Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly cited three decades of North Atlantic Treaty Organization enlargement in Europe’s Eastern bloc as one of several justifications for his unprovoked war. And while neither Russia nor Ukraine is a NATO member, the organization finds itself entangled in the conflict to prevent the escalation of Russian aggression beyond Ukraine’s borders.
NATO was established in 1949, two years into the Cold War, by 10 democratic countries in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. Its primary objective was to provide collective protection against attacks and influence from the Soviet Union. At the heart of this treaty is Article 5, which holds that an attack on one member country is considered an attack on all, and Article 10, which establishes an open-door policy for any European state that can further the mission and adhere to the founding tenets of NATO.
According to the treaty’s charter, to become a NATO member, countries must have a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; fair treatment of minority populations; a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully; an ability and willingness to make military contributions to NATO; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions. Even with those criteria met, all existing NATO members must reach a consensus on a country’s application.
In response to the formation of this western alliance and democratization of Europe, particularly West Germany’s admission into NATO in 1955, the Eastern bloc countries created the Warsaw Pact—a communist counterbalance on the continent and an alliance between the USSR, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany.
Unlike NATO’s spirit of agreement and a desire to preserve sovereign democracies, the Warsaw Pact was a treaty meant to protect and serve in the best interest of the Soviet Union. The pact included a provision allowing Soviet military presence and control in member countries—a condition that was exercised in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to quash democratic uprisings.
By the mid-1980s, the influence and power of the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. Mikhail Gorbachev, as the new Communist Party Leader of the Soviet Union, proposed more liberal political and economic policies including glasnost (government transparency) and perestroika (economic restructuring) to kick-start a stagnant Soviet economy.
These changes fostered greater autonomy in Soviet satellite countries and increased freedom of political expression. They also drew harsh criticism from staunch Communist party members who viewed these ideological shifts as weaknesses. Instead of igniting an engine of prosperity as he had hoped, Gorbachev’s bungled execution ultimately led to greater economic chaos and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By 1991, the Warsaw Pact had ended, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. NATO remained in existence even without the threat of the Soviet Union because its mission to deter the rise of militant nationalism and to provide collective security to encourage the democratization of Europe was still relevant. Its existence eventually made way for the democratic pursuits of former Soviet satellite countries, most of whom would seek NATO membership in the coming decades.
From the perspective of Russia’s ruling elite throughout history, the expansion of NATO is a threat to Russia’s security and dominance—every neighboring country with a different ideology, and a NATO-backed military presence, creates the potential for conflict.
The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act served as a way to ease these concerns, transitioning from an adversarial relationship to a mutually beneficial alliance with the joint objective of European security. Among the agreement’s most important points are that NATO expansion is not prohibited. Since then, more than 14 countries have been admitted into the alliance, with more seeking membership today.
Russia has largely condemned these admissions, accusing NATO of breaking misconstrued promises not to expand “one inch further east” and enforcing a policy of neo-containment, or ideological isolation. To better understand NATO’s current role on the national stage amid the war in Ukraine, Stacker compiled the history of NATO membership changes since 1997 and how Russia reacted to the events of the era.
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