NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg presents the alliance’s annual report on March 14, 2023. (NATO)

WASHINGTON — NATO Thursday released its annual report in which it says 2023 was a “challenging but successful year,” highlighting a rise in defense spending by members, the historic accession of Finland — followed just days ago by Sweden — and what NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called “extremely strong” public support for the alliance in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This report sums up our main achievements over the last year — and there have been many. Further strengthened our defences. Robust new military plans. More forces at higher readiness. And major increases in defence investment,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference Thursday. “The world has become more dangerous, but NATO has become stronger.”

After years of goading members towards spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, Stoltenberg said Thursday that two-thirds of NATO’s members are expected to hit that goal in 2024; a chart in the report shows 11 members at or above the 2 percent line for 2023. In 2023 the members in Europe collectively invested a “total of $470 billion in defense, amounting to 2 [percent] of their combined GDP for the first time,” the report says.

Adding in Canada to European members, NATO said defense spending had risen by an “unprecedented 11 [percent].” Poland, in particular, led the way in defense expenditure in 2023, according to the chart, using nearly 4 percent of its GDP on an arms spending spree — a greater percentage than even the US.

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NATO alliance members’ spending as a share of their GDP. (NATO)

But 2023 was a seismic year for NATO for a different reason: the accession of a new member with formidable military capabilities right at Russia’s front door. After both Finland and Sweden applied for alliance membership in 2022, Helsinki was welcomed in in April 2023.

“Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine shifted public and political opinion in Finland and Sweden decisively in favour of joining the alliance,” the report says. Those nations “have impeccable democratic credentials, highly capable armed forces and resilient societies. Geographically, they strengthen NATO’s strategic position in the Baltic Sea region and the High North.”

Delayed by geopolitics, Sweden followed in Finland’s footsteps and formally joined NATO last week to become its 32nd member.

NATO membership timeline. (NATO)

In his remarks, Stoltenberg also highlighted what he said was broad support for the alliance among the citizenship of its members.

“The data is clear,” he said. “Public support for NATO is extremely strong on both sides of the Atlantic. If a vote were held today, an overwhelming majority of citizens across Allied countries would vote in favour of NATO.”

It’s likely those comments, especially the reference to “both sides of the Atlantic,” are meant for American politicians, especially Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has publicly questioned the value of the alliance and, critics say, could pull the US out should he win the presidency again. Stoltenberg may have lauded the increase in defense spending by non-US members last year, but America is still responsible for a majority — 67 percent — of all NATO defense expenditure, according to the report.

Elsewhere in his remarks Thursday Stoltenberg said that the alliance has been met with a “critical moment” with regard to support for Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians are not running out of courage. They are running out of ammunition,” he said. “This is a critical moment and it would be a grave, historic mistake to allow [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to prevail. We cannot allow authoritarian leaders to get their way by using force.”

Stoltenberg noted that in 2013 “for the first time, a number of Allies also sent long-range systems, UK Storm Shadow and French SCALP missiles and Allies agreed to send F-16 aircraft.”

The report reiterated NATO’s position that Ukaine should become a member — even if officials have been wary of giving a public timeline for that move and instead say vaguely it will happen when, as the report echoed, “conditions are met.”

Until then, the report calls for more assistance for Ukraine and more defense expenditure for members into 2024 and beyond.

“The reality of a war being fought in Europe has given new urgency to the Alliance’s defence investment efforts,” the report says. “Allies cannot afford to be complacent.”