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What to watch for at this week’s NATO summit

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could complicate discussions of the alliance’s new Strategic Concept

The NATO flag in Brussels on June 15. (Valeria Mongelli/AFP)

NATO leaders are gathering in Madrid for a summit scheduled long before Russia expanded its ongoing war against Ukraine in February. The original focus for this week’s meeting was to adopt the alliance’s new Strategic Concept, the first in more than a decade.

Given the stakes involved in the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Madrid summit has taken on new importance and urgency.

Will NATO make room for two more?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has transformed the European security landscape. Last month, Finland and Sweden surprised many security scholars by announcing their intention to apply for NATO membership. Alliance partners since 1994 and participants in past NATO missions, neither Nordic country had ever displayed serious interest in joining NATO. However, Russian aggression against Ukraine helped uproot both countries’ foreign policy traditions of military nonalignment.

During her visit to Ukraine last month, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin described Russia’s invasion as a “turning point” for all of Europe and declared there was no possibility of returning to the old way of doing things. Back in April, she noted that Putin’s war had made clear that “There is no other way to have security guarantees than under NATO’s deterrence and common defense as guaranteed by NATO’s Article 5.”

The Swedish government’s about-face regarding NATO membership was even more surprising. In March, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was still rejecting calls by opposition members that her government join NATO. Back then, Andersson said joining the alliance would “further destabilize this area of Europe and increase tensions.”

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Fast forward to May 18, when her government, together with that of Finland, submitted an application to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. As President Biden remarked recently, in invading Ukraine, Putin sought “the Finlandization of NATO. He got the NATO-ization of Finland [and Sweden], instead.”

The accession of these two countries would have a dramatic impact on the map of Northern Europe, essentially turning the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake.” Unsurprisingly, Stoltenberg and key allies warmly welcomed the two countries’ decision to apply for membership. The United States made unprecedented security guarantees to cover the interim period between their application and their membership.

Is Turkey finally on board?

But the Swedish and Finnish bids ran into trouble from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was the lone holdout. In exchange for his country’s support for the two countries’ candidacy, Erdogan wanted less Swedish support for the Kurds and more attention, and perhaps more fighter aircraft, from the United States. As former senior Defense Department official Eric Edelman, who also served previously as ambassador to Finland and Turkey, put it: “This is like a Swiss-army knife for Erdogan — a multifunctional tool to get concessions from the Swedes, or whip up nationalist sentiment, or get face time with Joe Biden.”

After a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations, it now appears as if the logjam has been broken. The foreign ministers of Turkey, Sweden and Finland signed a trilateral memorandum on Tuesday, clearing way for Sweden and Finland’s formal candidacy.

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Will Europe fully embrace burden sharing?

In the aftermath of Russia’s February onslaught against Ukraine, European leaders were quick to herald what German chancellor Olaf Scholz called a Zeitenwende, a change of an era, as Germany promised to finally spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense. That’s what NATO leaders pledged to do by 2024 at their 2014 summit in Wales. The German government also set up a €100 billion fund this year for immediate military investments.

Will this moment last? Probably not. Transatlantic relations already appear back to the usual state, with the United States carrying the heavy burden for European security. Since February, the United States has provided more total assistance to Ukraine than the countries of the European Union combined.

To be sure, several NATO members have boosted their military commitments since February. Romania, Italy, Poland, Norway and prospective member Sweden have all recently joined Germany in pledging to increase defense spending.

The Madrid summit declaration will undoubtedly highlight a shared commitment to burden sharing. But pledges are meaningless without actual follow-through. Higher inflation and a growing threat of economic recession leave governments under added pressure to focus on social spending — rather than defense. Furthermore, any new military commitments will take years to bear fruit.

NATO is launching a formal strategic review. Here’s what that means.

What about the Strategic Concept?

The United States is more deeply engaged in Europe than the Biden administration intended — and Putin’s war has once again highlighted America’s role as the guarantor of European security. It wasn’t supposed to be this way: Washington’s focus was supposed to be on China. And that brings us to the original headliner of the Madrid summit: the Strategic Concept.

At their December 2019 summit, NATO leaders mentioned China for the first time in a summit declaration. The alliance’s last Strategic Concept, in 2010, didn’t address China. In 2021, we and other analysts had every expectation that the big item to look for at the gathering in Madrid this week would be a detailed explanation of NATO’s role in countering the growing threat from China.

But responding to Russian aggression, deterring future potential Russian military, political and cyberattacks on NATO members — and boosting the alliance’s force posture to shore up NATO’s eastern members — now take precedence. In fact, Stoltenberg on Monday announced NATO’s high-readiness forces would grow from 40,000 to more than 300,000, which means sizable numbers of U.S. troops will be heading to Europe.

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Although the Russia-Ukraine war is thus making the U.S. foreign policy pivot toward the Indo-Pacific that much harder, expect to see some language about China in the new Strategic Concept. One point to watch is whether a proposed summit on the sidelines takes place among NATO’s key Indo-Pacific partners: Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

As with any strategy document, of course, it’s the implementation that really matters. As NATO leaders gather in Madrid, one big question is whether the alliance has the energy not only to continue for as long as necessary the broad-based support for Ukraine but to tackle other key challenges as well.

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James Goldgeier (@JimGoldgeier) is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor of international relations at American University.

Sara B. Moller (@sb_moller) is a former Eisenhower Fellow at the NATO Defense College and will be joining the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University this year.