The role of NATO is at the forefront as Russia continues its war on Ukraine.
Here’s a short rundown of the alliance, the US’s position within it, and what it’s doing to assist Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion.
What is NATO, and why did it come into being?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is known as NATO. It is a military and political coalition that was established in 1949 in reaction to Soviet Union initiatives.
According to Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration, “the Allies in the West began to see that the Soviets were trying to take their advantage after World War II,” seeking to turn countries in Central and Eastern Europe into “satellite nations” of the Soviet Union.
Townsend, who worked in the Pentagon for 30 years, believes it was clear from the start of the Cold War that Russia would be aggressive. As a result, the European allies banded together and invited the United States to join a new alliance.
NATO was formed as a consequence. Dwight Eisenhower, a retired American general and future US president, was named NATO’s first military commander: the supreme allied commander Europe.
In reaction to NATO, the Soviet Union and seven Eastern bloc countries created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as a collective defense pact.
What nations are members of NATO?
Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States were among the alliance’s 12 founding members in 1949.
The alliance has grown through time, and there are presently 30 members. Greece, Turkey, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia are the other countries.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine are three other nations that have shown interest in joining the alliance. Any “European State in a position to promote the ideals of this Treaty and contribute to the security of the North Atlantic region” is eligible to join. The member countries vote on whether or not to invite a country to join NATO.
Ukraine has not joined NATO, mostly due of Russia’s resistance and the potential for war if it did.
What are the members’ obligations to one another?
NATO’s essential premise of collective defense is spelled forth in Article 5: If any member of the alliance is attacked, it is considered an assault on all members.
If an armed assault occurs, each member will take whatever steps are required to aid the attacked ally in “restoring and maintaining the security of the North Atlantic region.” The each nation, in collaboration with the other allies, determines what help is supplied. The support does not have to be military in nature.
Article 5 has only been used once: Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in the United States. NATO’s first anti-terror operation was established to assist monitor the skies above the United States. Patrols were also sent to the Mediterranean to identify and prevent terrorist activities.
NATO has implemented collective defense actions on multiple occasions without invoking Article 5, notably in Syria and again with Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.
NATO’s duty, according to Townsend, is similar to throwing a potluck for member countries and asking each of them to contribute something special to the picnic. “Everyone would simply bring potato chips because that’s the cheapest thing,” says one participant.
How has NATO’s relationship with Russia been up to this point?
According to Townsend, there was a moment in the 1990s when it was assumed that Russia may join NATO at some point, as nations like the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were ready to join. But, in the 2000s, Russia’s direction shifted, and it never occurred.
When Russia unlawfully took Crimea in 2014, NATO’s ties with Russia worsened. Since then, practical collaboration between the alliance and Russia has ceased, while political and military lines of contact have remained open.
What is NATO’s military organization like?
The multinational Response Force of NATO is made up of soldiers from member countries. Individual military units are led by commanders from the home nations of the troops, who wear their own country’s uniform.
At the head of the chain of command is the supreme allied commander. “We provide the majority of the toys,” Townsend explains, “so an American is always in this job.” According to Townsend, his or her deputy is generally a Brit, while his or her chief of staff is usually a German.
Why is President Vladimir Putin of Russia opposed to Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO?
Putin has said that he considers Ukraine to be a part of Russia.
“The thought that Ukraine would genuinely create links with the European Union and NATO, as a country would,” Townsend says, “upsets in his mind this concept that Ukraine is Russia, Russia is Ukraine.”
One of Putin’s obsessions, according to Robert Pszczel, a former Polish diplomat and former NATO official, is Russia’s place in the world order. “He feels that since Russia is a major force, it has the right to dictate to other nations,” he says NPR. “The very presence of NATO is a dilemma for Putin because NATO represents collective security and upholds the international order.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is also concerned that if Ukraine joins NATO, the alliance would arm Ukraine and place it within striking reach of Moscow. Last month, Putin remarked, “By posing a danger to Russia, Ukraine poses a hazard to itself.”
Estonia and Latvia are two of the nations bordering Russia that are already members of NATO. Lithuania and Poland share a border with Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea.
What does NATO have planned for Ukraine?
NATO has been assembling battalion-sized “battlegroups” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, which are located on the alliance’s eastern flank. These combat-ready troops are headed by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and the United States, accordingly. The alliance has dispatched aircraft and ships to NATO’s eastern and southeastern European territories, and Romania maintains a multinational brigade.
NATO said last week that four new battlegroups will be formed in Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Ukraine has also received massive numbers of weaponry and equipment from the alliance.
So far, the alliance has refused to comply with one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s repeated requests: imposing a no-fly zone. This is because NATO concerns that engaging in direct battle with Russia would escalate the conflict into a regional confrontation, maybe leading to a third World War.
However, the United States has equipped Ukraine with anti-aircraft weaponry that may be used to take down planes and cruise missiles.
The alliance is most certainly assisting in ways it isn’t publicizing. “Not everything should be publicized,” Pszczel adds, citing security concerns.
Some people are perplexed as to why NATO isn’t providing Ukraine what Zelenskyy requests. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos survey, 39% of Americans believe the US should be acting more in the Ukraine conflict.
According to Pszczel, NATO is doing as much as the politics of its members now allow: “These are free, democratic countries, and they must all agree on certain issues. There is currently no agreement. There is no readiness to take it a step or two further and deploy soldiers or engage in actual military conflict with Russia.”
But, as he points out, public opinion is a tremendous force, and the moral opposition to Russia’s aggression on Ukraine is widespread among NATO nations.