With a growing military threat rising from Moscow, leaders from the United States, Canada and ten European countries, met in Washington, DC to confirm their mutual military support for each other. This meeting took place, not in the midst of the current crisis in Crimea, but in April of 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, and culminated in the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty which brought NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) into being.
The USSR after World War II was such a massive territory with such military potential, that several comparatively small nations of western Europe felt the need to stand together and combine their military manpower, intelligence and equipment. The United States was included not only for their military might, but also to help prevent the alliance from breaking down into nationalistic infighting among the European members, which was the historical precedent for European alliances. Sixteen additional countries were added to NATO at various times in the intervening years—most notably Germany in 1955—bringing the total number of members to twenty–eight.
This alliance is not an economic or political one. It is strictly military in its terms and purpose. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty requires that an armed attack against any one member be treated by all members as an attack against themselves and the alliance as a whole. Despite NATO’s sixty–five year history, that particular article of the treaty has only been used once—following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
From its inception, the whole point of NATO has been to offset Russia. The threat of such a large alliance was supposed to keep Moscow in check, both in the Soviet era, and in the time period since the break–up of the USSR. During the Cold War, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced off across the Iron Curtain, but the battles were fought in rhetoric and political positioning. Neither group was willing to call the other’s bluff, and risk a world war with nuclear weapons in play.
Russia’s recent power play in Crimea poses a challenge and a question to NATO. Ukraine is not a full member of NATO, although it enjoys a “Distinctive Partnership” with the organization (http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_37750.htm). In 2008, both Georgia and the Ukraine were being talked about as future members of NATO. This was one of the factors that led to an armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in August of 2008. Now, with the Ukrainian government and people leaning toward a closer relationship with the EU and NATO, Russia has moved against Ukraine.
Most of NATOs recent new members have come from Eastern European countries, former members of the Warsaw Pact. Since the Cold War, the balance of power has tipped in favor of Europe and her allies, and NATO’s boundaries have crept closer and closer to Russia. Now Russia is pushing back.
So far NATO’s response to the Russian Ukrainian offensive has been distinctively non–military. It has focused no sanctions and criticisms, with minimal forces deployed in NATO–member, Poland and the Baltic region. A Congressional Research Report published April 16, 2014 by analysts Paul Belkin, Derek Mix and Steven Woehrel explained that “the crisis in Ukraine has also exposed longer standing tensions within NATO regarding its strategic focus.” The threat of terrorism has been the primary concern, while Russia has been quietly renewing its military power and its willingness to use it. Global economic problems have also led to squabbling about which NATO countries are footing the bill for NATO activities. The current American administration’s “‘rebalance’ to Asia, and the withdrawal over the past two years of two of the U.S. Army’s four Brigade Combat Teams based in Europe have raised questions about future U.S. commitments to European security. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have heightened these concerns” (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43478.pdf).
NATO was born from a European desire to offset the Soviet Union’s flexing of its military muscle in Eastern Europe. Now the future strength and effectiveness of NATO may be shaped by the way the alliance either stands together, or fractures from within, in response to a newly emboldened Russia. For sixty–five years these nations have remained loyal to their treaty, but how much longer can these bonds hold together in a world of multiplying threats and diminishing resources? If they can’t—then what?
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