As Chris Hipkins visits Lithuania for the annual Nato summit, there is plenty for leaders to discuss, from the war in Ukraine to matters beyond Europe. Sam Sachdeva reports from Vilnius on the military alliance’s interest in the Indo-Pacific, and the state of Ukraine

In Vilnius, there is no doubt where public sympathies lie when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Lithuanian capital is festooned with Ukrainian flags, and bus shelter advertisements urge people to call everyday Russians and encourage them to help end the war.

On a banner atop one skyscraper is a message for Vladimir Putin: “The Hague is waiting for you.”

The Russian leader’s war crimes may not be on the agenda at this week’s Nato summit, but Vilnius is in many respects the perfect host city for the annual gathering of the military alliance, as Lithuania’s foreign affairs minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, tells Newsroom.

* Much ado about Nato
The growing importance of Nato-NZ ties in ‘less predictable’ world

“It’s symbolically a very strong statement to have the summit in Vilnius … it’s the closest [Nato] capital to Kyiv, and that means that you already see Ukrainian flags everywhere.”

Lithuania has had its own struggles with Russia after almost 50 years under Soviet rule, Landsbergis says, and the decision to hold the summit in the small Baltic nation sends a signal to Putin that “every Nato ally is as defended as the next one”.

Top of the agenda, unsurprisingly, is the ongoing war in Ukraine and Nato’s role in supporting the country in its efforts to repel Russian forces.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Nato official tells Newsroom one of the alliance’s main priorities is developing a package for the future support of Ukraine – not just the short-term supply of non-lethal aid such as food and fuel, but longer-term planning across the coming decade.

“We’re going to have to help reinforce the armed forces, reconstitute the ministry of defence, help them establish security and stability, [and] look at longer-term defence planning for them.”

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg – whose term was recently extended by a year as the alliance continues its search for a successor – has also indicated Nato should make “a clear financial commitment to that rebuilding effort”, the official says, with the EU contemplating a similar decision.

In the here and now, the fallout from Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny has led to calls for greater fortification of Nato’s eastern flank – particularly with initial speculation that Prigozhin and his fighters would decamp to Russian ally Belarus, which borders Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.

“Anyone who says they know what’s going on internally in Russia … is fooling themselves … our main thing is, whatever is happening there, we need to keep Ukraine in the fight, and we need Russia to withdraw its troops.”
– Nato official

Though it is far from clear where the Wagner mercenaries will end up, Landsbergis says the unpredictable situation in Russia and Belarus is nonetheless a concern for his country and its neighbours.

“Even though all eastern flank countries have security issues and vulnerabilities, specifically those who have a border with Belarus and Russia are under direct impact of the instability that is happening there.”

But the Nato official says the Wagner mutiny has done little to change the alliance’s thinking, given it had already beefed up its reserve forces to allow it to move additional reinforcements into the eastern flank if necessary.

“Anyone who says they know what’s going on internally in Russia … is fooling themselves … our main thing is, whatever is happening there, we need to keep Ukraine in the fight, and we need Russia to withdraw its troops.”

Another major talking point – not without some potential awkwardness – is Ukraine’s aspiration to Nato membership.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been outspoken in his desire to become the alliance’s newest member, and a number of other Nato states are likewise keen to see it come aboard swiftly. However, US President Joe Biden has expressed caution about a lack of unanimity within the organisation, apparently over concerns such a decision could lead Moscow to escalate the current conflict.

Landsbergis says his expectation is for a “binding committal agreement between Nato states and Ukraine” to be agreed in Vilnius, but adds the caveat: “The conversation is very difficult, they’re still divided, the points of view are different, but we’re trying to converge and land somewhere.”

Lithuania foreign affairs minister Gabrielius Landsbergis says Nato and the Indo-Pacific have shared values such as human rights and the rule of law. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

Though Ukraine will be at the forefront of the summit, Nato members are also looking further abroad, as demonstrated by the presence of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins – the second year in a row New Zealand’s leader has been invited to the summit as one of Nato’s four Asia-Pacific partners (alongside Australia, South Korea and Japan).

Speaking to journalists on Friday before his trip to Brussels, Stockholm and Vilnius, Hipkins said his message to Nato leaders would be the same as that on his recent trip to China: “We believe in a peaceful world, we believe in diplomatic relationships, and we believe that diplomacy is a good way of avoiding armed conflict.”

Nato’s interest in the Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific) has grown in recent years, with the alliance mentioning China for the first time last year in its “strategic concept”, a document updated roughly once a decade to outline the major security challenges it faces.

That broadening of view has sparked some controversy, with a proposal to establish a Nato liaison office in Tokyo put on the backburner after reported objections from the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

The proposal also attracted criticism from China, with a foreign ministry spokesperson accusing Nato of “attempts to destroy regional peace and stability”.

The Nato official is at pains to say the alliance “will never be an Indo-Pacific organisation” and always operates by consensus, both with its current members and with those farther afield (such as New Zealand) who wish to work with it. 

But with the world growing ever smaller, and “clear linkages between Indo-Pacific security and Euro-Atlantic security”, the need for cooperation is clear, he says.

“We see military technology which is being shared by regimes that challenge international law, and so the fact that China might potentially give weapons systems to Iran and then onwards to Russia – or maybe even directly to Russia – means that we might, in fact, be facing some of those weapons systems in terms of defending ourselves.”

A new Nato-NZ agreement

Then there is the need to maintain global norms on issues such as freedom of navigation, autonomous weapons systems and cyber space – values that transcend geography and merit a joint approach.

“Nato is a north Atlantic organisation, but it’s also value-based … the same values that we are defending: human rights, rule of law, territorial integrity, and all the other things, are as much important in the north Atlantic as they are in the Indo-Pacific,” Landsbergis says.

New Zealand has already had a partnership agreement with the alliance since 2012, but the Nato official says work is underway on a new, individually tailored programme between the two partners that could be finished by the end of this year.

The goal is not for New Zealand troops to be involved in Nato missions, or have Nato forces exercising in the Indo-Pacific, but to look at areas where the two sides want to work together, such as on emerging technologies and the security impacts of climate change.

That is unlikely to placate critics who believe New Zealand should not be deepening ties with a military alliance that has a nuclear deterrent, and there are also mixed views in Europe about the wisdom of branching out beyond their immediate region.

“Everybody can acknowledge the very real geopolitical strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region for the transatlantic space … but what’s interesting from our perspective is to understand how Nato sees a role for itself in that area, because it isn’t necessarily an obvious place for transatlantic political and military alliances to be situated,” an EU official tells Newsroom.

Yet with a new Nato-New Zealand agreement likely to lead to more, rather than less, cooperation, both sides seem likely to face some more deep thinking about balancing those regional interests.

* Sam Sachdeva’s trip to Vilnius and Brussels was funded through a media grant from the European Union

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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