In the midst of an increasing buildup of Russian military forces along its border with Ukraine, Western nations are concerned that Russia could soon invade. In addition to various attempts to reduce tensions through diplomatic means, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been sending troops and other supplies to nearby member states.
Moreover, with the threat of a looming Russian invasion, the long-standing debate over whether Ukraine should join NATO has also been reinvigorated.
Here’s everything you need to know about the role of NATO in the current military crisis brewing in Eastern Europe.
What is NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a political and military alliance first formed in 1949 to provide “collective security against the Soviet Union” between the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal.
In the years that have followed, the number of NATO members has increased to 30 to include Albania (2009), Bulgaria (2004), Croatia (2009), the Czech Republic (1999), Estonia (2004), Germany (1955), Greece (1952), Hungary (1999), Latvia (2004), Lithuania (2004), Montenegro (2017), North Macedonia (2020), Poland (1999), Romania (2004), Slovakia (2004), Slovenia (2004), Spain (1982), and Turkey (1952).
“Security in our daily lives is key to our well-being. NATO’s purpose is to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means,” NATO explains on its website.
“NATO promotes democratic values and enables members to consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict,” the website continues. “NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations. These are carried out under the collective defense clause of NATO’s founding treaty — Article 5 of the Washington Treaty or under a United Nations mandate, alone or in cooperation with other countries and international organizations.”
Article 5 states that all members states “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” If one NATO member is attacked, all NATO members must take “action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Could Ukraine join NATO, and why is that important?
In recent years, the relationship between Ukraine and NATO has been strengthened. NATO describes its relationship with Ukraine as follows:
A sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security. Relations between NATO and Ukraine date back to the early 1990s and have since developed into one of the most substantial of NATO’s partnerships. Since 2014, in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, cooperation has been intensified in critical areas.
According to NATO’s founding articles, any European country which meets the alliance’s criteria for membership may join, and this includes Ukraine. However, Ukraine cannot join NATO before certain conditions are addressed, after which a “Membership Action Plan” is agreed upon. NATO members have not yet agreed that Ukraine has met these requirements.
However, the root of the issue regarding Ukraine’s relationship with NATO is the growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia, with Russia’s rejection of Ukraine’s potential membership encouraging some NATO states to push back against Russia’s effective veto.
Does Ukraine want to join NATO?
Ukraine has had a partnership with NATO since 1992, with the Ukraine-NATO commission established in 1997. This allowed Ukraine and NATO members to work to address security concerns without a formal membership agreement.
If Ukraine were to join NATO, it would allow them to benefit from the military protection of NATO as a whole. Considering the growing threat of Russia along its border with Ukraine, this protection would presumably be highly beneficial.
Why does Russia oppose Ukraine’s NATO membership?
Ukraine’s general shift towards Western European institutions has been opposed by Russia, with a particular focus falling upon the subject of NATO membership. One of Russia’s primary demands when it comes to Ukraine is that NATO guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted, describing this as a “moment of truth.”
“For us it’s absolutely mandatory to ensure Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of Nato,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also expressed concerns that if Ukraine were to join NATO, the military alliance might look to recapture Crimea from Russia.
“Let’s imagine Ukraine is a NATO member and starts these military operations,” Putin said. “Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not.”
More broadly, Russia is looking for an end to any eastward expansion of NATO, as well as an end to NATO military activity in other Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, and Lithuania. This argument is based on a 1990 agreement prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with “not an inch to the east” referring to the reunification of East Germany with West Germany.
“You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly,” Putin said in December.
What is the U.S. position regarding Ukraine and NATO?
At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, then-President George W. Bush and all NATO leaders agreed that both Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO at an undecided point in the future.
But there are also some who question this long-standing view. For example, Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri sparked bipartisan condemnation when he called on the Biden administration to suspend its support for Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership, instead arguing in favor of countering the Chinese Communist Party.
Ian Haworth is an Editor and Writer for The Daily Wire. Follow him on Twitter at @ighaworth.
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