NATO summit was a success: Even without Ukraine's entrance, European unity strikes a blow to Putin

President Joe Biden has a lot to brag about as he returns from the NATO summit in Vilnius

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published July 15, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky (R) speaks at the announcement of the G7 nations' joint declaration for the support of Ukraine as U.S. President Joe Biden looks on on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky (R) speaks at the announcement of the G7 nations' joint declaration for the support of Ukraine as U.S. President Joe Biden looks on on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

War footing. Those are the two words I heard from sources in Washington D.C. as President Joe Biden returned from Helsinki, Finland on Friday.  Member states of NATO are described as being on a war footing following the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week.  Although the news out of the NATO summit all week was dominated by a squabble with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over when his country will be invited to join Europe's military alliance, the news shifted dramatically on Thursday when the Pentagon announced that Biden had authorized a call-up of 3,000 reservists to active duty to support U.S. military operations in Europe.  The reservists will be put on full active duty status with full pay and support from the active duty military.  The Pentagon also announced that families and dependents will receive support if any of the 3,000 reservists end up being deployed overseas.  So far, however, there are not yet plans to have the newly-activated reserves join the 20,000 American troops who were speedily deployed to European stations after Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022.

Speaking on the latest commitment from U.S. forces, Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "This reaffirms the unwavering support and commitment to the defense of NATO's eastern flank in the wake of Russia's illegal and unprovoked war on Ukraine." Sims said the 3,000 reservists called to active duty will give "greater flexibility" to the Pentagon's European Command, even though it will not change the overall force structure of U.S. troops in Europe.

Also this week, Biden ordered Operation Atlantic Resolve, the formal designation for the U.S. strategy in Europe following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, to become a contingency operation.  This change in designation will allow the Pentagon to activate reserve forces without a new order from the White House.  It will also "speed up acquisition authorities to supply those troops with equipment," according to a report in Politico on ThursdayThe U.S. now has a total of 100,000 troops on duty at a spectrum of stations across Europe, including Navy, Air Force, and Army bases in places like Germany, Lithuania, Italy, Great Britain, and Poland.  Many U.S. forces have been involved over the past six months in training Ukrainian battalions headed for the front lines.  10,000 American troops are currently stationed on a rotating basis in Poland to provide logistic support and training for the Ukrainian military.

The Pentagon announcement of the 3,000 troop reserve call-up follows a pledge by NATO allies to have a total of 300,000 soldiers ready for rapid deployment within 30 days. This, rather than the squabble over the timing of Ukrainian NATO membership should have been the headline out of the summit in Lithuania. This is the first time in decades that the 31 nations belonging to NATO have made a similar commitment involving force readiness across the entire membership.  The commitment by all member states of NATO to a Europe-wide ready reaction force is what accounts for the use of the term war footing to describe what is going on not only in Europe but here at home. 

The United States has not formally raised its DEFCON level since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  It may be that the Pentagon simply doesn't want to show its hand to Russia when it comes to the readiness of our forces, but the deployment of 20,000 additional troops to Europe last year and the activation of 3,000 reservists this week certainly indicates a raised state of readiness by U.S. forces.  By all appearances, U.S. forces appear to be at the DEFCON 3 level at present.  DEFCON 5 is the lowest state of readiness, with all forces at home and abroad deployed at normal stations with no increase in alert status.  DEFCON 2 increases force readiness above normal.  DEFCON 3 indicates an increase in readiness above normal with a concomitant increase in intelligence gathering, including a requirement that the Air Force be ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.  The increased readiness for the Air Force probably indicates not only being ready for deployment in combat overseas, but readiness on the ground in the U.S. to transport troops and equipment rapidly overseas if an additional deployment of U.S. troops becomes necessary. 

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With or without a change in DEFCON status, what happened at the White House and Pentagon on Thursday, and what happened at the NATO summit earlier in the week with a 31-nation promise to achieve ready reaction military status within 30 days, is, to be blunt, big stuff.  Ukraine was never going to be invited into NATO while a war is going on with Russia or anybody else.  Article Five of NATO's founding treaty obligates every nation in the NATO alliance to come to the military aid of any NATO nation that is attacked by a country outside of the alliance.  Russia has already attacked Ukraine, mooting any sort of invitation to join the NATO alliance while that war is going on. 

A push by the U.S. for Ukraine to join NATO has happened before. In 2008, before the NATO summit in Bucharest, then President George W. Bush visited Kyiv with a proposal for Ukraine to join NATO that he was willing to put before the NATO nations at the upcoming summit.  For one reason or another, most probably not wanting to "poke the bear" as the saying goes about provoking the Kremlin, Ukraine did not go along with the U.S.-proposed NATO membership, a decision 15 years later is no doubt regretted in Kyiv, although there have been at least two changes in the government of Ukraine since then.  Whether Ukrainian membership in NATO would have prevented Russia from seizing parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 is impossible to know.  But there seems little doubt at this point that Russia would have been far more wary of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in 2022 if the country was backed up by 31 NATO states and a treaty committing them to come to the aid of Ukraine militarily if that country was attacked.

The one thing the D.C. pundits did get right about the NATO summit this week is the complete unity of the alliance.  It isn't unprecedented, but it is at least very unusual for 31 sovereign nations to come to an agreement over a three-day period about anything as extraordinary as the commitment to make their military forces ready to deploy on a moment's notice within 30 days of the summit.  Not only will this commitment cost NATO states a lot of money, it will probably necessitate at least some of them calling up their military reserves, much as President Biden did on Thursday.  NATO states have already spent serious amounts of money sending arms and other military equipment to Ukraine, and the alliance doubled down on that commitment this week. 

Also on Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives shot down two looney tunes proposed amendments to the Defense bill from arch-conservative Republicans:  One was a proposal by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia that the U.S. pull out of NATO completely.  The other was a proposal by another character from the Republican fringe, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, to cancel all military aid to Ukraine.  Although on Friday the House passed the Defense bill loaded up with so-called poison pill amendments, such as canceling the policy of providing leave and travel expenses for military women seeking abortions if they are stationed in a state that has outlawed abortion, and canceling medical care associated with the gender status of transgender troops, America's commitment to both NATO and Ukraine survived —for this Congress at least. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayip Eroğan dropped his longstanding opposition to Sweden's NATO candidacy this week.

But who knows what lies in the future for our NATO commitments?  Trump did what he could to defenestrate NATO while he was in office.  (Remember the Helsinki summit and his prostrating before Russia's Vladimir Putin after a private no-notes-taken meeting between Defendant Trump and his erstwhile benefactor?)  Former National Security Adviser John Bolton delivered another reminder of Trump's perfidy this week when he told an interviewer that Trump had wanted to pull out of NATO and said so out loud at a White House meeting while he was president.  That sort of roll-over-and-play-deadism thrown about by Putin's best buddy is a far cry from the powerful statements backing NATO by President Biden after his own visit to Helsinki on Thursday, including the fact that he made his statements from the soil of one of NATO's newest members.

The problem with international summits like the one this week in Vilnius is that the real purpose of the meeting of national leaders can get lost in the political fallout that invariably accompanies such summits.  NATO is a military alliance of Western nations pledged to defend each other against the kind of aggression Russia proved to the world it is still capable of in Ukraine.  At the end of the summit, NATO proved more strongly than ever before that the alliance is strong, its member states are prepared for the worst, and their commitment to Ukraine is unbending.


By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Biden Commentary Europe Helsinki Nato Putin Russia Sweden Ukraine U.s Vilnius Zelenskky