strategic dialogue with NATO on Black Sea security issues several years back, is also gone. The Brussels Summit Communiqué read: “We are working closely with Georgia on security in the Black Sea region in response to Russia’s increasingly destabilizing activities…” The Vilnius Summit document makes no mention of such joint cooperation.

And third, Allies who in Brussels Communiqué praised Georgia’s reform efforts (“We commend the significant progress on reforms which Georgia has made and must continue to make, and which have helped Georgia strengthen its defense capabilities and interoperability with the Alliance”) now sternly state: “To advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Georgia must make progress on reforms, including key democratic reforms, and make best use of the ANP [Annual National Programme].” In diplomatic language this means that the reforms are lagging behind.

The ANP is mentioned in this context for a good reason: it is used by the Allies to assess Georgia’s progress on its institutional and democratic reform agenda and its implementation. During his recent visits, the Secretary-General Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Javier Colomina, has expressed NATO’s dissatisfaction with the pace and substance of the reforms, stressing that the NATO reform requirements largely coincide with those of the EU 12 conditions for obtaining the EU candidacy.

What could Georgia have received?

The early signs were there that official Tbilisi was downgrading its ambitions for the Summit. For the first time, the Georgian delegation was not led by the head of government but by the Foreign Minister. The ruling party also “managed expectations” and tried to preemptively shift the blame by raking (and dreaming) up past grievances.

More could have been done. For years, the matter of dropping the MAP requirement was pushed by Georgia and its enthusiastic supporters from Eastern Europe. And with good reason, too – since Georgia was officially recognized as having all practical instruments to prepare for the membership. Moreover, the invitation extended to Finland, and now also Sweden, created a precedent for accession without the MAP. The fact that Ukraine, which had gotten the same commitment in Bucharest, as Georgia did, got what Tbilisi and its Allies most strongly lobbied for, while Georgia was left on the sidelines, is regrettable. More than that, it signifies an effective decoupling of these two aspirants from each other and is a negative signal.

Also, Ukraine’s main format for the political dialogue and political cooperation with NATO has been upgraded from NATO-Ukraine Commission to NATO-Ukraine Council, which held its inaugural meeting in Vilnius on July 12. Georgia could have received the same treatment, especially since it has long been considered as one NATO’s most reliable partners in the region and has punched above its weight in contributing to NATO missions, such as RSM, where it was one of the largest overall and the top per-capita contributor.

In addition, the Allies agreed on a new multi-year assistance program to facilitate the transition of the Ukrainian armed forces to NATO standards and to help rebuild Ukraine’s security and defense sector, addressing critical needs like fuel, demining equipment, and medical supplies.

Although not presently under active attack, Georgia faces the same existential threat as Ukraine. It could have also lobbied for and received additional defense aid to further boost its resilience and defensibility, especially in the critical air defense, which the Communiqué addresses extensively.

Ironically, instead of being a breakthrough, the Vilnius Summit was perhaps the least productive of all the NATO summits for Georgia.

How did Ukraine fare?

Ukraine has asked for much more than it has received and, as in the broader case of military assistance, the resulting glass can be seen as either half empty or half full. Ukraine’s maximalist demands are natural since Kyiv is fighting a defensive war against a formidable and cruel enemy and needs all the help it can get to reduce casualties and ensure its long-term security.

President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for an invitation and a timeline for accession. The consensus on these did not come through, but Ukraine did get results. The Allies agreed to a three-pronged package to bring Ukraine closer to NATO.

A new multi-year assistance programme will further the transition of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to NATO standards and assist in rebuilding Ukraine’s defense and security industry. The Allies committed to fund these needs through a multi-year Comprehensive Assistance Package framework in a “sustained and predictable way.” They promised that “the assistance provided will help rebuild the Ukrainian security and defense sector and transition Ukraine towards full interoperability with NATO.” 

The Allies elevated the NATO-Ukraine Council to the NATO-Ukraine Commission, where Allies and Ukraine are equal members working to advance political dialogue and practical cooperation.  The inaugural meeting of the Commission took part in Vilnius on July 12.

And the Allies agreed to waive the MAP requirement of the Bucharest Summit commitment, which will shorten and simplify the future accession of Ukraine to NATO. This means that Ukraine can initiate the accession procedure without delay once the war is over and the political decision is made by the Allies. This is no mean feat, considering that the right timing means security.  

President Zelensky did not hide his disappointment at not receiving the invitation and the clear timeline, nor did some of the Allies.

Zelensky though had a more positive disposition after he met with President Joe Biden and received additional assurances and guarantees from the world’s seven richest nations. He said the results were “good, but not perfect.”

All in all, the Ukrainian delegation returned home more hopeful and assured of increased support from its friends, which unfortunately can hardly be said about Georgia. NATO’s next summit will take place in Washington, D.C., in 2024, marking seventy-five years since the Alliance’s founding. What Georgia urgently needs is to reverse the downward momentum of its NATO integration, demonstrate good reform results and the political will to actively pursue membership. Otherwise, it seems its NATO integration will remain an unfulfilled ambition.

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