NATO: Historical Context and its Role in Ukraine Conflict – Explained, pointwise

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The war in Ukraine has brought the spotlight on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War by the Western powers in response to the rise of the USSR. The rapid all-round progress made by the USSR, a planned socialist economy, made the capitalist economies uneasy and insecure. Thus, the capitalist West evolved a strategy to contain the spread of socialist ideology and NATO became its military instrument. Some Foreign Policy Experts content that with the disintegration of the USSR in the early 1990s and the collapse of other socialist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, NATO should have been dissolved. Instead, it was refashioned and expanded to realize the hegemonic ambitions of the US, which sought to build a unipolar world order. This enhanced Russian apprehensions of a complete encircling by the western powers. These concerns reached their zenith in recent times when Russia apprehended that NATO might induct Ukraine as a member which induced it to invade Ukraine.

What is NATO?

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance established by the North Atlantic Treaty (also called the Washington Treaty) of April, 1949.

It strives to secure a lasting peace in Europe, based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. 

Its initial members included the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations. However, the membership gradually expanded over the years and eventually reached 30.

It was established during the Cold War in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The alliance has remained in place since the end of the Cold War, and has been involved in military operations in the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

NATO is based on the principle of collective security or defense. A ‘NATO decision’ is the expression of the collective will of all 30 member countries since all decisions are taken by consensus.

NATO’s headquarters is located at Boulevard Leopold III in the city of Brussels, Belgium.

The most recent member state to be added to NATO was North Macedonia on 27 March 2020. NATO currently recognizes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine as aspiring members.

What are the objectives of NATO?

Political: It promotes democratic values and enables members to consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.

Military: It is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations. These are carried out under the collective defense clause of NATO’s founding treaty or under a United Nations mandate.

Collective Defense: It is committed to the principle that an attack against one or several of its members is considered as an attack against all. This is the principle of collective defense, which is enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.

So far, Article 5 has been invoked once – in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001.

Transatlantic Link: NATO is an alliance of countries from Europe and North America. It provides a unique link between these two continents, enabling them to consult and cooperate in the field of defense and security, and conduct multinational crisis-management operations together.

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What is NATO’s stance in the current Russia-Ukraine conflict?

NATO condemned in the strongest possible terms Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine starting in February 2022 and called it unjustified and unprovoked. As per the grouping, this is a grave violation of international law and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security.

The Alliance also condemned Russia’s decision to extend recognition to the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.

NATO Allies call on Russia to immediately cease its military action and withdraw all its forces from in and around Ukraine.

NATO said that it stands with the people of Ukraine and its legitimate, democratically elected president, parliament and government.

Although direct military action was not provided as Ukraine is not a member of NATO.

Why was NATO not dissolved after the disintegration of the USSR?

U.S’s Foreign Policy objectives: After the deterrence offered by the USSR ended, NATO has become an instrument to achieve the US’ foreign and defense policy objectives in Europe and Asia.

Huge Geopolitical Influence: NATO has a state-of-the-art arsenal and a combined defense expenditure of US$ 1.036 trillion (2019). Its 30 members account for close to 60% of the global defense expenditure. This allows it to enjoy a disproportionate advantage and mastery over the international scene by its mere existence.

Changing nature of Security Threats:  Many regions and countries around the world are witnessing the acquisition of substantial, modern military capabilities with consequences for international stability and Euro-Atlantic security. 

This includes the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons which poses a real and growing threat to the Euro-Atlantic area. 

Further growing menace of terrorism and cyberspace also requires sustained interaction and cooperation between the NATO members.

Why do some experts suggest that NATO should be dissolved?

Assurance by NATO members: The leaders of Western powers had assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s that NATO would not expand into the East. On the contrary, it has kept expanding, and now has 30 member states in the place of the original 12.

The eastward expansion of NATO UPSC

Source: The Guardian

Global Conflicts: Prof. John Mearsheimer, a US foreign policy expert has noted that the eastward expansion of NATO is the reason for Russian aggression. There has been deployment of military equipment in the newly inducted NATO countries in the vicinity of Russia. There is presence of NATO and US troops in former Soviet States like Lithuania, Estonia etc. The Russian government was concerned about its security and did an invasion to protect its interest.

Military Deployments near Russia NATO UPSC

Source: CNN

Destruction and Failure of NATO: NATO’s involvement in Kosovo is well known. Over 500 civilians lost their lives due to NATO’s indiscriminate bombing in the Kosovo campaign.

The Afghan war, according to the Costs of War Project led by Brown University, saw 1,76,000 deaths between 2001 and 2019. Similarly, the US-led intervention in Iraq resulted in over 1.5 lakh deaths from March 2003 to 2010 — 80% of them civilians.

These numbers do not include indirect deaths nor do they reveal the havoc wreaked by forced migration, loss of property, psychological damage or geopolitical instability.

Funds for Social Development: Expenditure towards NATO activities diverts funds from vital programmes that could otherwise be deployed to improve the lives and livelihood of the people.

What lies ahead?

First, Some experts suggest that the States of the Global South should be opposed to the very idea of such a military alliance as it distorts the level-playing field at the international level where every nation state is supposed to be equal.

Second, NATO members should engage with Russia or else be prepared to witness another military alliance in opposition to the NATO being formed by Russia-China and allies nexus. Prof. Mearsheimer had advocated that NATO/US should shift their policy to recognize Ukraine as a Buffer State between Russia and NATO, rather than attempt to absorb Ukraine into NATO.


The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is rooted in the expansionary logic of the military alliance. All the Warsaw Pact allies except Russia are now NATO members or in the process of becoming NATO members. This peculiar situation has enhanced apprehension of Russia and its allies that can eventually lead to more conflicts in future. Thus time is ideal to ask questions about NATO’s role in global security.

Source: Indian Express

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