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Everything you need to know about the military alliance that's freaking out Russia

NATO in 1955.
NATO in 1955.
University of Toronto
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The crisis in Ukraine is becoming an international crisis. Russian troops have massed on the Ukrainian border, the US and European Union have sanctioned Russian officials, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has suspended all "practical" civilian and military cooperation with Russia. If war were to break out between Russia and Ukraine, one of the big questions — in Washington, in Kyiv, and most especially in Moscow — is how NATO would respond.

That NATO part of this is actually a pretty big deal: the Western military alliance is a big player in the Ukraine crisis and in Europe more broadly, so what it does matters. In some ways, Russia's behavior toward Ukraine is partly driven by fear of NATO. But you might not know what, exactly, NATO is, how it works, and why it matters to so much. Here are some answers to those questions.

1. What is the US-led military alliance at the center of all this?

NATO is a military alliance between the United States, Canada, Turkey, and 25 European countries. NATO works by pledging every member to defend any member that's attacked. Once a country joins NATO, it is legally obligated to defend any other country in the alliance that's attacked — and all of those countries are obligated to defend it.

The United States and Western European powers created NATO in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union's military power in Europe. The Soviet Union responded by creating the Warsaw Pact, a similar defensive alliance for Eastern Europe's communist countries. The struggle between the two alliances defined most of the Cold War in Europe.

NATO's original mission ended with the Berlin Wall — there was no more Soviet bloc or Warsaw Pact to defend against — but the alliance actually expanded. NATO let in a number of newly independent Soviet republics, like Estonia, and former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Poland. This expansion of NATO really freaked out Russia, which sees it as an attempt by Western countries to encircle Russia militarily and dominate it politically. Arguably, Russia's fear of NATO admitting Ukraine is one of the causes of the crisis.

There's huge disagreement today about what NATO is for (beyond scaring Russia), or even whether it should still exist. The pro-NATO argument is that it keeps the peace in Europe and allows the West to efficiently cooperate on counter-terrorism and humanitarian military operations. The argument against NATO is that it unnecessarily inflames tension in Russia and forces the United States to spend way too much money on its military.

2. How does NATO work?

NATO's rules are laid out in its founding document, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty. The most important provision is Article 5, which says that "an armed attack against one" NATO member "shall be considered an attack against them all." Each country gets to say when they've been attacked, which is called "invoking" Article 5. So when you hear President Obama talking about America's "Article 5 responsibilities" with regard to Russia, he means that the US would defend any NATO ally that Russia attacked.

Article 5 has only been invoked once. After the September 11th attacks, the United States argued the attack was covered under Article 5, and NATO agreed. This is why the war in Afghanistan has been a NATO mission, fought by troops from across the alliance and under NATO command.

Major decisions, like whether to accept a member's invocation of Article 5, are made by consensus: any member-state can veto. This is why the 2003 Iraq invasion was not a NATO mission.

Russia sees NATO expansion as a moral affront as well as a strategic threat

NATO has a number of smaller, long-term programs, including an anti-human trafficking initiative and a program for promoting military cooperation with European countries that aren't in NATO.

NATO is chaired by a secretary general. Currently, that's Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark.

3. Why does NATO exist?

After World War II, Western Europe was super-scared of the Soviet Union, and still kind of in shambles. NATO was a way to kill two birds with one stone: counter the Soviet threat and stitch together fractious European countries.

The basic concept of a European defense alliance came from the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. In 1948, those five countries signed a mutual defense pact, called the Western Union. In 1948, when the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in a bid to take it over, the countries became convinced they needed to expand the Western Union — particularly by including the United States. About a year later, NATO was born, including the US and Canada along with a bunch of Western Europe.

NATO's core purpose was always to deter the Soviet Union, but a very important secondary purpose was promoting and protecting democracy in Europe (NATO members are supposed to show they respect democracy and human rights before they can join). NATO wasn't just the guarantor of Western Europe's territorial security from communism — it was also supposed to protect the West's ideological security.

