Let’s take off the rose-tinted glasses before the Vilnius NATO summit: we are vulnerable

Lithuanian and NATO flags DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Lithuania will host the NATO summit this summer, but many issues remain unresolved, with six months to go until mid-Summer. Vilnius will be hot, not only because of the summer and July weather but also because of the heated debates that are sure to follow. Arguments are expected to turn into disputes over more money for defence, more troops in the Baltic region, the Achilles’ heel of air defence and whether Ukraine will ever become a NATO member. Russia, of course, will not sleep either and has already announced that its army will be even bigger in three years’ time. The Alliance will have to respond to this; Jūratė Važgauskaitė is writing at tv3.lt news portal.

Defence and security experts, politicians and decision-makers also spoke at the Seimas about what is most important at the moment, what we want to achieve and what we can realistically expect when the NATO Heads of State meet in Vilnius. We cannot name names because that were the terms of the discussion.

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According to politicians and security experts, it is important to define what our ambitions are and how to realise them before the Vilnius NATO Summit. It is also important to understand that the security reality in Europe and in our region has changed since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. However, all Western politicians may not understand this.

Bucharest’s mistakes are biting hard

“Today, it is important to maintain NATO’s unity and commitment, and I hope that Vilnius will see a fundamental change, a realisation that political decisions must accompany support for Ukraine. We look forward to a comprehensive discussion on how we can help Ukraine.  <…> We all want peace, but we have to believe that we want sustainable peace, and so far, we do not see any signs of a change in the Kremlin’s objectives. <…> Although the Kremlin is losing on the battlefield, we see no signs that the threat from Russia is diminishing”, said one of the politicians at the conference.

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She said everyone agreed on deploying a much larger military force in the region to deter Russia. We are therefore grateful to Germany for its efforts while at the same time recognising that this (the deployment of the brigade) cannot be achieved in a day, a month or a year and that we need to focus on concrete actions.

“We can assure you that Lithuania will provide all the necessary resources to establish such a brigade. <…> There is also a need for the approval of updated defence plans. Still, reinforcement changes are not possible if the necessary funding is not forthcoming, and I hope that the 2% of GDP in Vilnius will be fixed as a minimum for commitment, which should also help the defence industry,” the policymaker reflected.

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She added that war is a cruel teacher, and we must see the bigger picture, look beyond Russia to other dictators and assess their collaboration.

Experts and decision-makers present at the discussion in the Seimas agreed that Lithuania, as the host of the NATO Summit, will not have a major opportunity to influence the agenda. However, the context is still favourable for us, and we have a good knowledge of the region and the political and security processes taking place here.

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Decision-makers also said that we need to ensure that the Vilnius NATO Summit focuses on Ukraine in speeches and actions.

“One of the things we need to do is to make sure that the NATO summit in Vilnius is indeed dedicated to Ukraine, so we need to convince our partners. The question that keeps coming up with our Western partners is, “What mistake did we make in attacking Russia? The mistake was that we refused to discuss Ukraine’s membership in NATO in Bucharest. That was a bad sign, and the Russians may have thought that Ukraine had been handed over to Russia. That is why we need to be clear with our partners”, said a policymaker who took part in the discussion.

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Vilnius will be a heated debate, and not everything will be to our liking

According to one of the defence experts who took part in the discussion, the forthcoming NATO meeting will be full of discussions, some of them heated because there is a whole range of important issues to be addressed.

“There will be four or five key issues, on the implementation of forward defence, on budget increases, on support to Ukraine and NATO membership, as well as on the admission of new members and on the broader view of the global situation. These are the key elements, and from a practical point of view, they should be placed in the context of achieving objectives and managing expectations. Managing expectations is more for an internal audience.

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On the practical side, we need to know that NATO is a consensus organisation. There are different points of view, different interests, as well as different planning traditions and military differences. The Summit is an opportunity to achieve the objectives, to make the changes we are talking about”, said the defence expert. 

He added that it is important not only to do your homework but also to understand the context when it comes to the presence of the German brigade in Lithuania. This is not a bilateral issue, it is an issue on the NATO agenda, and it is also important for the other countries that are active in the region, in the Baltic States.

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“We focus a lot on the discussions between Germany and Lithuania, but we also have to talk to the other allies. They have their own influence and their own vision. Our reasoning and our purpose are very clear. <…> There is some discussion in the Alliance that perhaps Russia’s military capabilities should not be overestimated, and we think that they should not be underestimated. We have clear evidence of this when we talk about the expansion of the Russian army, the presence in Belarus and Kaliningrad. That is why we must have NATO forces here. Air policing – air defence – is one of the most sensitive issues on the forward defence agenda.

