How a Country Joins NATO (and Why Putin Cares)
(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massing of troops on Ukraine’s border has sparked a standoff with the West and raised fears of an invasion. At the heart of the dispute are Russian concerns about the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the security alliance founded in 1949 to protect Europe against Soviet attack during the Cold War. Of the 14 countries bordering Russia, five are in NATO, and Ukraine is among the countries also hoping to get in. But that’s not as fast or easy as it sounds.
1. Has Ukraine formally requested admission to NATO?
Yes. Ukraine applied to join in 2008. That was just before a summit in Bucharest, when NATO said that Ukraine and Georgia would join the alliance -- but without setting a specific date. Georgia has also applied for admission. So has Bosnia-Herzegovina, though there is too much domestic division there to make this a realistic prospect in the near future.
2. How many countries are in NATO?
Its membership has grown from 12 to 30 nations, with North Macedonia the most recent to join, in 2020. That increase reflects the fact that, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has come to represent an underlying partnership between North America and Europe based on shared political and economic values.
3. What does it take to join?
NATO countries have to be unanimous in welcoming a new member. Approval is pretty much a political decision, though NATO does spell out criteria that prospective new members should meet. These include a functioning democracy based on a market economy, fair treatment of minority populations and a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully. The applicant needs to have an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations. NATO has also made clear that having “unresolved external territorial disputes” weighs against being admitted, a consideration that gives Putin an edge, since Russian forces occupy internationally recognized parts of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Ukraine (Crimea).
4. What’s the status of Ukraine’s request?
Officially, NATO stands by its 2008 pledge to admit Georgia and Ukraine once they meet the criteria, with no consensus on when that might be. Some NATO members, including Poland and Baltic states Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, would sign up Ukraine tomorrow if they could. But Germany and France in particular insist that as long as Russian troops are in Ukraine, membership is not going to happen. For now, Ukraine is one of NATO’s “enhanced opportunity partners,” a status afforded non-member nations that have “made significant contributions to NATO-led operations and missions.” NATO says it aims to maintain and deepen cooperation with such partners. Other nations with this status are Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden.
5. What is Russia’s concern?
Putin and his government see NATO expanding into what it considers its sphere of influence, which diminished after the Cold War, and which Putin aims to restore. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, three former Soviet republics, are now NATO members; citing its own security, Russia insists that NATO must never let additional ex-Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, join. Russia also rejects NATO’s claims that it’s a defensive alliance, accusing the bloc of seeking to contain Moscow and sowing instability with interventions in places like the Middle East and the Balkans. Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine but insists the U.S. and its allies must force Ukraine’s leaders to implement the terms of a 2015 peace deal.
6. What does NATO say?
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated on Jan. 12 that only NATO and applicant countries can decide on membership, saying Russia “does not have a veto” on whether Ukraine can join.
7. What’s the point of NATO, anyway?
NATO says its “open door policy” on enlargement has helped increase stability and prosperity in Europe. Its role since the collapse of the Soviet Union has expanded to include bombing Serb forces during the Bosnia and Kosovo wars of the 1990s, enforcing an arms embargo on Libya in 2011, helping Europe deal with an influx of Middle Eastern refugees that began in 2015, stepping up cyber defense -- and, since 2014, deploying multinational battle groups in eastern Europe in response to Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine. NATO is also trying to define its role in addressing China’s expanding influence. A 2019 summit expanded NATO’s remit to make outer space an “operational domain” along with air, land, sea and cyberspace.
The Reference Shelf
- The Atlantic Council on why Ukraine isn’t yet in NATO.
- A QuickTake explainer on Russia-Ukraine tensions.
- A 2020 QuickTake explainer on NATO, at 70, facing doubt and criticism.
- NATO’s point-by-point response to Russian accusations.
- A 1995 NATO study on expanding membership.
- A paper by the Center for Strategic & International Studies looks at NATO’s “pivot to China.”
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