An Introduction to NATO and Its Connection to Russia’s War in Ukraine

Last week, the White House announced that U.S. President Joe Biden would be making a 2-day trip to Europe to attend North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and European Union summits to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Caught between its instincts of not antagonizing Russia and its support for Ukraine, the United State and NATO finds themselves caught in the middle of a tug of war after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

What is NATO?

In 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, the United States, Canada, and ten Western European countries founded NATO. The alliance was created, in the words of its first secretary general General Lord Ismay, to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In reality, NATO’s purpose during the Cold War to protect North America and its allies in Western and Southern Europe from the spread of communism at a time when the Soviet Union was “cementing its domination over Central and Eastern Europe…”

Who Belongs to NATO?

In 1949, 12 countries formed NATO: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Relying on its Article 5 collective defense clause, NATO’s mission focused largely on defending these allies against the spread of communism at the hands of the Soviet Union and its allies in Central and Eastern Europe, including members of the Warsaw Pact, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. As the Cold War dragged on, more countries on the European continent joined NATO, including Greece and Turkey in 1952, Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.

The Iron Curtain came crashing down in 1989 when anti-communist protects spread across Central and Eastern Europe, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the Cold War ground to a halt, the Soviet satellite states publicized, their intentions of joining Western institutions, including NATO and the European Union. At the same time, NATO’s scope expanded, including the incorporation of the newly independent countries in Central and Eastern Europe into the alliance.

Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, NATO expanded multiple times. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined the alliance. In 2004, seven more countries even further east, including Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2009, Albania and Croatia each joined and, in 2013 and 2020, Montenegro and North Macedonia became the latest countries to join NATO, respectively. Today, NATO has 30 members in total.

Why Isn’t Ukraine a Member of NATO?

Ukraine’s potential membership in the alliance is anything but straightforward. As NATO continued expanding in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Ukraine – like the other former Soviet satellite states that gained independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – envisioned its future with the West. This vision included becoming a member of NATO. In 2008, NATO, led by former U.S. President George W. Bush, essentially gave Ukraine false hope by promising Ukraine and Georgia future membership in the alliance. France and Germany, two power NATO members, opposed this notion. As a result, Ukraine was left with no concrete steps toward the Membership Action Plan.

Other U.S. administrations and members in Europe have opposed Ukraine’s membership in the alliance largely due to internal concerns and the prickly nature of NATO enlargement. The process to join NATO includes high expectations of the country seeking membership. For example, to meet one of the criteria for joining NATO, a country seeking membership must show a “commitment to democracy, individual liberty, and support for the rule of law.”

Ukrainian officials contend that the country has met those standards; however, American and European leaders believe otherwise. As Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, recently noted when discussing Ukraine’s prospects of membership compared to more advanced democracies like Sweden and Finland, “That conversation would be slightly different than it is with countries that are making the transition to democratic systems and dealing with intensive problems of corruption and economic reform and democratic stability, etc.”   

Another reason why Ukraine’s membership potential has dragged on is because of Russia. For one, Russia considers both NATO expansion and Ukraine membership in the alliance to be “red lines.” Further NATO expansion in the 1990s was a hotly debated topic, with many in both the United States and Europe worried expansion might antagonize Russia. Their concerns proved accurate.

Additionally, NATO members are wary to offer Ukraine membership since Russia already invaded Ukraine. In 2014, after an anti-Russian uprising in Ukraine, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, a geopolitically important region within Ukraine. Later that year, pro-Russian separatists backed by Russia captured two rebel republics in the Donbas region of Ukraine. As the New York Times pointed out, the dispute with Russia “put into question NATO’s role should Ukraine become a member nation.” In other words, if Ukraine were a NATO ally, then NATO would have been obligated by Article 5 to protect Ukraine against Russian aggression, pitting NATO against a nuclear-power.

The Connection Between NATO and Russia’ War in Ukraine

In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, NATO has everything to do with his invasion of Ukraine in late February. Or at least that is his excuse for the invasion. Putin maintains that NATO poses a threat to Russia, arbitrarily blaming Ukraine’s desire for membership as justification for his aggressive actions in recent weeks.

