Economic Statecraft
NATO Summit in Vilnius: Stairways Change Directions

NATO demonstrates consistency in creating ordered chaos by returning to Cold War practices. On the other hand, the conservatism of the approach is aimed at cementing the status quo and will exhaust itself as soon as external conditions change. A structure adapted to positional actions in Europe will have to be rebuilt or dismantled, because the conflict in Europe will ultimately be on the periphery of global processes, writes Julia Melnikova.

“Chaos is a ladder.” This famous phrase, uttered by the courtier Petyr Baelish in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, fits well with the reality of today. In classical international relations theory, anarchy as a basic characteristic is not equated with chaos; it means the absence of a higher authority in a given system. However, overcoming anarchy is necessary for the formation of global order, due to the balance of power, complex interdependence, or the development of common norms of interaction. Today, this process has not been completed; moreover, the lack of order has paradoxically turned into a structural condition of the international political environment, and therefore all players really have the opportunity to increase their existing resources (economic, military, ideological), and to change their foreign policy vector.

For the North Atlantic Alliance, the transition of the conflict between Russia and the West to a new phase with the start of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine created this very seemingly productive chaos. Prior to this, for decades, NATO was in search of a social function and a corresponding renewal of its collective identity: from a military bloc that existed to contain the USSR to a crisis manager, an anti-terrorist organisation and a security conductor whose focus is already directed to the whole world. By 2019-2020, as one of the main directions of the bloc’s potential development, the United States began to consider the possibility of using it to counter China in Asia. None of this contributed to centripetal tendencies: the problems of the unity of the allies did not leave the agenda, primarily between the United States and the large EU countries, which are by no means interested in a confrontation with the PRC. Uncomfortable questions arose in connection with the need to increase defence budgets, transform the NATO military machine in the Asia-Pacific region, and develop European security projects, such as the Permanent Structured Defence Cooperation, the development of the Strategic Compass, and the strengthening of the European Defence Fund.

Russia’s operation in Ukraine seemed to have eliminated all these problems, returning NATO to an obvious and easily conceptualised sense of existence. The Madrid 2022 summit demonstrated a rare unity and transatlantic solidarity. The idea of a common enemy personified by Russia returned to the adopted new strategic concept, designed for eight years, and a decision was made to further strengthen the eastern borders of the alliance. It is also important that Germany, which resisted the increase in defence budgets for a long time, surrendered, Finland and Sweden began preparations for entry, and discussions of the membership of Ukraine and Georgia began again. In other words, all the prerequisites were created for NATO to move up the stairway of chaos.

However, a year later, one can hardly speak of breakthroughs. None of the parties involved in the conflict in Europe, while demonstrating a significant degree of resistance to stress, involvement and determination in pursuing their goals, has been able to achieve visible progress. Actions on the ground and in the political space have become positional in nature. The conflict is generalising, its perception has reached a new level of generalisation, and the trend towards the transformation of the world order is gradually replacing European stories from the front pages of the world media. Key processes are taking place in Asia. The actions of China, India, the African countries and the ASEAN countries are becoming more fundamental for the future world order.

Under these conditions, the semiotics of the 2023 Vilnius summit are again aimed at demonstrating the unity of the transatlantic allies. US President Joe Biden arrived in Europe in advance and is holding meetings with key leaders; at the end, he will deliver a keynote speech. The Lithuanian leadership has called the event “historic”. On the agenda is the publication of the position of the allies on Kiev’s membership in the alliance, “the doors of which are still open.” The invited participants include Ukrainian President Zelensky. However, in reality, the event is unlikely to lead to historic decisions. Plots worth watching during the summit can be ranked in terms of predictability for Russia’s strategic calculations, and you will find that they all require rather technical solutions.

The issue which has received the most media coverage, Ukraine’s membership in NATO, is the most predictable. Back in autumn, when the application was submitted, there were recommendations from Brussels for Kiev to focus on maintaining its independence, and not joining the alliance. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whose term was recently extended for another year, notes the differences in the views of the countries of the alliance, ranging from freezing the issue to developing a roadmap for accession. Their active pressure is also reinforced by Ukraine itself. It seems that the final position will be in the middle: the package of material assistance to Kiev will be impressive, while the prospects for membership will remain vague. NATO’s military support for Ukraine is an unfavourable factor for Russia, but not unexpected.

An issue that has been deadlocked all year is Sweden’s membership in the alliance, whose application has not yet been ratified by Turkey and Hungary. However, Stockholm has better prospects than Kiev, since the eve of the summit negotiations that were held between the leaders of the three countries and the leadership of the alliance. At the same time, even if the dispute can be solemnly resolved at the summit, this does not add anything new to Moscow’s strategic calculations. The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly issued statements that retaliatory measures are ready and will not keep anyone waiting.

Negotiations with partners from Asia on the sidelines of the summit, which happened last year, are expected to happen again. Here, some steps that are not yet quite obvious can be taken in terms of financing common projects and conducting joint exercises. However, India’s consent is unlikely to be obtained in further promoting NATO cooperation and, for example, the Quadripartite Security Dialogue in the European region. Cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific is a problem that, in a broad sense, is preparing the world order for a confrontation in the Asia-Pacific, but to a greater extent affects the strategic calculations of China, not Russia.

The most non-standard plot is regional defence plans. In the 1990s NATO moved away from the regional principle of structuring the military machine in favour of a mobile deployment force, as required by the tasks in the Middle East. The first phase of the return to the former set-up was the deployment of four additional battalions in Eastern Europe after the Warsaw summit in 2016. Regional plans are now in place for the North Atlantic and the Arctic; Eastern and Central Europe, as well as Southern Europe and the Black Sea. The systemic strengthening of the structure around Russian borders, the modernisation of the military complexes of regional states, and the return to positional defence planning is a fundamental change in NATO’s military structure, returning it to the Cold War model, which will require appropriate adaptation on the Russian side as well. This is especially true of the historically demilitarised Arctic, where concerns about turning into a new arena of rivalry for both Arctic and non-Arctic states are constantly growing.

Accordingly, on the one hand, NATO demonstrates consistency in creating ordered chaos by returning to Cold War practices. On the other hand, the conservatism of the approach is aimed at cementing the status quo and will exhaust itself as soon as external conditions change. A structure adapted to positional actions in Europe will have to be rebuilt or dismantled, because the conflict in Europe will ultimately be on the periphery of global processes. Returning to the stairway metaphor, one can recall another one, also from a children’s classic. At Hogwarts, freshmen were immediately warned that the stairs change direction: you can purposefully move up, but end up on a random floor in front of a completely unnecessary door.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.