Insights

Ukraine, Sweden, the Indo-Pacific and NATO’s Southern Flank are the focus of the Alliance’s 2023 Summit in Vilnius

The Vilnius meeting was an opportunity for Italy to stress the importance of the Southern Flank and the link between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific

On 11 and 12 July, the heads of state and government as well as the Foreign and Defence ministers of NATO’s 31 member states met in Vilnius for the Alliance’s 2023 Summit.

As had been the case in Madrid in 2022, the summit’s main focus was on the armed aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and the risks posed by Russia to stability and peace in the entire Euro-Atlantic region, and in particular along the Alliance’s eastern flank.

This year’s meeting presented several new elements. It was the first NATO Summit which saw Finland participate as a member state and, presumably – after Turkey’s assent just hours ahead of the meeting – also the last one in which Sweden will take part as an observer.

While in 2022 Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the summit remotely, this year he travelled to Lithuania, where he was welcomed by Jens Stoltenberg – recently reappointed as NATO’s Secretary General until 2024. On this occasion, NATO reaffirmed its full support for Ukraine and its willingness to further improve Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration process, although the country’s full membership remains conditional on the fulfilment of certain conditions.

Although last year’s Summit had seen the participation of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – all of which were fully aligned in their support for Ukraine – the final communiqué only contained a cursory mention of the importance of cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners. By contrast, the strategic nature of the region for NATO and its deep interdependence with the Euro-Atlantic area clearly came to light during the Vilnius Summit.

In Vilnius it was also repeatedly stated that China “challenges our interests, security and values,” marking a clear shift of perspective from the previous Summit. Given its stated ambitions, coercive policies and extensive use of economic, political and military tools, China creates strategic dependencies and poses systemic challenges to the Alliance, including through its support for Russia.

In addition to highlighting NATO’s newly established initiatives aimed at addressing the main challenges and improving the resilience and military capabilities of its members and partners – such as the creation of the Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure, the Space and Climate Change Centres of Excellence and the Virtual Cyber Incident Support Capability programme – a process of regional division of crisis management skills and responsibilities appears to be taking shape, and a multinational and multi-domain approach for emergency situations is being strengthened.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani attended the summit on behalf of Italy.

A founding member of the North Atlantic Alliance, Italy has considered NATO to be the main pillar of its security and defence policy since 1949. Rome is a net contributor of troops to the Alliance’s operations, although it is limited by the inability to reach an annual spending of two percent of its gross domestic product on defence. Moreover, Italy’s defence expenditures are heavily affected by high personnel costs – to the detriment of operations and innovation. This represents one of the most serious cases of unbalanced distribution of military spending in western countries. The Italian Ministry of Defence has pledged to redress this imbalance as part of a broader programme of restructuring, upgrading and financing of the Armed Forces, which coincides – albeit amid doubts and fears for compliance with timelines – with the general objectives of innovation of the national military set by NATO.

Although the main focus was on issues related to the defence of NATO’s astern flank, the Summit made it possible to put the issue of instability in the southern region of the Broader Mediterranean on the agenda, which was of particular value for Italy. Special attention was paid to the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel, as well as the Black Sea region, the Western Balkans and some specific countries, including Tunisia and Iraq. These are hotspots of instability related to complex issues (from climate change and economic crises to terrorism) which might be used by rivals, such as Russia and China, to carry out “destabilising manoeuvres or coercive interference”. For this reason, the North Atlantic Council was mandated to undertake an evaluation on the challenges and threats, but also the opportunities, posed by the southern region of the Broader Mediterranean, the results of which are to be presented at the next Summit, in 2024.

This is an important result for Italy, whose concern over the risk of downgrading NATO’s southern flank – repeatedly expressed since the second half of the 1960s – has been a recurring issue in the history of relations between Italy and its NATO allies. From the Italian perspective, separating the southern flank from the eastern flank would leave Italy – as well as Greece and Spain and, albeit in different ways, France and Turkey – exposed to the pressures and instability of the Alliance’s southern belt. As deterrence and defence mechanisms in the East become increasingly robust, hostile actors could be induced to concentrate their operations in the South to bypass NATO, exploiting an area that is key for energy supplies (even more so after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine), freedom of navigation and sea trade, the food security of North African countries, submarine communications and migration routes. Moreover, the attention that NATO is devoting to the Indo-Pacific and Chinese expansionism could make the Mediterranean even more important in the near future, at least from a conceptual point of view, because of its direct geographical connection with the Indo-Pacific corridor.

As president of the G7 in 2024, Italy – together with France – could become the advocate of this vision, rallying Greece, Spain, Portugal and, with due caution, Turkey. In fact, a rapprochement with Ankara could favour its detachment from Moscow and the start of a process of détente on some important issues of common interest, such as Libya, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, the Western Balkans, migration and the security of maritime routes and ports on the Black Sea. In this perspective, the bilateral meeting between Italy and Turkey held on the sidelines of the Summit is not a casual or isolated occurrence, but rather part of Italy’s broader strategy to keep the Mediterranean anchored to the Atlantic framework.

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