4. Okay, so why does NATO still exist?

There are basically two explanations: the positive one and the negative one. The positive spin is that NATO has adapted to the post-Cold War world, and now helps prevent wars, protect weak states and peoples, and promote democracy. The negative spin is that NATO is a dinosaur, a vestige of the Cold War, and that it makes things worse by promoting tension between Europe and Russia.

Get your own army

The positive case says that NATO is a really good way to solve post-Cold War security problems. NATO prevents war between members — allies don't fight each other. It prevents Russia, which has a long history of invading its border states, from upsetting the peace in Europe. And it helps global security: NATO built an international framework for military interventions to stop crimes against humanity in Kosovo and Libya; NATO's new 2010 statement of purpose makes these "crisis management" missions a top priority. One of this missions, in Yugoslavia in 1995, infuriated Russia, who saw it as NATO imperialism directed at pro-Russian rebels.

The case against NATO says that putting a defensive Western alliance in charge of such a grandiose global mission is at best silly and at worst imperialistic. In this thinking, the United Nations — which, unlike NATO, represents more than just Western countries — is the appropriate place for addressing big international problems, and that ceding that power to North American and Western European countries is a recipe for politically motivated Western aggression.

A common criticism in the US says that NATO is a waste of American money. The US is by far the biggest military within NATO. Given that the Cold War is over, why should the United States commit itself and its troops to defending European countries? Get your own army.

5. Why is Russia so freaked out about NATO?

NATO was an anti-Soviet alliance from the get-go. Not only has it stuck around, but it's let in a bunch of countries that used to be Soviet territory or Russian allies.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has admitted 12 former Soviet bloc states: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia. Here's what that looks like in a time-lapse gif:


Dark blue means NATO member, light blue means it joined NATO in the indicated year. Arz

See that eastern expansion from 1990 on? If you're Russia, that looks an awful lot like the West is just continuing a Cold War effort to overtake Europe and isolate or even threaten Russia. Russia believes, with some justification, that the US promised in 1990 to never expand NATO east of Germany if Moscow consented to the reunification of East and West Germany that year. But NATO ended up expanding further east than anyone imagined. Why go back on your word unless you're planning something?

Moreover, NATO's military capability vastly outstrips Russia's — it's not even close. Russian political and military leaders have long been skeptical of NATO's purportedly defensive mission, so when they see NATO expanding in their direction, they see the looming specter of a Western invasion.

Many Russians, especially Russian nationalists like President Vladimir Putin, see Eastern Europe and Central Asia as its historical "sphere of influence." It's Russia's right to be the dominant political force there, from their point of view. So Russia sees NATO expansion as a moral and historical affront as well as a strategic threat.

6. Does this have something to do with the Ukraine crisis?

There's some speculation that in March Russia seized Crimea, a semi-autonomous province in Ukraine, because it feared Ukraine would join NATO and wanted to prevent NATO from taking over Crimea. And Putin explicitly cited NATO enlargement as one of the reasons he decided to annex Crimea. It seems far likelier, though, that Russia principally took Crimea because of the territory's historical significance to Russia, as well as its navally useful location.

NATO hasn't answered one question: why does it still exist?

But there is some NATO history here. In January 2008, Ukraine asked NATO to consider it a candidate for NATO membership. Russia sees Ukraine as ethnically, linguistically, and historically linked in roughly the same way as the US and the UK. So the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, which Russia sees an inherently anti-Russia organization, made Moscow really angry.

This came to head in February 2014, when popular protests overthrew the Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The precipitating cause of Yanukovych's political demise was his decision to tighten trade and political ties with Russia while dropping a deal with the EU. The new government that replaced Yanukovych promised greater integration with Europe. NATO's top official, Rasmussen, said that the door to NATO membership was still open.

