Disclaimer: This article was researched and written before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. All sources cited predate this event. The author in no way intended to ignore or minimize the invasion and this article should not be taken to imply support for Russia’s actions.
Everyone has a memory or experience that has impacted them in some way. These memories could be positive or negative and often affect people’s daily lives forever. The memory of the living man is long, especially when one feels they have been slighted. Russia certainly feels slighted today, as Putin believes the Ukrainian state owes its existence to Russia (Balestrieri, 2022). Understanding the current Russian philosophy is important in interpreting their actions. Prominently, Russia claims they have been misled. In view of their claims that they were led to believe NATO would not expand eastward, NATO has consistently added countries in recent decades; one can begin to understand where Russian aggression and worry originate (Wintour, 2022).
Ukrainian and Russian tensions are not new. Relations between these countries have been hot since Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union–born from a bloody past through revolts and crushed rebellions. Recently, in 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. The U.S. Department of State says, “The United States does not, and will not ever, recognize Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea” (2021) and the United Nations soon declared this action by Russia illegal.
What is the source of Ukrainian – Russian tension? Is Russia planning to take control over its former satellite countries, or is it worried of being cornered by western powers? To answer this question, a history of Russia and NATO is required.
History of NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was created on April 4th, 1949, in Washington D.C. The year before, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR, toppled the democratic government of Czechoslovakia. They installed a communist regime aligned with Russia. In response, the U.S. and Western allies met to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, creating NATO. The original members of NATO included Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Canada, and the United States. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952 and West Germany joined in 1955. With West Germany joining NATO and being allowed to rearm, the USSR was determined to make its own alliance (U.S. Department of Defense, 2019).
On May 5th, 1955, shortly after West Germany joined NATO, leaders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Albania, East Germany, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union met and signed the Warsaw Pact. All of these countries were Communist satellite states and put the USSR in charge of all military commands among the Warsaw members. This gave the Soviets tighter control over their satellite states (U.S. Department of Defense, 2019). Popular uprisings in Poland in the 1980s, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were crushed by the Soviets (U.S. Department of Defense, 2019). The USSR did have a legitimate worry of West Germany being allowed to rearm (i.e. be allowed to reimplement a standing army, albeit in a very limited fashion). The USSR feared this, as they saw the danger in a free West Germany sitting next to their Soviet-controlled East Germany. Other European nations were concerned too – no one wanted to allow Germany anywhere near a gun for the next 100 years.
This Communist bloc began almost immediately after Germany’s surrender in 1945, with the USSR implementing Communist governments in regions it had taken from the Germans during the war. It was not a slow take over. In the aftermath of WWII, the Soviets seized the opportunity to bolster their strength. Thus, the purpose of creating NATO was to deter Soviet aggression and expansion (History, 2022).
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” (NATO, 2009), provided the largest deterrent for Communist expansion. The idea was to contain the Red Wave. This eventually launched the U.S. and Soviet Union into the Cold War. The only time Article 5 has been invoked was during the 9/11 terrorism attacks (2009).
Putin recently released a list of demands to NATO countries concerning Ukraine. The demands included the banned entry of Ukraine into NATO, the withdrawal of NATO troops deployed to countries that entered NATO after 1997, and “legal guarantees” of Russian security (Rankin, 2022). The demand for the removal of NATO troops is dangerous. This would include Poland, the former Soviet countries of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkan countries. These countries warned that Russia is trying to re-establish a sphere of influence in the region, as they see Russia’s demands as trying to limit their national sovereignty.
Talks of Ukrainian induction into NATO are not new either. “The Nato head, Jens Stoltenberg, has already ruled out any agreements denying Ukraine the right to enter the military alliance, saying it is up to Ukraine and the 30 Nato countries” (Roth, 2021). Through the “open door policy,” Ukraine has the ability to join NATO just like any other country and has indeed attempted to do so in the past. For example, in 2002, Ukraine tried to join NATO, but to no avail. In 2010, the Ukrainian parliament voted to abandon aspirations for NATO membership (Daftari, 2022).
