NATO’s latest summit in Vilnius is being heralded by its members as a great success and a new step in the process of strengthening the military alliance. But then, they would say that. We need to separate the facts from the press conference statements. If you peek into the goings on behind the scenes, you might get a glimpse of the actual divisions, rifts and challenges facing the imperialist organization.
One of the key questions of the Vilnius Summit was Ukraine’s NATO membership. For weeks, Ukrainian president Zelensky had been lobbying NATO’s members to get a firm commitment and a clear timetable for his country’s joining the alliance. This position also had the support of the Baltic countries and the U.K., but faced head-on opposition from the U.S. and Germany.
The final text of the summit declaration was very disappointing for the Ukrainian president. It says, in extremely vague terms: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” So, while the need for a Membership Action Plan has been formally removed, in practice, additional conditions that had not been mentioned before have been added. Furthermore, these “conditions” are not specified, other than general talk of “additional democratic and security sector reforms that are required”.
What does this mean? In theory, everyone agrees that Ukraine “will become a member of NATO”, the truth is that this is the commitment that was made at the Bucharest NATO Summit… 15 years ago in 2008! In practice, as U.S. president Biden stressed on the eve of the meeting, Ukraine cannot join NATO while there is a war going on and while some of its territory is contested, as this would lead—as per Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty—to a direct conflict between NATO and nuclear-armed Russia.
According to media reports of the discussions behind the scenes, it was the U.S. and Germany that insisted on watering down the language regarding Ukraine’s membership, to make it more vague. According to Bloomberg: “Earlier drafts of the communique offered a clearer pathway to Ukraine eventually joining, but Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz were wary of going too far. Their teams demanded changes in the final days before the summit, upsetting lots of the other European nations, as well as the Ukrainians.”
On hearing about this, Zelensky took to Twitter to criticise the wording of the proposed statement. “Ukraine also deserves respect,” he said, “we received signals that certain wording is being discussed without Ukraine… about the invitation to become NATO member, not about Ukraine’s membership.” This, he added, is “unprecedented and absurd when the time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership.” In a very angry tone, he pointed out: “at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine”. His conclusion was: “It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance.”
Of course, Zelensky is a master of using the media, and to a large extent this outburst was designed to put pressure on NATO members to change the statement. They did not. On the other hand, the Ukrainian president is also probably trying to establish a precedent for the future. If he is forced by the reality of the war into a situation in which he has to exchange territories for some sort of peace or frozen conflict, he can then turn around and say: it was the allies who did not give us the means to defeat the Russians.
The U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, not known for his diplomatic finesse, rebutted Zelensky by saying Ukraine should show more “gratitude” and that the U.K. was not their “Amazon delivery service” for weapons. This statement shows, in addition to Mr Wallace’s lack of wits, the real arrogant attitude of imperialism towards Ukraine. “You are fighting for all of us and in defence of our values,” they are told, “but you should say ‘thank you’ for the privilege of being able to send your children to die in the front line for us.” Or rather, “shut up, you servant, and know your place”.
What Wallace said publicly, other Western leaders told Zelensky in private. According to Bloomberg: “Over dinner in Vilnius… the other leaders delivered a clear message to Zelenskiy, according to one person who was present. You have to cool down and look at the full package, Zelenskiy was told.” [our emphasis]
Having kicked into the distant future the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership, Western imperialism then proceeded to make a few offers on other fronts in order to soften the blow. The G7 group issued a statement promising Ukraine security guarantees after the war. This, in fact, reinforces the message that Ukraine will not become a NATO member, because if it were a NATO member it would automatically be covered by the mutual self-defence commitment in Article 5 of the alliance treaty. These alternative security guarantees have been likened to those between the U.S. and Israel, where the latter is offered military and financial assistance, but there is no commitment to get directly involved with boots on the ground in an actual war.
Another bone thrown to Ukraine for the purpose of propaganda was the creation and first meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council. This is, in fact, nothing new, but just a rebranding of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which was established in 1997. A case of old wine in a new bottle.
So far, so muddled.
In relation to actual immediate assistance, there are also problems. Europe and the U.S. cannot produce ammunition fast enough to cover the needs of the Ukrainian army, now embarked in a war of attrition which has been going on for over 500 days. Since the Ukrainian counter-offensive began, it has been consuming ammunition at an even faster rate, without making a breakthrough. Military contractors are wary of expanding capacity, unless the states offer them firm medium-and-long-term contracts. Short of that, the current production capacity is at its limits.