For a decade now, there have been discussions on strengthening air defence in the region, moving from air policing to air defence. The need for air defence in the Alliance is great, and in the context of Ukraine, the need is even greater, but the defence industry’s capabilities are limited. Sometimes it seems that it is operating in a pre-Ukrainian war environment”, said the defence expert, who assured that there are all kinds of possible solutions for air defence, including rotating air defence systems.

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However, the most important thing is that there is not only political will but also plans with action algorithms to be able to act in a given situation.

Increasing the military budget is also likely to be hotly debated, but such an increase would help to revitalise the defence industry, making it faster and more efficient. Well, the support issue for Ukraine is not a homogenous one either, and obviously, it will be debated. The debate will not be about military support, apparently, but about Ukraine’s membership in NATO and its future prospects.

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The Ukrainians themselves are indeed sober about this prospect, and they talk primarily about support now and about the fact that the most important thing now is to win the war.

Lots of talk and dwindling reserves

The fact that Vilnius will be a hot spot not only because of the summer weather is also the message of another security and defence policymaker, which assures that it is here that we will need to show the changes that have been made since Madrid.

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“Beyond the names, we should have more concrete forces in place for the day of the meeting to be able to show something, which is worrying. There is a need to do more. It is the same situation with Ukraine. We cannot leave what we have, and we need what has been promised. It puts pressure on the West because everybody wants to be a leader”, said the defence and security policy maker.

There are both optimistic and pessimistic moods for the upcoming meeting, he said, but the most important thing would be to agree on an increase in defence spending, which would be a key sticking point.

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“Other things are also important, given the ability of NATO bureaucrats to put new names on old things, to rename things that are not happening. If this continues, we will have no progress. The past year has shown what NATO’s and the West’s ammunition reserves and capabilities are. The situation is bad. We have seen how many holes there are and what the reserves are. We are talking about reserves for ourselves, but where is something else that we could give to others? It is these calculations in units (of armaments) that reflect that situation, without going into political nuances here”, the defence and security policy maker said gloomily.

We are vulnerable

Russia, he said, should not be under any illusions. It is formidable, the technical base alone should not be underestimated, and then there is Putin’s and the defence minister’s talk of increasing the Russian army’s capabilities by 2026.

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“They are going to grow the army, create divisions, corps. The question is how many will succeed, how many will fail, but I would put the question in a different way, and where will we be in 2026 as an alliance? <…> We will not have any reinforcements, we will not have any additional deployments, and we will not have a quality deterrent, so we have to be realistic. What have we done? Has 2022 changed the way we think about how we should reposition ourselves with what we have? What we have now would make defence and deterrence more difficult”, argued the defence and security policy maker.

In his view, defence, in our case, should be imagined as a glass wall, with a small force in front to repel the enemy, but still aiming to break the wall. What we have now would slow the enemy down, but behind the wall, he said, the enemy must see what is waiting for him.

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“For that, you need a realistic starting point, and you have to realise that there will be no forward defence with what we have now. This does not mean that we are defenceless, but we must have a developed force. Committing is important.

This needs to be understood and accepted by the Western partners, and in this case, it is important for Germany to have that brigade with it at the beginning, not on paper but in reality. That is a start. NATO also needs collective acquisitions because there are many things we need, but they are too expensive”, the defence and security policy maker reflected.

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No need for rose-tinted glasses

Another decision-maker argued that one of the most important things is to do things consistently, step by step, whether in the deployment of forward deployments or the negotiation of a brigade presence here.

“We need real plans, a common security architecture, to know the big picture. It is important that when we are planning the future security architecture of NATO and modelling where we will be in a few years’ time, we know how we are going to see Russia, whether as a weakened country worth inviting to the negotiating table, or whether we are going to be guided by the fact that we are dealing with an existential enemy?

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We must convince our Western partners that we do not need a new approach with Russia. It is preparing for a long-term confrontation. Russia is likely to be able to rebuild its lost capacities quite quickly”, the decision-maker said.

He also discussed the need to calibrate the rhetoric when we say that we are more secure because then partners hear it and think, “maybe we are not doing anything”. The politician stressed that in addition to all this, it is also important to prepare ourselves, to strengthen society because a prepared society is a great pillar.

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