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Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for Ukraine

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for Ukraine Joe Biden, Giorgia Meloni, Jens Stoltenberg and Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the 2023 Summit in Vilnius (photo by Getty Images)

Today, April 4, 2024, NATO celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding. Read more about the Alliance, its mission, expectations from the July summit in Washington, and when Ukraine can join the bloc in the RBC-Ukraine article.

Sources used: NATO website, the US Department of State, an article by former US State Department Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, AFP publications, and comments by the Chairman of the Permanent Delegation of Ukraine at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Yehor Cherniev.


NATO's history and membership

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military and political bloc that unites most European countries, the United States of America and Canada.

Its history began with the conclusion of the Brussels Pact in 1948 between the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. At the same time, secret negotiations were underway between the United States, Canada, and the UK, soon followed by other European countries.

This culminated in the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. The parties agreed on the principles of collective security, i.e., they undertook to defend any party to the treaty that was attacked. The agreement entered into force after final ratification on August 24, 1949. The founding members were 12 countries: The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Portugal. How NATO was born and why membership in the Alliance is important for Ukraine

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineThe signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, April 1949 (photo by

Since its founding, the bloc has focused on countering the USSR, a former ally in World War II.

During the first enlargement in 1952, Greece and Türkiye joined the bloc. It is noteworthy that in 1954 the Soviet Union applied for membership but was rejected. West Germany (Germany) became a member of NATO in 1955, at the same time Moscow formalized the Warsaw Pact. It was an alliance of socialist countries (Poland, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, the GDR, and Czechoslovakia) led by the USSR that lasted until 1991.

Spain became a member of NATO in 1982. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the Alliance's territory extended to eastern Germany. As part of the fourth enlargement, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999. Then, in 2004, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia joined.

In 2009, the Alliance expanded to include Croatia and Albania, followed by Montenegro in 2017, North Macedonia in 2020, and Finland in 2023. Sweden officially joined on March 7, 2024, and became the last, 32nd member of NATO.

The countries of the North Atlantic bloc account for about 1 billion people and 50% of the world's GDP. The combined armed forces number 3.2 million military personnel. Iceland is the only member that does not have an army. The headquarters is located in Brussels, Belgium.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, which received a NATO Membership Action Plan in December 2018, as well as Georgia and, of course, Ukraine, are recognized as candidates for membership.

Goals and main threat

One of the goals is to deter aggression and protect NATO countries from external attack. The key principle is set out in Article 5 of the treaty, which guarantees collective defense.

According to the treaty, the main goal is to strengthen stability and increase prosperity in the North Atlantic region. The document states that the member states join forces to create a collective defense to preserve peace and security. From the very beginning, the bloc was created against the Soviet threat.

"To keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down," as NATO's first Secretary General, UK General Hastings Ismay, jokingly formulated the mission of the alliance.

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineMap of NATO member states (photo by

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, the composition of NATO members changed and more. The 2010 Strategic Concept had three major tasks: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. And after Russia's aggression against Ukraine, the main threat was a surprise attack by Russia.

In April 2014, the Alliance suspended civilian and military cooperation with Russia. At the 2016 summit, Moscow was officially recognized as the main security threat, and a new mission was announced - to contain Russia. At the 2022 summit in Madrid, the concept of deterring any Russian aggression was set out.

Armed Forces

NATO's Multinational Response Force has 40,000 troops. They are provided by various members on a rotational basis. They have been used for humanitarian purposes on several occasions but were first deployed for deterrence and defense only in February 2022 in response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Response Force is not directly involved in the conflict, as Ukraine is not a member of the Alliance. But they are ready for military action if Russia attacks a NATO country.

In addition to the Response Force, the total active armed forces number 3.2 million people. The United States accounts for about 40% of this number.

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineSoldiers of the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo, 2004 (photo by

The Alliance plays an active role not only in collective defense. In the early 1990s, NATO forces helped stabilize the Balkan region and the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And in June 2024, it will be 25 years since the bloc deployed troops to Kosovo after a 77-day air campaign in Serbia. A quarter of a century later, KFOR forces are still there, making it NATO's longest-serving mission.

Apart from the Balkans, other major overseas missions include nearly two decades in Afghanistan and the 2011 Libyan campaign.