This is what pushed Biden to take the decision to deliver cluster bombs to Ukraine, the only large stockpiles of munitions that they’ve yet to tap into, for obvious political reasons. This has split opinion amongst the capitalist parties in the U.S. and with its allies in Europe, with Germany expressing its unease. Of course, this is all highly hypocritical. Cluster munitions have been used in the Ukraine war from day one, both on the part of Russia and on the part of Ukraine. Indeed, according to Human Rights’ Watch, Kyiv used them before the current war, including in highly-populated areas in Donetsk in 2014. Neither the U.S., nor Russia, nor Ukraine are signatories to treaties banning their use.
The U.S. has never hesitated in using weapons that are technically “illegal” in previous imperialist adventures. The real point revealed by the row over cluster munitions is the enormous pressure exerted on the western imperialists’ stocks of weapons and ammo by the prolongation of the war in Ukraine. For months, we were subjected to a daily dose of the story that Russian reserves have been depleted and that its war effort was about to collapse. Now we find out that, in fact, it is western reserves that are at capacity.
Furthermore, sending cluster munitions is a bit of a desperate act on the part of the U.S. This is a very unreliable type of bomb. According to a study by the NY Times, its failure rate is as high as 14 per cent. Even leaving aside the higher rate of civilian casualties inflicted by cluster bombs, and the fact that unexploded bomblets, are left on the ground causing civilian deaths for decades to come, it is not difficult to understand that, if Ukraine ever used them to weaken heavily entrenched Russian defences, when finally Ukrainian soldiers manage to make a breakthrough they will have to advance through terrain peppered with unexploded pieces of ordinance.
The truth is that the much-hyped Ukrainian counter-offensive, now in its sixth week, has achieved very little. The counter-offensive is important, not only from the purely military, but above all from a political point of view. It is clear that U.S. imperialism and its European allies are increasingly under pressure about the cost of the war. If Ukraine cannot show any clear progress, or at least the prospect of progress on the battlefield, appetite for continuing the supply of billions of dollars, pounds and euros in equipment, ammunition, etc. will dry up.
Biden is also already entering the next election cycle in the U.S., where the question of the money spent on fighting Russia in Ukraine will be an important factor. If there are no significant changes on the frontline before the winter, then pressure for negotiations will intensify again.
The lack of commitments on NATO membership but with continued military and financial aid, amidst constant wrangling about new types of weapons being delivered, underline a fundamental feature of this conflict. The military aims of the U.S. (to decisively weaken Russia, but not to escalate into an open NATO-Russia conflict) are not the same as the stated aims of Ukraine (total military victory with the expulsion of Russia from all occupied territories, including Crimea). At some point, this division can become an open conflict.
Betrayal of the Kurds
The other important step taken at the NATO summit was in relation to Sweden’s membership. Since this was first announced at the Madrid Summit (see “NATO Summit: China in the crosshairs“), Turkey had used the fact that the decision required a unanimous vote as leverage to extract concessions from its “partners”.
First of all, it forced Sweden into collaborating in Turkey’s prosecution of Kurdish organizations (both those linked to the PKK and the Syrian YPG); secondly, it demanded an end to Sweden’s arms embargo on Turkey; and finally it wanted the U.S. to renew sales of F-16 fighters and F-16 fighter modernization kits, which were suspended when Turkey purchased Russian air defence systems.
Erdogan is a skilled manoeuvrer and he made sure he delayed the process as much as possible so that he would get satisfaction on all his demands… and then he added another one: Turkey’s membership in the EU. Thus, on the eve of the summit, there was a tripartite meeting between NATO, Sweden and Turkey, which issued a statement giving in to Erdogan’s blackmail. The statement is both scandalous and worth quoting at length.
“Since the last NATO Summit, Sweden and Türkiye have worked closely together to address Türkiye’s legitimate security concerns. As part of that process, Sweden has amended its constitution, changed its laws, significantly expanded its counter-terrorism cooperation against the PKK, and resumed arms exports to Türkiye, all steps set out in the Trilateral Memorandum agreed in 2022” [our emphasis].
Read that again. Not only has nice, democratic, Scandinavian Sweden sold the Kurds down the river in exchange for membership in an aggressive military imperialist alliance, but it has gone as far as amending its constitution (overruling legal objections and fast tracking the process) and changing its laws. This is a case of the Groucho Marx approach to principles: “these are mine, but if you don’t like them, I have others”.
As for EU-Turkey relations, the statement also forces Sweden’s hand:
“Sweden will actively support efforts to reinvigorate Türkiye’s EU accession process, including modernisation of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union and visa liberalisation.”