Still, to be clear about this: Ukraine wasn't even close to joining. It hadn't even requested to re-enter the trial program to maybe enter NATO at some future indeterminate date. If this was ever going to happen, it was many years away. So it seems highly unlikely that Russia invaded to preempt a super-hypothetical Ukrainian bid to join NATO. Any case, Russia's immediate interests in Crimea are far more important to Moscow.

7. This is a lot of history. Can we take some sort of NATO-themed music break?

Sort of! Eurovision is an annual, international singing competition. Almost every country in Europe, including Russia, sends a singer or group to perform comically over-the-top pop songs. Then all of Europe votes for their favorite.

Okay, so Eurovision is more like the European Union of music than the NATO of music. Regardless, it's awesome, and sometimes can be kind of on-theme. Montenegro's 2012 offering, by former anti-communist performance artist Rambo Amadeus, is an absurdist rap about European unity and identity that you have to watch to get:

8. Should Ukraine or other eastern Europe countries be allowed to join NATO?

Depends on who you ask and what countries you're talking about. The three countries with a formal application plan — Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro — aren't really that controversial.

What's more controversial is Russian border countries like Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in 2008. Russia hawks in the US such as John McCain sometimes suggest having these countries join NATO. Whether or not this is a good idea gets to two deeper questions, the first about Russia and the second about NATO:

First, would NATO expansion deter Russia or just needlessly antagonize it? The whole point of NATO expansion, for Russia hawks, is to deter Russia from invading vulnerable countries. They argue that the alliance has a great track record of deterring Russia, which has never attacked a NATO member. Extending protection to vulnerable Western allies on Russia's borders, then, should a no-brainer: Russia wouldn't dare invade Georgia if Georgia were in NATO because this would mean war with the US and Europe.

Skeptics of this sort of NATO expansion argue that, were Georgia to join NATO, this could lead Russia to retaliate in some way that would cause more harm than good. Maybe that means Russia preemptively invading the country before it can join NATO or maybe it means invading after it joins, to basically force the US to admit that it's not going to start World War III to defend Georgian sovereignty. If that happened, it would seriously weaken NATO and imperil whatever country it was trying to protect.

Second, is it really NATO's job to protect former Soviet states from Russia? This goes back to the still-unresolved question of why NATO continues to exist after the Cold War. If it's here to promote democracy and self-determination globally, then inviting in Georgia or Ukraine might make sense. If it's just about protecting the core North American and European member-states, then why should they stick their necks out for Ukraine?

This question is particularly touchy right now because it gets to a much larger debate about what sort of responsibility democratic countries have toward the rest of the world. Should the US and its allies be out in the world defending global principles of freedom and democracy, or is it their job to protect their own citizens first? These are big questions in the West right now, so the arguments about NATO enlargement are about a lot more than NATO.

9. I skipped to the bottom. What's going to happen next?

In the immediate future, expect more tension between NATO and Russia — but probably not war. On April 1st, NATO decided to suspend all civilian and military cooperation with Russia over the Ukraine crisis. These collaboration mechanisms were used as means of building trust between the two sides, but NATO has clearly made a decision that Moscow is not to be trusted.

But Moscow isn't stupid: Russian leaders know they can't win a war against NATO. There's real concern that Russia might attempt to annex the largely ethnic Russian areas in Eastern Ukraine. If they do, this could provoke NATO military deployments in Eastern Europe closer to Russia, which would worsen tension further. The incentives are aligned against further Russian provocations, but it's hard to know what Putin is thinking for sure.

How this crisis plays out is actually pretty important to the future of NATO. Before the invasion of Crimea, NATO was facing an existential crisis: the original mission of opposing Russian aggression seemed to be evaporating. Either it was going to redefine itself as a collective security agreement, concerned with doing things like the 2011 Libya intervention, or it was risking obsolescence.

But if Russia is determined to throw its weight around in Eastern Europe again, NATO's original mission may be revived: countering a threat to Europe's east. Meet the New NATO, same as the old NATO.