One question that arises from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is what is Putin’s goal? Many analysts believe he is trying to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. This reassertion includes not just the Soviet Union’s former empire but that of Imperial Russia. Ukraine, once a part of the Soviet Union, has a special place in Russia’s identity. In fact, Putin sees Ukraine as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Russians see Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, as the “birthplace of their nation.” For Putin, who issued a long essay, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are “brother nations.” As is true with Belarus, Russia’s relationship with Ukraine is unique from that of the other former Soviet states: the ties between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are that of “kin,” and Putin follows this sentiment.

Ukraine proved so important to Putin that, in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and provided pro-Russian separatists with aid and ammunition to take over two separatist republics in the Donbas region. Just six years before, he took similar actions in Georgia, invading and formally recognizing two separatist regions. Putin’s message is clear: further NATO expansion into what Russia considers to be its sphere of influence is a no-go. In fact, as part of its demands issued in December that the United States and NATO immediately rebuffed, Russia specified that Ukraine never join NATO.

Since the late 1990s, NATO’s eastward expansion has been a point of contention between the alliance and Russia as Russian leaders strongly opposed NATO’s borders backing up to its own. That is where Putin’s objection begins. “You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly,” Putin railed at a news conference in December. Putin is referring to a conversation between former Secretary of State James Baker and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In an effort to reunify Germany – which had once been divided into East Germany, a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and West Germany, which became a NATO ally in 1955 – American officials debated over what would convince Gorbachev to withdraw from the east. As Mary Elise Sarotte, a renowned analyst on Soviet affairs, observed, “The Americans guess that maybe what Gorbachev wants in exchange for letting Germany unify is a promise that NATO will not expand eastward.”

It is that promise that Putin uses to blame NATO for its invasion of Ukraine: NATO would not expand any further to the east if the Soviet Union were to allow Germany to unify However, many in the West contest this as some analysts say that when Baker offered NATO not to move any further east, he was referring to East Germany only because neither NATO nor the Soviet Union were thinking about the possibility of NATO expanding in the future. Yet, in Putin’s mind, the United States and NATO reneged on a promise to not expand any further east. NATO’s failure to keep its promise now serves as part of Putin’s justification to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.

What Steps is NATO Taking to Defend Ukraine?

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States stated that U.S. troops would not deploy to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces since Ukraine is not a NATO. This is a statement that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made several times as well. NATO’s response to the invasion has steered clear of any action that could be misconstrued – whether in reality or as further justification for the invasion – as provocative to Russia.

Short of sending troops to fight in Ukraine, NATO has actually taken numerous steps to assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia. For one, many NATO members are bilaterally providing weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. NATO, including the United States, has sent troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. The United States has been the biggest supplier of military equipment, sending a total of $550 million in weapons to Ukraine. The United States announced a $1billion security aid package for Ukraine as well. The support NATO countries are offering to Ukraine largely center on providing weapons and aid while also reinforcing defense capabilities in NATO countries in the event of a Russian attack beyond Ukraine.

Yet, the limits of what the United States and NATO are willing to do for Ukraine are glaring. On a nearly daily basis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls for the West to impose a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. NATO leaders, led by the United States, have thus far refused such an action, as a no-fly zone must be enforced through military means and that could lead to a direct conflict with Russia. Some countries have shown a willingness to provide Ukraine with updated fighter jets but without directly providing the equipment.

Last week, Poland surprised the United States – with whom it had been in talks – and the rest of Europe by offering to send Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. In return, Poland asked that the United States send planes – presumably U.S.-made F-16s – to replace the ones Poland sent over to Ukraine. The United States acted quickly, shutting down further talk of such an exchange. The part that surprised the United States as it had not been part of the original talks with Poland was the part of the plan where the United States, not Poland, transferred the fighter jets to Ukraine. The United States cited, once again, the fear of risking confrontation with Russia as the reason for not following through.

The Bottom Line

The United States and most members of NATO have made clear that neither side would wage war against Russia to defend Ukraine, including the imposition of a no-fly zone or sending in troops. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the alliance is not obligated under the collective defense treaty to defend Ukraine military. However, as Russia continues to target Ukraine and the specter of war transcending Ukraine into NATO territory becomes more palpable – especially the introduction of chemical or nuclear weapons – the time has come for NATO to begin to further bolster its defenses and capabilities and take a deeper look into whether Ukraine might be a potential candidate for membership in the alliance very far down the road.

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