Shortcuts / 24 February 2022

NATO and the Ukraine crisis

As you well and truly know, Russia has launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine. To get you across the background to this, it’s time to get to know NATO – the military alliance that is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It’s at the centre of the stand-off between Russia, Ukraine and the West. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll get you across why NATO was established, how it has operated in times of conflict, and what it has to do with this crisis.

Let’s start at the beginning… And I assume this has something to do with the USSR and the Cold War and… 
We’ll stop you there. You’re right – this is about Europe after the end of WWII. Remember, the Soviet Union was an ally of the UK, France, the US and others in that war. But after the war, a military alliance called the Western Union was formed – that included France, the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

I’ve not heard of the Western Union…
That’s because in 1949 the group expanded to include America, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Iceland. The group was called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – or NATO.

What was on those nations’ minds?
There were fears about the Soviet Union’s power and its values – we’re talking communism versus democracy. Europe had just been through 2 hideous world wars with the UK, France and so many others fighting to defend the values of freedom. And there were fears that the USSR was out to overthrow democratically-elected governments and impose its economic and social values on more of the world.

What was NATO going to do about that?
Its mission focused on 3 things: “deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”

Why is the US involved if it’s all about Europe?
Not only did America fight in WWII, it bankrolled the rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan because it recognised that the best way to stop the spread of communism was to ensure that Europe was economically stable. America also accepted it also needed to step up when it came to military security in the region.

So what does being a part of NATO entail for member states?
One key part of the agreement to note is Article 5. NATO allies agreed that “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all”. And following such an attack, each ally would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force”.

How has that shaped conflicts over the years?
The 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 saw Article 5 invoked for the first time in the organisation’s history. And that response played out in the war in Afghanistan.

So what did NATO allies do after that war was declared?
There isn’t a NATO military force, so it means the nations work together on specific operations. And in Afghanistan, NATO established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the objective of helping the new government to provide effective security and develop an Afghan-led security force.

Was that big?
Huge. At its height, the force was more than 130,000 strong involving troops from 51 NATO and partner nations. ISAF was one of the largest military coalitions ever assembled.

What other conflicts has NATO been involved in?
Well, one to note that didn’t start with an attack on one of its member nations was its intervention in the Bosnian War.

How did that come about again?
That war started in 1992 as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia. At the start of the war, the United Nations ordered a no-fly zone over central Bosnia and Herzegovina to stop military aircraft from operating in the region – and NATO became the enforcer.

Hold on, how are the UN and NATO related?
When it comes to security matters, the UN makes security resolutions, and they need to be enforced. And in Europe, NATO often takes the lead.

Gotcha. Back to Bosnia…
So NATO undertook its first wartime action in 1994 when it shot down 4 Bosnian aircraft violating that no-fly zone. And the following year, NATO airstrikes helped bring that war to a close. 

Are there any other NATO conflicts of note?
In the same neighbourhood, NATO was involved in the Kosovo War of 1998-99 – a conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbians. After long discussions with the UN, NATO was given the job of ending that war and it started a 78-day bombing campaign in March 1999. That campaign was criticised for high civilian casualties – but the war did end – and NATO then led the peacekeeping operation.

What was Russia doing during all of this?
It was pretty busy too… The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and many of those new nations in eastern Europe – so those geographically close to Russia – joined NATO.

Is that important?
It’s top of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s list of why he says he’s stepping up in Ukraine today. 

Right. Why is Putin cranky about NATO?
Well, we have to go back to 1990. That’s when the US under President George HW Bush was holding talks with Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev about how NATO troops could operate in the territory of former East Germany. Nothing was agreed to in writing, but NATO said it would not expand to the east if Russia accepted Germany’s unification.

But that’s not what happened?
Nope. In fact, many nations east of Germany became NATO members. So what started with 12 nations at its formation has grown to 30 members.

Why was that?
Many of those nations new to NATO were embarking on democratic futures, and the alliance was a way for them to be more secure from a military point of view. And for NATO, it was a way for them to spread their political and military influence into Eastern Europe.

But Russia wasn’t happy about it…
It really wasn’t. And Putin says allowing those nations to join was a huge betrayal by the West.

What’s Putin’s problem with that?
NATO states now come to the border with Russia in the north. And heading south there are 2 countries that provide a buffer. That’s Belarus – which is 100% aligned with Russia – and Ukraine.

So Ukraine isn’t aligned with Russia?
It is not. In 2014, a popular uprising saw its pro-Russian government turfed out, and that’s what created a long-running and violent conflict with Russia. But Russia and Ukraine have a long history and Putin has talked about Ukrainians and Russians being one people.

And Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to align with Western powers?
You got it. And joining NATO would do that militarily in a big way…

Ao will Ukraine be joining NATO?
It’s unlikely.

Wait, what? So why all the drama?
Indeed. And that’s why critics say Putin has concocted this crisis as an excuse to invade Ukraine and make it part of Russia. 

But doesn’t NATO want Ukraine to sign up?
Not necessarily. That’s because with all the baggage Ukraine and Russia have, it would put NATO in a difficult position.

Because of Article 5?
You got it. Remember: an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all… And because Russia is a military superpower it could be tantamount to a new world war.

Indeed. That’s why the US and NATO have both said they won’t be sending troops to Ukraine. And Putin has already warned outsiders they “will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history” if they interfere. Analysts say that is a rare overt threat of nuclear attack.

Double yikes…
Oh yeah. It’s super serious. 

Squiz recommends:

Smiley’s People by John le Carré

A map of NATO’s expansion since 1997

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