As an estimated 100,000 Russian troops lay in wait on the Ukrainian border, the world is watching. This troop movement, which seemingly escalates every day, has the potential to result in the largest military incursion in Europe since the end of WWII. How have tensions between Russia and Ukraine reached this point? The answer can largely be found in the history of NATO since its founding in 1949. By virtue of its very existence, NATO has always posed a threat to the Kremlin – and understanding the history of this contentious relationship is key to understanding what is happening in Ukraine today.
Since the formation of NATO, increases in membership have brought the alliance closer and closer to Russia’s doorstep. The addition of Turkey to the alliance in 1952 brought NATO nearer than ever to the communist bloc. West Germany’s admission in 1955 prompted the USSR to establish the Warsaw Pact in opposition to the alliance. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland all expanded the influence of NATO further to the East in 1999, and 2004 brought the membership of 7 more Eastern European states: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. This 2004 addition was the first time that a country that had formerly been a part of the Soviet Union joined NATO, and it was a significant turning point. Since then, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia have also become member states.
The United States has played a crucial role in NATO since the beginning. However, within the scope of domestic politics, Americans have historically not always agreed upon how best to conceptually approach international alliance. In 2017, for example, Senator Rand Paul objected to the admission of Montenegro into the treaty, claiming it would be “unwise” to take on additional military obligations. In opposition to this, however, Senator John McCain said in response, “The senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”
“If there is objection, you are achieving the objectives of Vladimir Putin. You are achieving the objectives of trying to dismember this small country, which has already been the subject of an attempted coup.” – Senator John McCain.
Every time a new country is admitted to NATO, Russia’s influence in the region is diminished. For Putin, there has been concern in recent years that states such as Georgia, Ukraine or Moldova could potentially join the alliance – and for his regime, this would be a disaster. The Kremlin’s desperation to cling onto its former Soviet allies was demonstrated clearly in 2008 when Georgia – which had been aligning itself with Western powers and expressing interest in NATO membership – was invaded by Russia, resulting in a five-day war that left an estimated 850 people dead and 35,000 displaced.
But Ukraine, perhaps more than any other former-Soviet state, is strategically important to Russia. The two states have historical, cultural and economic ties that align them closely, prompting Putin’s frequent statements reaffirming his belief that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. In July of 2021, for example, he published an essay in which he called the separation between the two countries “our great common misfortune and tragedy.” As Ukraine has distanced itself both politically and economically from its neighbor, tensions have been on the rise.
Ukraine, alongside Georgia, had begun its bid for NATO membership in 2008, which was met with hesitancy from some member states. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at the time that the two states would “eventually” become members, but Ukraine’s plans were shelved after the 2010 ascension of Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, the issue of Ukraine being granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP) was revisited, with a statement that Russia would be unable to veto Ukraine’s decision on this matter.
“Each country chooses its own path, and this also applies to joining NATO. It is up to Ukraine and the 30 NATO members to decide whether it aspires to be a member of the Alliance. Russia has no say in whether Ukraine should be a member of the Alliance. They cannot veto the decisions of their neighbors. We will not return to the era of spheres of interest, when large countries decide what to do with smaller one.” – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
In response, the Kremlin has promoted widespread disinformation and propaganda about NATO and its relationship to Ukraine. Leading up to the 2014 crisis, Putin promoted the idea that Kyiv was under the control of neo-Nazis, and he has claimed that popular uprisings in countries across the former Eastern bloc, such as Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” were sponsored by the United States. In recent weeks, the disinformation campaign by the Kremlin has become so prevalent and outlandish that it was even parodied on the Jan. 30 episode of Saturday Night Live.
In a statement on Feb. 1, the Russian leader claimed that the United States and its allies have ignored Russia’s security demands regarding the situation in Ukraine.
Russia’s position on the global stage has shifted dramatically since the fall of the USSR in 1991, and it continues to attempt to reclaim the geopolitical power that it held just three decades ago. However, many states that once closely aligned themselves with Russia have distanced themselves further and further, and this is a threat that Putin will not willingly tolerate. It is holding Ukraine as a hostage to use as a bargaining chip with Western powers, and specifically with NATO. This blatant aggression cannot be tolerated – but the question now is what the world will do about Putin’s play for power, and how many innocent lives will be lost in the process.
I am reminded of a quote from the late Senator McCain from his visit to Kiev in 2017:
“In 2017 we will defeat the invaders and send them back where they came from. To Vladimir Putin – you will never defeat the Ukrainian people and deprive them of their independence and freedom.” – John McCain.
In the coming days and weeks, President Biden and other leaders of NATO states should follow McCain’s example in standing up to the threat that Putin’s regime holds for democracy in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe.