NATO’s Future and Ukraine’s Struggle: Key Topics at Day One of the NATO Summit

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien is a published journalist and historicist with over six years of experience in freelance journalism and research. His primary expertise is in African conflict and politics, with additional specialization in Israeli/Palestinian and Armenia/Azerbaijan conflicts. Sébastien serves as the deputy desk chief for Africa.

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Today marked the first day of the NATO summit in Washington DC, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of its establishment. The war in Ukraine was a hot topic of conversation, as has been the case during several previous NATO summits and meetings of Western leaders, particularly as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a surprise visit to the summit in Washington. There have been a number of notable happenings and topics on the minds of many for the summit, so let’s take a look.

A photo of the gathering of NATO leaders at the Washington DC Nato summit on July 9th, 2024 (Photo from NATO.int).

The War in Ukraine

Earlier this year, the Russo-Ukrainian War hit the two-year mark. Prior to and since the war’s beginning, the majority of NATO countries have offered significant material, financial, and political support to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia.

As the war has continued far beyond the expectations of some analysts, some Western nations have lowered their support for Ukraine as the effects of a two-year expansive war are felt in the militaries and economies of supporting nations. Other nations, particularly the US, have called for an expansion of support for Ukraine and continue to pass large aid packages to support the Ukrainian war effort.

These expressions of support continued today, as US President Joe Biden gave a speech in which he stated that “Ukraine can and will stop Putin,” in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin wants nothing less, nothing less, than Ukraine’s total subjugation … and to wipe Ukraine off the map.” -US President Joe Biden

Ukraine has also continued to call for the expansion of aid. In particular, President Zelenskyy has requested additional air defense systems and F-16s.

The need for additional air defense was evidenced yesterday, on the eve of the summit, when a series of Russian missile strikes killed 36 people and injured 140. During the strikes, Kyiv’s Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital was hit, killing two people in the hospital and severely damaging the building. Approximately 60-70 percent of the building was damaged, and its patients had to be evacuated. A maternity hospital, also in Kyiv, was reportedly partially destroyed by falling debris, which killed seven people.

Russia denied targeting the hospital, instead blaming fragments of Ukrainian air defense missiles, whereas Ukraine stated they found fragments of a Russian cruise missile in the debris of the hospital.

In a video statement, President Zelenskyy stated that the Ukrainian government would give 100 million UAH (approximately $2.5 million USD) to restore the hospital and pledged to give 300 million more UAH from corporate donations.

Zelenskyy also thanked Western nations for their support in the war and for condemning the hospital strike and “Russian terror.” While in Washington, President Zelenskyy visited the Holodomor memorial and today, Tuesday, gave a speech at the close of the summit. He is expected to meet with President Biden on Thursday, July 11th, the last day of the summit.

A photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena Zelenska, laying wheat offerings at the Holodomor memorial in Washington DC. The Holodomor was a man made famine and russification attempt in Ukraine orchestrated by Soviet authorities from 1932-33, which led to the deaths of an estimated 3.5-5 million Ukrainians (Photo from President Zelenskyy’s instagram).

It is expected that the summit will introduce further NATO commitments for military aid to Ukraine. Already, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that NATO has placed an order for approximately $700 million USD worth of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles for several of its member states. It is unclear how many of the missiles will end up being sent to Ukraine. Stinger missiles sent in the past have proven effective at repulsing Russian air attacks.

US officials and Secretary Stoltenberg reaffirmed Ukraine’s path towards joining NATO, but there remains no timeline for their entry, as some are unsure if they will actually be extended an invitation.

The Health of the President

Under close scrutiny at the summit by adversaries and allies alike will be President Biden’s performance. Questions have been raised about the President’s health after a rocky debate performance against former President Donald Trump last month.

The questions raised have resulted in a number of Democrats calling for the President to step down, while the core of the Democratic Party thus far has maintained their support for President Biden’s candidacy.

Biden’s health is being closely watched due to the importance of the US’s leadership role in NATO and concerns that his allegedly declining health could increase the chances of Trump returning to office.

The prospect of Trump’s return has caused a slight nervousness in the alliance, especially after Trump stated in February he would allow Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members who do not meet the obligatory 2% mark for GDP spent on defense. Additionally, Trump has signaled he would lessen support for Ukraine.

If President Biden wins the presidency, he will have to continue to convince his allies that he is capable of meeting the requirements of leading the nation, and US actions in the alliance.

During President Biden’s speech at the summit, he appeared in much better health than during the debate.

