Ukraine’s Path to NATO Central Question at Vilnius Summit

Balkan Devlen & Zachary Paikin

In this week’s Expert Series, Balkan Devlen, MLI Senior Fellow and Transatlantic Program director, and Zachary Paikin, Researcher in the EU Foreign Policy unit at CEPS, unpack the key topics set to take center stage at the upcoming NATO Summit. 


The challenges and considerations expected to shape deliberations at the NATO Vilnius Summit put Ukraine’s membership in NATO, defence spending, and the rise of China in centre view. As NATO takes stock of its strategic footing in the face of shifting centres of geopolitical influence and an increasingly unstable global security environment, it is critical to recognize the impact that these issues have on the future of international security. Major questions around what measures can be taken to ensure the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia, how and where to allocate resources to boost NATO’s defence and deterrence posture across the Alliance, and whether to pursue more robust security arrangements with partners outside the Euro-Atlantic region will be the subject of much debate.

Key Findings

  • NATO’s gradual approach to assisting Ukraine effectively prolongs the war, which plays into Putin’s desire to indefinitely delay Ukraine’s NATO membership.
  • Competing pressures on resources remain a challenge and warrants a critical look at what can be committed to and how to enact a plan to get there.
  • Unwillingness to recognize the integrated nature of security threats across regions is unhelpful to establishing a more robust deterrence posture across the Alliance.
  • Adversaries view the Arctic and Baltic, as well as the Black Sea and Mediterranean as connected security areas, not separate zones.
  • Nordic allies continue to upgrade capabilities and work more closely together in the Arctic; if Canada does not follow up in kind, it may pose a weak link in Arctic security that can be exploited by adversaries.


Ukraine’s NATO Membership and Russia’s Relationship with the West

While Ukraine’s membership in NATO is not expected by anyone to take place while Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine is ongoing, its eventual membership in NATO is important for the security of the Alliance as a whole. Ukraine is no longer a neutral country where Russia is concerned—it is now firmly rooted in the West. There is a need for NATO to provide a clear pathway for Ukraine’s membership post-war, and in the interim provide it with the resources needed to ensure the success of its counteroffensive and bring the war to an end. However, disagreement remains in the Alliance with respect to what a membership pathway and timeline might look like for Ukraine, and what level of assurance or guarantee should be committed to.

Concerns over what escalatory response Ukraine’s membership in NATO might elicit from Russia stem from rhetoric coming out of Moscow around threats of retaliation and escalation, but there may be grounds to doubt whether that rhetoric would materialize into action. NATO has clearly communicated that it will not go to war with Russia, and as a result, Putin has diverted resources and troops from borders with NATO nations to the war and occupation in Ukraine. This may suggest that Russia is counting on NATO to maintain that status quo, which effectively enables Putin to determine the course of Ukraine’s NATO membership since a prolonged war means indefinitely delaying membership. A stronger stance by NATO is not likely to elicit an escalation from Russia, but a reassessment.

Defence Spending and Deterrence Posture

The discussion around 2% being a floor or a ceiling will bring serious questions for Prime Minister Trudeau. While 2% is an arbitrary measurement, it is what was agreed to, and Canada needs to assure our allies that we will be meeting our commitments. It is not expected that we will be able to roll out capabilities immediately, but we must be able to demonstrate our plan to reach our spending commitments with concrete language and timelines, and dollars attached.

Canada faces significant challenges to meet our NATO commitments and address security concerns in the Arctic and Indo-Pacific with limited resources and personnel. The competing pressures on resources necessitates a closer look at strategy with respect to the broader security environment and consideration of what trade-offs may have to be made. Increasing our commitment to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia is an important step, and as the framework nation, Canada must be able to provide the plan of action.

The Rise of China in the Indo-Pacific and Implications for Canada and the Arctic

China’s increasingly assertive actions in the Indo-Pacific bring to bear the shifting theatres of strategic competition, and the deepening ties between China and Russia warrant serious consideration by NATO as to how to position itself as an institutional partner and ally in the region. The presence of the Asia-Pacific 4 at the NATO Vilnius Summit and their clear support of Ukraine underscores the importance of the relationship between NATO member states and Indo-Pacific allies, as well as the need for closer coordination to address integrated challenges and overlapping security concerns.

While reluctance remains on behalf of some European allies with respect to NATO’s role in the Indo-Pacific, the reality is that China’s actions are not limited to a single region, but rather signal its rising influence globally. In the event of a contest in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea, Canada, and Europe, will not have the option of ‘sitting it out’ and letting the U.S. pick up the slack.

China views the Eastern Passage as an access point to the Atlantic as well as other regions. While Nordic allies are upgrading capabilities and coordination in the Arctic, Canada remains somewhat hesitant to engage with increased NATO involvement in the region. If Canada does not follow up with the necessary resources to match the efforts of our Nordic allies, it may result in a weak link in Arctic security that can be exploited not only by China but Russia as well, whose nuclear forces are stationed in the Arctic.


  • Canada must commit to concrete language with dollars attached to demonstrate its commitment to meet defence spending.
  • Canada’s position on Ukraine’s NATO membership should be strongly in support of; call for a clear pathway, deadlines, and procedures.
  • Canada may not have the stocks to supply weapons to Ukraine, but can provide support through other means, such as underwriting production of capabilities.
  • Options available to increase support to Ukraine outside of NATO membership include multilateral agreements in the form of long-term commitments.
  • Establish a permanent stationing of NATO troops in the Eastern Flank.
  • Consideration of the official termination of the NATO-Russia Act of 1997, which Russia has been violating for over a decade.

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