After the Cold War, Western-Russia relations experienced a brief period of detente, but tensions began to rise again when NATO decided to include Ukraine and Georgia in its expansion process during the 2008 Bucharest Summit. The situation was further aggravated by the Russia-Georgia War in August 2008. However, in 2014, the Russia-Ukraine Crisis and the unlawful annexation of Crimea, followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, brought about a dangerous escalation reminiscent of the Cold War era. The insufficiently firm and effective response of Western countries to the Russia-Georgia War made it more difficult to prevent the escalation leading to the Ukraine Crisis, and the necessary reaction only came after Ukraine’s invasion.
As known, the danger between NATO and Russia is escalating day by day. Both sides’ refusal to step back and their inclination to make moves that escalate tensions have further intensified the crisis. The provision of military aid to Ukraine by Western countries, especially the United States, has shifted developments on the frontlines in favor of Russia’s detriment, while Russia has raised the stakes, even resorting to the threat of nuclear weapon use and a potential Third World War.
The NATO Vilnius Summit took place on July 11-12, 2023, amid such a tense atmosphere. Sweden’s membership issue dominated the summit, and the final declaration expressed satisfaction with the developments on this matter. Undoubtedly, Sweden’s membership will alter the dynamics in the Baltic Sea and the North Ice Sea regions, leading to an expansion of competition between Russia and NATO in the north.
The increasing competition was reflected in the summit’s declaration. Particularly noteworthy in the text was the expression of determination that NATO will defend “every inch of territory.” The participation of the Presidents of Ukraine and the Foreign Ministers of Georgia, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the meeting signaled a possible expansion process for NATO. While expressions of support for the membership process of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Moldova were used, no concrete commitment was made.
Regarding Ukraine’s membership, the commitment was reiterated, but it was announced that the Membership Action Plan phase will not be sought. Instead, the NATO-Ukraine Council, where both sides sit at the table on equal terms, replaced the NATO-Ukraine Commission. However, despite the resolute statements, no specific timetable was set for membership. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that Ukraine cannot become a member until the war ends, putting an end to the debate.
In the summit, where Finland participated for the first time, Finland’s rapid progress towards full integration into the alliance’s deterrence and defense capabilities was welcomed, and a strong determination to complete this process as soon as possible was expressed. Finland and Sweden’s membership was emphasized to enhance the security of the alliance against the increasing threat from Russia in the North Sea.
NATO has defined three main tasks in the post-Cold War era: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. Until the Russia-Ukraine War, crisis management and cooperative security were more prominent on the agenda, but after this period, NATO’s primary task of collective defense has come to the forefront. In recent times, as evident in the summit declaration, the key task is now being articulated as deterrence and defense, and the alliance’s role in deterrence is being emphasized once again. Indeed, prior to the Ukraine Crisis, the alliance documents did not highlight this key task as prominently.
In the declaration, the alliance clearly identified two main threats. Similar to the Strategic Concept, Russia is considered the direct and greatest threat to the security of the alliance and Europe, while terrorism is described as the most significant asymmetric threat to the citizens of the alliance. Therefore, NATO faces two primary threats: Russia and terrorism. Until the Ukraine Crisis, Russia, which was referred to as a partner, has now been defined as the main adversary, similar to the Cold War era.
Under the pressure from the United States, China has also started to be characterized as a threat to the alliance, and this was clearly expressed in the 2022 Strategic Concept. With each new official document, the alliance increases its criticisms of China and its actions. In the Vilnius Summit, the threat posed by China’s actions received significant attention. The participation of the Prime Ministers of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea in the summit also indicates the alliance’s focus on the Pacific and intensified regional cooperation against China, which it perceives as a threat. Beijing has already reacted to the statements in the declaration.
NATO, originally established for the security of the North Atlantic region, is, in a way, shifting its focus to the Pacific within the framework of the threat perception of the United States. The declaration also states that the actions of Belarus and Iran, supported by Russia, threaten Europe’s security.
Examining NATO’s Strategic Concept documents and other papers after the post-Cold War era, it can be seen that the likelihood of nuclear weapon use was characterized as “quite/very low.” Although the same statement is still present in the new Strategic Concept and summit declaration, the Russia-Ukraine War has changed this perception. The cessation of nuclear weapon cooperation between the US and Russia, their withdrawal from existing treaties, their pursuit of new and more dangerous nuclear weapon activities, and changes in their nuclear weapon use concepts have significantly increased the threat posed by nuclear weapons in a short period.