Pressure on the UK’s New Prime Minister

UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer, who was elected in a landslide victory for the UK’s Labour Party last week, made his first appearance at a NATO summit. His attendance comes as the PM is facing pressure to increase defense spending in the face of mounting threats. It is also the PM’s first trip outside the UK since his election.

The UK already surpasses the 2% requirement, spending approximately 2.32% of its GDP on defense. However questions have been raised as to the readiness and ability of the UK’s armed forces.

In order to address these questions, PM Starmer has vowed to increase spending to 2.5%, and launch a review of the UK’s defense capabilities, and what it needs. This review is expected to take up to a year to complete. While PM Starmer has committed to increasing defense spending to 2.5%, he has yet to provide a timeline for such a move, only stating that the increase would happen “as soon as resources allow.”

UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer (Photo from PA Wire).

Former PM Sunak, the head of the Conservative Party during the election—and who today resigned from that post—committed to increasing spending to 2.5% by 2030.

The lack of a timeline established from PM Starmer has come under fire by allies and opponents alike, with Labour peer Alan West condemning the lack of a timeline.

“I think we ought to say when we are going to get to 2.5%. ‘When the situation allows’ is not really good enough – Putin will not wait for our situation to be good enough before he attacks.” -Labour peer Alan West

PM Starmer stated that an increase would not come until the review of the UK’s defense capabilities is complete, meaning a timeline is unlikely to be established until this review is completed as well.

Mounting Dissatisfaction

Canada is another nation facing pressure to increase its defense spending after not meeting the 2% target.

Canada has consistently fallen behind in its spending obligations. Presently, Canada only spends 1.34% of its GDP on defense, far below the requirement.

Dissatisfaction has grown among Canada’s alliance members, especially those in Europe who have faced diplomatic pressure from the US to increase their own spending to meet the target, pressure which Canada has largely managed to escape. The problem is worsened by Canada providing no timeline to reaching the 2% mark.

A photo of Canadian Minister of Defence Bill Blair (centre), with Estonian Minister of Defence Hanno Pevkur (left), and Finnish Minister of Defence Antti Hakkanen (right) at the North Atlantic Council meeting in Brussels on June 14th, 2024 (Photo from Virginia Mayo/AP).

For the 2024/2025 fiscal year, 23 of NATO’s 32 members are expected to hit the 2% mark.

Within the alliance, Canada has the seventh-largest budget for defense spending in dollar amounts. However, it is one of the alliance’s largest economies, and it has been questioned as to why it continues to fail to meet marks despite this fact.

Canada is additionally failing to spend 20 percent of its defense spending on new equipment, another NATO requirement. This has resulted in Canada’s military hardware aging significantly, and the readiness of Canada’s military to face threats falling under scrutiny, including from those within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). According to a leaked internal report, half of Canada’s military equipment is “unavailable and unserviceable.”

Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre stated in an interview in June that “the military that we have right now is not ready to counter the threats that we see coming.”

Dissatisfaction toward Canada had increased, especially after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled a new defense policy in April, which showed a marginal increase in defense spending to 1.7% by 2030, still falling below the 2% requirement.

Some officials have become particularly vocal about their criticism towards Canada, with US House Speaker Mike Johnson accusing Canada of “riding America’s coattails.”

Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 6th, 2024. (Photo from AP/Jose Luis Magana).

Canada and Belgium are the only two nations to meet neither the 2% GDP target nor the 20 percent spending on new equipment. Canada only stands above Slovenia, Turkey, Spain, Belgium, and Luxembourg in its GDP percentage spending.

Launching Initiatives

NATO released a press statement stating that 17 NATO countries had signed the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) programme, meant to increase the alliance’s abilities to carry out surveillance from space. NATO described it as “the largest multinational investment in space-based capabilities in NATO’s history,” adding that it would increase NATO’s ability to monitor activities both on the ground and at sea.

According to the agreement, the 17 signatories will commit a total of over $1 billion dollars to the program over the next five years.

The statement further adds that 22 member states signed a Letter of Intent for the Allied software for Cloud and Edge (ACE) services, which they state will “improve operational efficiency by ensuring unified communications and enabling seamless sharing of data across land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains of operation.”

Lastly, NATO stated that Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have signed a “Declaration of Cooperation on Cross-Border Airspace,” which expands the alliance’s abilities to use the airspace of those respective nations for exercises, thus increasing the scale and effectiveness of exercises.

The NATO Summit Continues …

Today was just day one of the NATO summit. Check back tomorrow for a recap of day two!