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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What Is NATO, and how has the war in Ukraine changed it?

President Harry S. Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty in the Oval Office in Washington, Aug. 24, 1949. What is NATO, and how has the war in Ukraine changed it? This Western mutual-defense alliance is central to the pushback against Russia, even though Ukraine is not a member. (George Tames/The New York Times)

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

Sweden moved one step closer to joining NATO on Tuesday, after Turkey’s parliament backed the move, underscoring how the war in Ukraine continued to reshape the military alliance nearly three years into the fighting.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia cited NATO’s eastward spread as one of his reasons for invading Ukraine. But instead of curbing it, Europe’s largest ground war since NATO was formed 74 years ago has revived and returned it to its Cold War roots as a war-fighting alliance.

Despite dwindling military supplies and competing crises, NATO members have vowed to sustain support for Ukraine. But military aid from the United States remains stalled in Congress, and current and former European diplomats have expressed growing concern that a second Donald Trump presidency could mean the abandonment of the government in Ukraine along with a gutting of the alliance.

Here’s a guide to NATO and how its role has shifted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

What is NATO?

The mutual-defense alliance was established in 1949, after World War II, by the United States, Canada and 10 European countries.

The treaty for which the alliance is named has 14 articles by which all NATO members must abide. The most important is Article 5, which declares that an attack against one member state is an attack against them all.

That article placed Western Europe under U.S. protection in the face of a Soviet Union that was cementing its domination over Central and Eastern Europe and appeared then only to be growing in power and ambition.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, the alliance took on a wider role. NATO forces — made up of troops volunteered by member states — operated as peacekeepers in Bosnia in the 1990s and bombed Serbia in 1999 to protect Kosovo, where the alliance still has troops.

Which countries are members?

In addition to the United States and Canada, the countries that became part of NATO in 1949 were Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.

Since then, 19 more European states have joined: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Turkey, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

Finland became NATO’s 31st member state last year, having abandoned a long-standing policy of military nonalignment. That added one of Western Europe’s most potent militaries to the alliance while at the same time extending NATO’s commitment to collective defense to a country that shares an 830-mile border with Russia.

Membership in NATO has long been considered a cheap benefit, given the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella and the principle of collective defense. But the alliance also has extensive requirements of its members — not just spending goals for the military, but specific demands from each country for certain capabilities, armaments, troop strengths and infrastructure.

NATO has since 2014 been led by Jens Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway.

How has the war in Ukraine changed NATO?

In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron of France warned that NATO was becoming brain-dead and questioned the U.S.’ commitment to the alliance. But since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO finds itself newly relevant.

Although the alliance does not directly provide military aid to Ukraine, NATO countries, led by the United States, the biggest overall donor, have sent tens of billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. All NATO member states discuss military aid to Ukraine at monthly meetings in Ramstein, Germany. The alliance has also helped to coordinate Ukraine’s requests for humanitarian aid.

The war has also given new centrality to countries along NATO’s eastern border, particularly the Baltic States and Poland, a country that has acquired significant new clout within the alliance. The country’s president, Andrzej Duda, was among the first foreign leaders to visit Kyiv, Ukraine, after the invasion began and has been one of its most hawkish backers.

Why did Turkey oppose Sweden’s joining NATO?

Along with Finland, Sweden applied to join the alliance in May 2022, breaking its own policy of neutrality toward Russia. But Turkey, a NATO member, repeatedly delayed the process, saying that Sweden, the United States and Canada all needed to meet Turkish demands.

That exasperated other members of the alliance, which viewed Turkey as leveraging its position for domestic gain.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s parliament voted 287-55 (with four abstentions) to allow Sweden to join NATO, easing the diplomatic stalemate.

All NATO member governments must agree unanimously to expand the alliance. Hungary is the only remaining holdout.

What does Sweden have to offer?

Sweden’s accession to NATO on the heels of Finland’s would essentially turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO-dominated waterway, one that enhances the alliance’s ability to protect its most vulnerable members: the Baltic nations. Those include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which border Russia and its key ally, Belarus.

As Turkey dragged its feet, Sweden’s defense ministry said in October that it could contribute its Gripen warplanes to a Western coalition that is trying to speed fighter jets to Ukraine — but only after the Nordic nation is allowed into NATO.

Sweden’s conditional offer to give some JAS-39 Gripens came as NATO races to train Ukrainian pilots and support crews to fly Western fighter jets — what officials and experts describe as one of the few weapons systems that could change the course of the war. Allies have pledged to donate as many as 60 F-16s to Ukraine once its pilots are ready.

Where does Ukraine’s membership stand?

Joining NATO has for years been a central goal of Ukraine’s foreign policy, part of its plan to secure its future within the European Union and the West. As far back as 2008, NATO said Ukraine would eventually become a member. Russia’s invasion raised the stakes, and the government in Kyiv applied to join NATO last September.

NATO has promised that Ukraine can join eventually — without giving a timeline — and has drawn up a list of reforms the country must embrace before that can happen. To avoid putting the alliance in direct conflict with Russia, Kyiv is not expected to be able to join NATO during the war.

What about other European countries?

Other countries in Europe such as Ireland and Austria have chosen not to join NATO because of a policy of military neutrality.

Belarus, another country on Russia’s border, is not a member of NATO. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is a close ally of Putin and allowed his country to be used as a staging ground for the invasion of Ukraine.

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