What does NATO stand for and what is its purpose?
Ukraine has been flirting with NATO on and off since the fall of the Soviet Union and recently enacted a National Security Strategy towards membership.
Ukrainian membership of NATO can be considered the line in the sand that led to the Russian invasion of its neighbour. Pre-justifying his decision to order troops into the Donbas region, which consists of the two Russian-backed self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited Ukraine’s aspiration to join the military alliance as a direct threat to Russian security. "In NATO documents, our country is officially and directly declared the main threat to North Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for the strike," Putin said in a televised address a day before the Russian assault was launched. “Russia has every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security. That is exactly what we will do.”
In December, Russia presented demands to the United States and NATO that even analysts close to the Kremlin said Moscow knew would be rejected. They included calls to block Ukraine from ever joining NATO and to remove all military infrastructure the alliance had placed in eastern Europe since 1997. Putin’s subsequent recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and the deployment of Russian troops as “peacekeepers” in the region, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed rebels since 2014, proved to be the precursor to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in what is the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War Two.
Far from buckling to Moscow’s demands, NATO immediately moved to strengthen its eastern flank, sending more alliance troops to member states bordering Russia in a move described by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as enabling NATO “to deploy capabilities and forces, including the NATO Response Force [which consists of land, air, sea and special operations forces].”
NATO has also been providing Patriot anti-missile batteries to be deployed in member states bordering Ukraine, including Slovakia.
"Peace on our continent has been shattered,” Stoltenberg added. "Russia is using force to try to rewrite history, and deny Ukraine its free and independent path."
However, Stoltenberg stressed that NATO has no troops in Ukraine, and no intention of sending any alliance forces into the fray. "There are no NATO combat troops, no NATO troops at all inside Ukraine. We have made it clear that we don't have any plans and intention of deploying NATO troops to Ukraine," he said. "What we have made clear is that we have already increased and we are increasing the presence of NATO troops in the eastern part of the alliance on NATO territory."
US President Joe Biden echoed the opinion of military experts and analysts that Putin had overplayed his hand in an interview released on Saturday. "Not only is NATO more unified, look at what's going on in terms of Finland, look at what's going on in terms of Sweden, look what's going on in other countries. I mean he's producing the exact opposite effect that he intended," Biden told social media influencer Brian Tyler Cohen.
Sweden and Finland have intimated they would be open to seeking NATO membership if the situation demanded it, following Russian threats of “serious political and military consequences” if the non-aligned countries elected to join the alliance.
When was NATO founded?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came into being in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War, with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington DC. Signatories to the treaty promised to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of the peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” in the aftermath of WWII, with a potential Soviet attack on Western powers in mind.
Twelve countries signed the treaty – Belgium (where NATO now headquartered), Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the US – and as such these are now considered the founding nations of NATO.
NATO membership now stands at 30 states, the most recent of which to join was North Macedonia in 2020. The bulk of the alliance is made up of European Union member states, with Turkey, which courtesy of the Montreux Convention of 1936 controls the Black Sea and therefore the Russian Navy’s access to the high seas through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits and an ally of Moscow, a notable exception.
NATO is a collective security defensive alliance, with all member states duty bound to come to the defence of any member state whose “territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.” NATO military operations are subject to Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty being invoked. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have done, paving the way for NATO to deploy troops and materiel to those countries.
Why is Ukraine not a NATO member?
Of the 15-post Soviet states that emerged from the collapse of the USSR in 1991, only three have become full NATO members: Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, who joined in 2004. Ukraine, although not a member, is considered a strategic partner by NATO due to its proximity to Russia – one of the prime reasons for Moscow’s insistence that the country be denied full membership.
Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991 and the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 and applied to be admitted to the NATO membership action plan – the definitive step towards full membership – in 2008, along with Georgia. However, at the Bucharest Summit, NATO members decided against granting action plan status.
The subsequent presidency of Viktor Yanukovych saw Ukraine adopt a more pro-Moscow stance, with the newly elected Yanukovych stating “there is no question of Ukraine joining NATO.”
Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 and a pro-Western government came to power under Petro Poroshenko, which renounced Ukraine’s non-aligned status and stated it would consider seeking NATO membership after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the administration that replaced the former president, an ally of the Russian leader.
The issue of NATO membership again led to Russian military deployment on 24 February, 2022. Current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy in 2020, whose ultimate goal is full NATO membership, a red rag to the Kremlin.
The Georgia precedent
Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian breakaway regions, after fighting a short war with Georgia in 2008. Russia used recognition of the two regions to justify an open-ended military presence in a neighbouring former Soviet republic in an attempt to indefinitely thwart Georgia's NATO aspirations by denying it full control of its own territory. It has since provided Abkhazia and South Ossetia with extensive financial support, extended Russian citizenship to their populations and stationed thousands of troops there.