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What To Expect From The NATO Summit In Madrid

NATO leaders, including Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, will gather in Madrid on June 28-30 in one of the most anticipated meetings the military alliance has held in recent times.
NATO leaders, including Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, will gather in Madrid on June 28-30 in one of the most anticipated meetings the military alliance has held in recent times.

NATO leaders will gather in Madrid on June 28-30 for one of the most anticipated meetings the military alliance has held in recent times.

As Sweden and Finland aim to unblock their paths to membership, NATO is bolstering its eastern flank, and war-stricken Ukraine is desperate for more military support, RFE/RL's Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak looks at what are likely to be the summit's main developments.

A Breakthrough For Sweden And Finland?

The status of the alliance's newest aspirants is probably the most pressing question ahead of the summit. Many expected that Sweden and Finland would come to the Spanish capital as NATO invitees, with the accession protocols signed and the ratification process already under way in the parliaments of the current 30 NATO member states.

But, in mid-May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled his opposition to the Nordic countries' applications, voicing concerns both about the informal Western arms embargo imposed on Ankara due to its military incursion into northern Syria and foreign support for various Kurdish causes, notably in Sweden. A process that was supposed to be expedited has now ground almost to a halt for over a month now.

All eyes will now be on a meeting on the sidelines of the summit on June 28 between Erdogan, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto -- a meeting engineered by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. This comes after what Stoltenberg described as a "good call" with the Turkish president over the weekend and negotiations among the diplomats of the three countries in Brussels.

The Swedish prime minister also dropped by NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 27, increasing speculation that a compromise was in the works. NATO, however, has been keen to temper expectations, saying that the summit was "never a deadline."

The question now is if Erdogan is ready to strike a deal and how far Sweden is willing to go to compromise. NATO officials familiar with the matter who asked to remain anonymous told RFE/RL that there was some "calibrated optimism" that an agreement could be reached, hinting that the Turkish leader might want to portray himself as a "deal broker on the international stage."

For Sweden and Finland to get Erdogan's blessing, they might have to agree not to fully implement the arms embargo on Turkey (a practice many Western powers have already adopted) and to strengthen their anti-terrorism legislation, something Ankara is pushing for.

For Sweden, with a sizable Kurdish migrant community, it might also mean less overt support for Kurdish organizations in both Syria and Turkey -- and perhaps the extradition of certain individuals wanted by Turkish authorities.

If some sort of goodwill pact between the trio is signed, allowing the accession process to start, don't be surprised by another Turkish veto further down the road if Erdogan feels that the Nordic commitments aren't being honored.

How Best To Support Ukraine

The summit will, of course, be dominated by the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has an added urgency after G7 leaders called a Russian missile strike on a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk a "war crime." There had been speculation that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy would attend the Madrid summit in person, but he will now address NATO leaders via video link.

There will almost certainly be more concrete support for Kyiv, including what NATO calls a "new comprehensive assistance package" consisting of equipment such as drones, body armor, secure communications tools, and fuel. It's also possible individual allies will also pledge heavier military equipment.

The closed-door discussions will likely focus on how much military equipment should be provided for Ukraine and for how long. The NATO line, for now, is that everyone needs to be prepared for the long haul and that there is a political and moral obligation to provide substantial support to Ukraine. But as the war becomes increasingly one of attrition and Western voters' sympathy for Ukraine wanes, this stance could be revisited later this year.

Bolstering The Eastern Flank

What you will hear repeatedly in Madrid is that NATO is a "defensive alliance" that is "ready to defend every inch of allied territory" -- messages that are aimed at Moscow as a deterrent and to NATO's population as an assurance.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO, for the first time ever, deployed combat-ready battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance. These battlegroups -- placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland -- are now expected to be beefed up from battalions into brigades. And since this spring, battlegroups have also been created in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

But despite this troop boost, there are still plenty of nerves. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas recently said that her country would be "wiped out" under current NATO plans and only liberated afterwards, urging the alliance to defend allied territory with a larger number of troops from Day One instead of having smaller so-called "trip-wire" forces waiting in the wings.

NATO is currently "preassigning" forces to defend specific allies. For example, the German armed forces are moving weapons and military equipment to Lithuania but still keeping their troops in Germany, ready to deploy to the Baltic country at a moment's notice.

With Vilnius currently being threatened by Moscow as it blocks EU-sanctioned Russian goods from reaching the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a key question is whether these "trip-wire" forces will be seen by member countries -- and, most importantly, by Russia -- as enough of a deterrent.

A New Strategic Concept For NATO

Roughly every decade, NATO agrees on a new strategic concept, which is supposed to spell out the alliance's main focus in the years ahead. The last such concept was agreed back in Lisbon in 2010 in a world that looks radically different from today. Back then, the document stated that the Euro-Atlantic area was at peace and that Russia was a strategic partner. China was not even mentioned.

Expect that to change in Madrid.

Stoltenberg has noted that the new text "will make clear that [the NATO] allies consider Russia to be the most significant and direct threat to our security." China will also most likely be mentioned for the first time ever in a NATO strategic concept. While China won't be described as an "adversary," it is expected that it will be acknowledged that Beijing poses challenges to NATO values, interests, and security.

China's growing influence will also be reflected in the fact that the leaders of NATO's Asia-Pacific partners -- Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea -- will participate at a NATO summit for the first time.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.