There are various reasons for Ukraine’s failure to successfully join NATO in the past. First, NATO membership requires unanimous consent from all 30 current members. With various interests between countries, they are unlikely to agree on a subject, especially with something as impactful as Ukrainian induction into NATO. Countries like Germany, for example, which are growing increasingly dependent on Russian oil, might be less likely to support Ukrainian entrance. Second, there is the alleged problem of corruption in Ukraine. Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, ranked Ukraine 117th out of 180 countries on its corruption index, lower than any NATO nation (Wong & Jakes, 2022).
In September of 2021 Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked what President Biden’s visions were for letting Ukraine into NATO:
There are steps that Ukraine needs to take; they’re very familiar with these: efforts to advance rule of law reforms, modernize its defense sector, and expand economic growth. Those are steps that aspirant countries, like Ukraine, need to take in order to meet NATO standards for memberships. And we certainly support their efforts to continue to do that (The White House, 2021).
As of late January, Biden says that he believes Putin will probably enter Ukraine and Jen Psaki said that an invasion could “come at any time” (Lawler, 2022). When asked about Ukrainian admittance to NATO, Douglas E. Lute, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO said, “The principal objection would be: Does such a move actually contribute to the stability in Europe, or would it contribute to destabilization? I think it’s indisputable there wouldn’t be consensus among the 30 members, even though all allies agree that Ukraine has the right to aspire to become a NATO member” (Wong and Jakes, 2022). Ukraine joining NATO would add to the imbalance of power between free western countries and eastern Communism.
In mid-November of 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, held a press conference discussing the movements of Russia where Stoltenberg publicly condemned Russia’s actions, calling for Russia to “end its support” for separatists militants and saying that further investigation by Russia would be of “serious concern” (NATO, “Press,” 2021).
Ukraine and NATO have together condemned Russia’s actions with Crimea and there seems to be a somewhat unified sentiment against Putin’s current actions in Ukraine. The question will be just how unified and forceful this sentiment will become.
Putin is bitter over the decline the Soviet State fell into after the Cold War era and has a desire to see Russia expand once more. Russia currently has the 11th largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $1.7 trillion (The U.S. is first, with $20.5 trillion, about 12 times more than Russia’s GDP) (The World Bank, 2019). Russia has a generally strong military and has a vested interest in the natural resources in the eastern part of Ukraine. The Ukrainian army would have to retreat or be encircled if the Russian army advanced anytime soon, according to Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert, in a recent Axios article (Lawler, 2022).
NATO, although it has publicly denounced Russia, has, in the past, done little to actually enforce its policies concerning Russia besides imposing economic sanctions (Daftari, 2022). In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and in 2014, illegally annexed Crimea. Russia also continues to support separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine (U.S. Department of Defense, 2019). One might reasonably conclude that Putin does indeed plan to invade Ukraine in the near future. However, NATO’s response is likely to be weak, as Europe wants to avoid increasing Russian hostility and Russia could withhold gas exports to much of Europe. Because of this, NATO and Europe are less likely (although not completely) to make a strong, organized stance in support of Ukraine.
Understanding Putin’s angle is important. For him, it is a case of Russian nationalism (Al Jazeera, 2022). With NATO constantly expanding on his doorstep, he feels he must take action to protect Russian interests. The rest of Europe and North American countries will have to develop separate responses. The resolution to Ukrainian–Russia tensions will take place outside of the NATO governing body. It will be left for individual countries to send aid to Ukraine. There will most likely be no organized solution.
NATO, born under the threat of eastern Communism in the late 20th century, still holds a vital role on the world stage today. There are thousands of European families who have experienced life under Communist rule and are not keen to see it return (or in this case, expand). As mentioned before, mankind’s memory is long. However, there are many political variables, emotions, and a long historical narrative to consider in this particular situation. One must consider the possibility that the best answer may not necessarily be the right one.
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