This whole sordid affair is very instructive, in as much as it reveals the real content of bourgeois imperialist diplomacy. On the surface, there is always a democratic, humanitarian and international legality cover for decisions made. In reality, naked self interest, profits and the defence of capitalism at home and abroad prevail.
The European Union had no qualms in reaching a deal with Erdogan for him to police the bloc’s borders and keep migrants out. The national oppression of the Kurds in Turkey did not enter into their calculations. When U.S. imperialism decided to use the Syrian Kurds for their own purposes, all the talk was about national oppression. Sweden followed suit. When they were no longer useful, they were abandoned to their fate in exchange for a deal with the more-powerful Turkey.
This should serve as a warning to anyone harbouring any illusions that U.S. imperialism is defending national sovereignty in the Ukraine war.
Additionally, two days before the summit opened, the U.S. promised to sell the F-16 fighters and upgrade kits that Turkey wanted, sealing the deal. The other side of this disgusting bargain is the way in which Turkey uses the rivalry between different imperialist powers (in this case the U.S. and Russia) to try to balance one off against the other, and obtain the best possible bargain (air defence systems from one side versus fighter jets from the other, in this case).
Dealing with Russia and China
Finally, it is worth mentioning some of the language in the NATO summit’s final communiqué, which follows on from the new NATO Strategic Concept document approved at the Madrid Summit. Using cynical terminology about “democratic values”, “human rights”, “our shared values” and a “rules-based world order”, NATO is saying very clearly: “Russia and China are our enemies and we need to step up in order to face them”. So much for a “purely defensive” alliance that is “not a threat” to anyone.
While the organization’s name makes mention of the North Atlantic, the summit’s statements list the areas of the world that are important to NATO or of “strategic interest”, including, but not limited to the Middle East, Africa, North Africa and the Sahel regions, the Indo-Pacific and even outer-space! All of these areas need to be covered by what NATO describes as a “360-degree approach”. In other words, by its own admission, NATO wants to control the whole world (and beyond).
In doing so, it is in conflict with Russia and China. The former is described as having “increased its multi-domain military build-up and presence in the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Sea regions, and maintains significant military capabilities in the Arctic.” NATO complains of “Russia’s more assertive posture, novel military capabilities, and provocative activities, including near NATO borders, as well as its large-scale no-notice and snap exercises” which, they say, “continue to threaten the security of the Euro-Atlantic area”.
In other words, NATO recognizes Russian imperialism and its “more assertive posture” as a threat to its own imperialist interests, in several regions of the world.
In reference to China, the document says that its “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” The statement adds that: “the P.R.C. employs a broad range of political, economic, and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power”. Later on it accuses China of seeking to “control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains”, and of using “its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence.”
What NATO is saying is: “China is an imperialist power. It is acting in the same way we do, and we are not prepared to allow it.” They are particularly worried about the growing Russia-China collaboration (which has been greatly enhanced by Western sanctions on Russia): “The deepening strategic partnership between the P.R.C. and Russia and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”
Just in case anyone was worried about the aggressive war-mongering language of the NATO summit statement, the allies hasten to add that they will: “advance gender equality and integrate gender perspectives… in all that we do”, as well as being, “committed to significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the NATO political and military structures and facilities”; and “contribute to combating climate change by improving energy efficiency, transitioning to clean energy sources.” There you are! Western imperialism will now integrate gender perspectives when invading a foreign land and use clean energy when engaging in regime change! What more can you ask for?
The conclusion of all of this is that member states need to increase military spending even beyond the agreed target of two per cent of GDP: “in many cases, expenditure beyond 2 percent of GDP will be needed in order to remedy existing shortfalls and meet the requirements across all domains arising from a more contested security order” [our emphasis].
This is the voice of the U.S. demanding that its partners contribute more to this imperialist rearmament policy, to keep up with China and Russia. America already spends nearly 3.5 per cent of its GDP on defence, while most of the other NATO members are only spending around 1.5 per cent.
Here we can see clearly where the priorities of the capitalist class lie. The recent German budget is a glaring example, with massive cuts worth €31 billion, hitting education, healthcare, childcare and other social spending particularly hard, but sparing defence alone.
U.S. imperialism, through NATO, is preparing to defend the interests of its multinational capitalist companies, in competition with the imperialist interests of China and Russia. The working class all over the world will be asked to pay, as usual.
The only way to escape from the nightmarish prospect of inter-imperialist conflict, war, and assaults on living standards and hard-win rights of working people is to put an end to this rotten capitalist system. To those who say, “we want peace”, we respond, “fight for socialism!”