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Cybersecurity In Focus Ahead Of Berlin NATO Conference

  • NATO is in the process of welcoming Sweden as its 32nd member, though challenges remain with ratification processes in Turkey and Hungary.
  • The establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Council aims to elevate Kyiv's relationship with the alliance, with many hoping to expedite Ukraine's NATO membership.
  • Leadership shifts are anticipated at NATO's summit in Washington in 2024, including a potential replacement for Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, as cybersecurity takes a front seat with a major conference in Berlin.

After an eventful summit in Vilnius in July, NATO will return in the next few months to "bread and butter" issues. That means various military exercises, at least two ministerial meetings in Brussels before the end of the year (one for the bloc's defense ministers, the other for its foreign ministers) and possibly welcoming a new member, Sweden.

There was an agreement between Stockholm and Ankara at the Vilnius summit that appeared to pave the way for Swedish membership. But the ratification process still hasn't begun in either Turkey or Hungary, which has pledged to align its policy with Ankara's. NATO officials I've spoken to on condition of anonymity still believe Sweden will become a member this autumn, most likely in October, despite recent comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinting that Sweden must first look into the Koran burnings there over the summer to avoid further slowing the ratification process.

Deep Background: While NATO waits to welcome member No. 32, its autumn will essentially consist of implementing some of the things decided on in Vilnius. For example, are the updated defense plans outlining how NATO should respond if any member's territory is attacked truly sufficient?

According to NATO sources I spoke to: "This autumn it is about checking the executability of our plans," or "putting flesh to the bones." In other words, are there enough combat-ready troops and military equipment to quickly come to the defense of potential frontline member states in the east?

NATO will need the answers by the end of the year. Then there's the issue of turning the multinational battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland into brigades, going from roughly 1,000 troops to something closer to 3,000-5,000. This takes longer, as it requires facilities like housing and bigger training ranges for the new arrivals. Preparations can seemingly be completed in Lithuania, where Germany is the lead nation, by early 2024, and a bit later in the year in the other places.

Drilling Down:

  • We are also likely to see the first-ever NATO-Ukraine Council at the ministerial level (the council met on the ambassadorial level over the summer) when NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels on October 12-13 for their regular autumn ministerial session. The council was created in Vilnius and is meant to upgrade Kyiv's relations with the alliance.
  • The idea now is to ensure the NATO-Ukraine Council is a more useful forum for Ukraine to approach NATO membership than its "predecessor," the NATO-Ukraine Commission. In the council, Ukraine will be sitting as a sort of coequal, with the right to call meetings with the military alliance whenever it sees fit.
  • The big question is whether that's enough. NATO will work on two documents in the autumn to define its relationship with Kyiv: an annual national program for Ukraine and a proper work program for the NATO-Ukraine Council. This is very much a bureaucratic exercise. But for Ukraine's biggest supporters inside the bloc, known as the Bucharest Eight, the most important thing is that these papers avoid any new milestones or additional conditions for Ukraine to finally become a member.
  • For the Bucharest Eight -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia -- the aim is clear: Ukraine is already interoperable with the alliance and a political decision is all that remains, i.e. should Ukraine become a NATO member soon or not?
  • What is less clear is whether this decision will come at the next NATO summit in Washington, D.C. in July 2024. Of course, with so much dependent on the course of the war in Ukraine, it is far too early to make predictions. But it is worth noting that the summit will fall in the middle of the U.S. presidential campaign season; and given that the United States and Germany were among the most vocal skeptics in Vilnius of offering Ukraine a clear pathway to membership, chances are slim that the American position will shift much next year. It is entirely possible that the Washington summit becomes a one-day celebration of NATO turning 75, with few real political decisions taken.
  • In the meantime, NATO will keep a keen eye on the Ukrainian counteroffensive. A few officials I have spoken to acknowledge that the counteroffensive may not have been as impressive as some perhaps were hoping for initially, but they are quick to caution that it is easy to sit far away in safety and make such remarks.
  • Another description you hear a lot from NATO HQ when describing Kyiv's push to recover more territory is "steady and incremental" along with appreciative comments that Kyiv is managing this without air support. While the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16s is slowly starting now in places like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Romania, the jets won't be used in Ukrainian skies until next year.
  • Aside from the war, speculation will intensify over top positions at NATO. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently agreed to stay on for another year, but he will step down at the Washington summit after a decade in the job. There is some clamoring for the military alliance's first female head, but don't rule out the outgoing Dutch Premier Mark Rutte or Pedro Sanchez if he fails to cobble together a new Spanish government.
  • The chair of the NATO military committee, one of the foremost military leaders in the organization, will also be up for grabs, with incumbent Dutchman Rob Bauer set to leave in 2024 and the current chief of the Italian Defense Staff, Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, a favorite to replace him.
  • Cybersecurity is also increasingly important for the alliance. Watch for its first-ever cyberdefense conference, in Berlin in November, bringing together high-level political leaders, military experts, and potentially even private-sector players.


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