NATO, explained: why the alliance was formed – and what it does for Ukraine
As Russia continues its attack on Ukraine, NATO’s role is at the forefront.
Here is a brief overview of the alliance, the role the United States plays in it, and what it is doing to help Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.
What is NATO and why was it created?
NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is a military and political alliance that was founded in 1949 in response to the actions of the Soviet Union.
“The Western Allies began to see that the Soviets were trying to take advantage after World War II”, seeking to turn the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into “satellite nations” of the Soviet Union, Jim Townsend , who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration, told NPR.
Townsend, who spent 30 years at the Pentagon, says that during the early days of the Cold War, it was obvious Russia was going to be very aggressive. The European allies therefore came together and asked the United States to join a new alliance.
The result was NATO. Retired US General and future US President Dwight Eisenhower has been chosen to be NATO’s first military leader: Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
In 1955, the Warsaw Pact was formed by the Soviet Union and seven Eastern Bloc countries as a collective defense treaty in response to NATO.
Which countries are part of NATO?
There were 12 founding members of the alliance in 1949: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United United and the United States.
The alliance has grown over time and now has 30 members. Other nations are Greece, Turkey, Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
Three additional countries have said they want to join the alliance: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine. Membership is officially open to any “European state in a position to promote the principles of this treaty and contribute to the security of the North Atlantic region”. The decision to invite a country to join NATO is taken by consensus of the member countries.
Ukraine did not join NATO — primarily because of Russian opposition to it and the conflict its admission would entail.
What are the responsibilities of members to each other?
Article 5 of NATO sets out its key principle of collective defence: if one member of the alliance is attacked, it will be considered an attack on all members.
And if such an armed attack occurs, each member will take whatever action it deems necessary to aid the attacked ally, “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic region”. The assistance provided is determined by each country, in concert with the other allies. Aid does not have to be military.
Article 5 has only been invoked once: following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. NATO launched its first-ever counter-terrorism operation to help patrol the skies of the United States -United. The alliance has also sent patrols to the Mediterranean to detect and deter terrorist activity.
Even without invoking Article 5, NATO has repeatedly taken collective defense measures, notably in Syria and now with the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Townsend likens NATO’s role to hosting a potluck for member nations and asking everyone to bring something special to the picnic. Otherwise, “everyone would bring crisps, because that’s the cheapest”.
What has been NATO’s relationship with Russia so far?
There was a time in the 1990s when it was thought that Russia might join NATO at some point, Townsend says, as countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland prepared to enter. the covenant. But Russia’s trajectory changed in the 2000s, and it never happened.
NATO’s relations with Russia soured in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Practical cooperation between the alliance and Russia has since been suspended, although political and military lines of communication remain open.
How is NATO structured as a military force?
NATO’s Multinational Response Force is made up of troops from member countries. Troops wear the uniform of their own country, and individual military units are led by leaders from the home countries of those units.
The Supreme Allied Commander is at the top of the chain of command. An American always plays that role, says Townsend, “because we bring most of the toys.” His deputy is usually a Briton and the chief of staff is usually a German, says Townsend.
Why does Russian President Vladimir Putin oppose Ukraine’s bid to join NATO?
Putin said he considers Ukraine to be part of Russia.
“The idea that Ukraine would actually establish relations – as a nation would – with the European Union and NATO, it upsets in his mind this idea that Ukraine is Russia, Russia is Ukraine,” Townsend said.
Robert Pszczel, a former Polish diplomat and former NATO official, says one of Putin’s obsessions is Russia’s role in the world order. “He thinks Russia has the right, because it’s a great power, to dictate to other countries,” he told NPR. “The mere existence of NATO creates a problem for Putin because NATO represents collective security and defends this international order.”
The Russian president also expressed concern that if Ukraine joins NATO, the alliance would put Ukraine full of weapons – and be within striking distance of Moscow. “By creating a threat to Russia, Ukraine is creating a threat to itself,” Putin said last month.
Several countries bordering Russia are already part of NATO: Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania and Poland border the Kaliningrad region, the piece of Russia on the Baltic Sea.
What is NATO doing for Ukraine?
NATO has amassed battalion-sized “battlegroups” in countries along the alliance’s eastern flank in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. These forces are combat-ready and led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States respectively. The alliance has sent planes and ships to NATO territory in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and there is a multinational brigade in Romania.
Last week, NATO announced that it would create four new battlegroups in Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.
The alliance has also supplied huge amounts of arms and equipment to Ukraine.
So far, the alliance has failed to respond to a repeated demand from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to impose a no-fly zone. Indeed, NATO fears this could lead to direct combat with Russia, widening the conflict into a regional war and potentially even into a Third World War.
The United States has, however, provided Ukraine with anti-aircraft weapons, which can be used to shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles.
The alliance is probably also providing help in ways it doesn’t talk about. “Not everything has to be announced, for security reasons,” says Pszczel.
Some wonder why NATO does not give Ukraine everything that Zelensky asks for. A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that 39% of Americans think the United States should do more when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
NATO is doing whatever its members’ politics currently allow, says Pszczel: “They are free nations, democratic nations, and they all have to agree on things. For the moment, there is no consensus. take a step or two further and basically send in troops or enter into a direct military confrontation with Russia. »
But public opinion is a powerful force, he says, and there is strong moral opposition in NATO countries to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
If Putin’s war continues, could a consensus be reached to take NATO’s commitment to the next level? “Time will tell,” says Pszczel.
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