What is NATO and what role does it play in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis?

The main demand of President Vladimir Putin is at the root of the diplomatic impasse between Russia and the West: he does not want Ukraine ever to be allowed to join NATO.

Formed in the aftermath of World War II with the aim of achieving lasting peace and providing collective security against the Soviet Union, NATO is today the largest and most powerful military alliance in the world.

Russia argues that after the Cold War, NATO promised it would not expand eastward to former Soviet states.

However, the alliance is open to any European nation that wishes to join and can meet the requirements and obligations.

More than a dozen countries from the former Eastern bloc, including three former Soviet republics, have joined the alliance during its nearly 73-year history.

It currently has 30 members.

Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Kyiv is a close partner and was promised possible membership at a NATO summit in 2008.

Recently, Russia has become particularly alarmed by NATO’s growing closeness to Ukraine, which Moscow sees as a buffer between itself and the West.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said earlier this month that it was “absolutely mandatory to ensure that Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of NATO.”

So what exactly is NATO and what is its role in the world today?

NATO has no troops in Ukraine, but is working with the country to modernize its armed forces.(PA: Efrem Lukatsky)

Who is involved?

In 1949, the United States, Canada and 10 Western European countries were the first to sign the NATO treaty.

The treaty commits the allies to mutual protection, ensuring that “the security of its European member countries is inextricably linked to that of its North American member countries”.

Turkey and several other European countries were next to join, prompting the Soviet Union in 1955 to form a countervailing alliance with several communist countries in Eastern Europe known as the Warsaw Pact. .

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the pact also crumbled, sending many members – including Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – to NATO.

A map highlights Kyiv in Ukraine, Moscow in Russia and shows Ukraine surrounded by member countries in blue (EU)
Ukraine is largely surrounded by European Union countries on one side and Russia on the other.(ABC News)

The United States is arguably the largest and most influential member, but NATO decisions are made by consensus and there is no majority vote.

This means that Albania, for example, has a right of veto just as definitive as that of Washington.

Given its geographical location between the Pacific and Indian oceans, Australia is not a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Australia has, however, in recent years strengthened its relationship with the alliance to address common security challenges.

Australia is considered one of NATO’s “Global Partners” and has participated in NATO-led defense capacity building efforts in Afghanistan and regularly participates in military exercises open to partners.

However, Australia is unlikely to provide military assistance if Russia invades Ukraine.

Defense Minister Peter Dutton said he did not expect a request to deploy troops.

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EU ambassador to Australia warns of impending ‘crisis’.

What does NATO do?

In addition to military support, the organization provides a forum for dialogue and cooperation across the Atlantic.

Every day, hundreds of officials meet at headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to exchange information and help prepare decisions.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg chairs important alliance meetings, but he does not direct the allies.

Its job is to encourage consensus and speak publicly on their behalf as one voice representing all 30 members.

While the Soviet Union is long gone, NATO continues to view Russia as a security threat and to offer protection to affected member states near Russian borders.

But over time, the alliance has also taken on broader roles.

At the heart of NATO’s founding treaty is the principle of collective defence.

That is why, of the 14 articles of the treaty, the backbone of the covenant is article 5.

Article 5 states that if an ally is the victim of an attack, this is considered an attack against all members.

It basically gives all the smaller countries protection under the United States and allows them access to equipment and expertise that they cannot afford on their own.

NATO does not actually have any weapons of its own, instead they are owned and brought into operations by member nations, mostly at their own expense.

Former US President Donald Trump had increasingly undermined the alliance, saying the US was paying “far too much” and other members were contributing “far too little”.

He even refused to reiterate his support for Article 5, leaving the alliance tottering.

Member countries have since pledged to devote 2% of their respective GDP to defense spending by 2024.

US President Joe Biden holds a press conference at NATO
Although the United States is the most influential member, NATO decisions are made by consensus.(Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)

The Alliance in Progress

On the ground, NATO has notably contributed to peacekeeping in the Balkans, conducting its first major crisis response operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995.

It also sent troops to fight the Taliban-led insurgency in war-torn Afghanistan – the alliance’s largest-ever operation, launched after the United States triggered its “all-inclusive” Common Defense Clause. for one and one for all” in the aftermath of 9/11. attacks.

This was the first time that Article 5 was activated.

After nearly two decades, in April 2021, NATO decided to withdraw all allied troops from Afghanistan within months and has since suspended all areas of cooperation with the country.

At Turkey’s request, NATO also implemented collective defense measures in 2003 during the crisis in Iraq, and in 2012 in response to the situation in Syria, it deployed Patriot missiles.

The United States has the largest number of military personnel among NATO members, with approximately 1.35 million troops.

It is followed by Turkey with just over 445,000 people.

Two bombers on a runway seen from above.
Russia has stepped up its military exercises amid tensions with the West over the deployment of around 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine. (AP: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

What is NATO’s role in Ukraine?

In response to the buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, NATO allies are putting their forces on standby.

The United States has said it will not send American or allied troops to fight Russia in Ukraine, but President Joe Biden has ordered 8,500 troops to be on heightened alert for deployment in the Baltic region.

The alliance has no obligation to defend Ukraine, so for now it is working with the country to modernize its armed forces.

He worries about the potential fallout from any conflict with Russia, particularly in the Black Sea region, where Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and in the Baltic Sea.

Canada runs a training program in Ukraine, while Denmark is also stepping up efforts to bring the Ukrainian military up to NATO standards.

The United States, Britain and the Baltic states send weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, small arms and boats.

Turkey has sold drones to Ukraine which the Ukrainian army has used in eastern Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists.

However, Germany is against sending arms to Ukraine.

Berlin instead promised a full field hospital and the necessary training for Ukrainian troops to operate it, worth around $6 million ($8.5 million).

The alliance also said it would help Ukraine defend against cyberattacks and provide secure communications equipment for the military command.

A satellite image of a snow-covered troop buildup near the Russian-Ukrainian border
A satellite image of a Russian troop buildup in Klimovo, Russia, 13 kilometers north of the Russian-Ukrainian border.(Provided: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

Next NATO negotiations

Washington has made it clear that Russia’s demands that NATO withdraw its troops and weapons from Eastern Europe and bar Ukraine from joining are not valid.

But he says he is ready to discuss other subjects such as arms control and confidence-building measures.

Russia responded to the US’ formal rejection of its basic demands, saying it left little room for optimism but that dialogue was still possible.

NATO has offered to continue talks with Moscow within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels to find a solution.

NATO allies are also discussing whether to increase the number of troops rotating through Eastern Europe.

They will focus on the issue when Allied defense ministers gather for a scheduled meeting in Brussels in mid-February.

NATO has four battalion-sized multinational battle groups, some 4,000 troops, led by Canada, Germany, Britain and the United States in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.

The troops serve as a ‘tripwire’ for the 40,000 strong NATO Response Force (NRF) to move quickly and bring more US troops and weapons across the Atlantic .

The NRF is based on a rotational system where allied nations commit ground, air, sea or special operations forces (SOF) units for a period of 12 months.

The most important decisions may not come until June, when NATO leaders are due to meet for a summit in Madrid.

They are expected to agree on a new master plan, called the Strategic Concept, in part to cement NATO’s emphasis on deterring Russia.

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Stan Grant explains the increasingly tense situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border


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