Indeed, both US President Joe Biden and former Russian President Medvedev have emphasized that the world has entered a more dangerous period than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As in recent times, the nuclear threat was reflected in the Vilnius Summit, and the declaration highlighted the alliance’s preparedness for a nuclear attack and the importance of nuclear deterrence. Similar to the Strategic Concept, the possibility of a chemical, biological, or radiological attack and preparations to counter such threats were also mentioned in the declaration.
The Madrid Summit emphasized the importance of the New Force Model and the alliance’s new defense plan in the context of conventional threats. It was decided to enhance the NATO Response Force (NRF) established after the 2014 Ukraine Crisis to become more modern and comprehensive. Both of these developments indicate a return to the Cold War era. On one hand, NATO is preparing for conventional warfare by increasing the number of rapidly deployable forces (100,000 within the first 10 days, 300,000 within 10-30 days, and 500,000 within 30-90 days). On the other hand, the role of nuclear weapons is being highlighted once again. The original concept of the NRF, planned in the early 2000s with a force of 25,000 personnel, has now evolved into a figure of 500,000 within 90 days, signifying a return to the Cold War era.
The Madrid Summit emphasized the importance of the New Force Model and the alliance’s new defense plan in the context of conventional threats. It was decided to enhance the NATO Response Force (NRF) established after the 2014 Ukraine Crisis to become more modern and comprehensive. Both of these developments indicate a return to the Cold War era. On one hand, NATO is preparing for conventional warfare by increasing the number of rapidly deployable forces (100,000 within the first 10 days, 300,000 within 10-30 days, and 500,000 within 30-90 days). On the other hand, the role of nuclear weapons is being highlighted once again. The original concept of the NRF, planned in the early 2000s with a force of 25,000 personnel; has now evolved into a figure of 500,000 within 90 days, signifying a return to the Cold War era.
In conclusion, the 2008 Russia-Georgia War triggered a response from NATO but did not lead to significant impact and change. However, the 2014 Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea, as well as the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, completely changed the Western security understanding. The conflict led Europe to revert to its Cold War mentality, celebrating the return of American weapons and troops to Europe, which had been withdrawn shortly before the 2014 crisis. Since 2014, the security architecture in Europe has rapidly changed, and the Cold War mindset is re-emerging. Both the New Strategic Concept and the Vilnius Summit Declaration reaffirm this trend.
 Şafak Oğuz, “NATO’s Mistakes That Paved the Way for Russia-Ukraine Crisis”, Journal of Black Sea Studies, 12(45), 2015, s. 1-12.
 “Rusya’dan NATO’ya Tehdit Gibi Uyarı: 3. Dünya Savaşı Yaklaşıyor!”, Akşam Gazetesi, https://www.aksam.com.tr/dunya/rusyadan-natoya-tehdit-gibi-uyari-3-dunya-savasi-yaklasiyor/haber-1382132, (Date of Accession: 16.07.2023).
 “NATO: Savaş Devam Ederken Ukrayna Üye Olamaz”, Independent Türkçe, https://www.indyturk.com/node/646976/d%C3%BCnya/nato-sava%C5%9F-devam-ederken-ukrayna-%C3%BCye-olamaz, (Date of Accession: 16.07.2023).
 “China Promises ‘Resolute Response’ to any NATO Expansion in Asia”, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/12/china-promises-robust-response-to-any-nato-expansion-in-asia, (Date of Accession: 16.07.2023).
 “Ukraine War: Biden Says Nuclear Risk Highest Since 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-63167947, (Date of Accession: 16.07.2023).
 Jon Jackson, “Ex-Russian President Calls Nuclear Apocalypse ‘Probable’”, Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/ex-russian-president-calls-nuclear-apocalypse-probable-1810555, (Date of Accession: 16.07.2023).
 Richard Kugler, “The NATO Response Force 2002–2006 Innovation by the Atlantic Alliance”, NDU Press, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/occasional/CTNSP/CaseStudiesArchive/Case-1-NATO-Response-Force.pdf?ver=2017-06-16-150518-373, (Date of Accession: 16.07.2023).