Financial commitments of NATO countries

Depending on the size of its economy, each member contributes to the NATO common fund. As of 2023, it amounted to $3.7 billion, covering administrative costs and collective military infrastructure. The United States, as the largest economy among the allies, financed it by about 16%. At the same time, NATO's general fund is small compared to national defense spending.

In 2006, member states agreed to allocate at least 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) to defense. The 2014 Summit formalized this commitment against the backdrop of the illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.

By 2022, only seven of NATO's 30 members will have exceeded the 2% target: Greece, the United States, Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Latvia. As former US president, Donald Trump often criticized allies who failed to fulfill their financial obligations.

Last month, he said that he intends to encourage Russia to do whatever it wants to any NATO country that does not allocate 2% to defense. This statement alarmed Western leaders. The comments of the Republican Party's favorite in the 2024 presidential election call into question Washington's commitment to its allies if Trump wins.

As a precautionary step, NATO is showing a sharp increase in the number of countries that have reached the target. It is expected to rise to 20 this year. Ten years ago, only three members spent 2% of GDP on defense.

Article 5

The principle of collective defense is central to the NATO treaty. It is enshrined in Article 5, which states that if one member country of the bloc becomes a victim of an armed attack, other members will consider this act an attack on all NATO countries. And, accordingly, they will take the necessary steps for collective defense.

NATO countries can assist in any form they deem necessary. This is an individual obligation of each member. It is the responsibility of each member to determine what it considers necessary in the circumstances. Assistance does not necessarily have to be military.

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineNATO soldiers at Kushamond base in Afghanistan, 2010 (photo by

Over the last 70 years, NATO member states have been involved in many conflicts, from Algeria to Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, but it was not an attack from outside, Article 5 was not invoked and NATO did not enter the fight as an Alliance.

It was activated only once in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Even then, the bloc did not send troops to fight the terrorists. Instead, the member states sent planes to guard the airspace over the United States.

When the United States pushed the Taliban out of Afghanistan, it did so together with troops from the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland, who joined the coalition of volunteers. Only a few months after the formation of the UN-sanctioned peacekeeping mission, NATO took on a role, but it was not an Article 5 commitment.

"In other words, Article 5 is not an automatic trigger for the use of ground forces. It could become so, for example, if the Baltic states with small territory and population were attacked by Russia. In this case, NATO countries would indeed have to intervene directly under Article 5, including with the use of ground forces," wrote former US State Department Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker in an article for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in 2023.

This is one of the reasons why Ukraine is seeking NATO membership. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasized that joining the Alliance would be the best guarantee of security. This is because the principle of collective defense can prevent future Russian attacks.

"We are not looking for a replacement for NATO, we are not looking for an alternative. Give me an example: which NATO country is at war with Russia, or which NATO country has Russian troops on its territory? This shows that these are the best security guarantees for Ukraine," he said.

The day before, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed this. According to him, when the war is over, the Alliance will help Ukraine build its defense to deter any further Russian aggression. The ultimate guarantee will be NATO membership and protection under Article 5.

Criteria for new members and whether Ukraine meets them

Joining NATO is potentially open to all democratic countries in Europe that share the values and are ready to fulfill their obligations.

The US State Department's website lists the minimum criteria for new members:

  • must support democracy, including tolerance of diversity
  • develop a market economy
  • the armed forces must be under civilian control
  • be good neighbors and respect the sovereignty of other countries
  • work towards interoperability with NATO forces.

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineMinimum criteria have been set for new members, but this does not guarantee an invitation to NATO (photo by Getty Images)

Commenting on the question of whether we meet the criteria, Chairman of the Permanent Delegation of Ukraine at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Yehor Cherniev says that Ukraine is on the way to maximizing its compliance with these standards. However, in any case, everything depends on the political decisions of the Alliance members.

According to him, some of them were put in a worse political and economic situation than Ukraine is in now. And after joining, they were brought up to domestic standards.

"We have room for improvement, but this should not be a reason to delay decisions on NATO membership. So far, there is no consensus among the member states," he says.

The criteria are important, but not the determining factor. The current members weigh whether the bloc will be strengthened by the accession of a new member, and only then issue an invitation. Which requires unanimous approval.

Ukraine's path and whether it is possible to join NATO before war ends

Ukraine's rapprochement with NATO began almost immediately after gaining independence. In 1994, it was the first post-Soviet country to join the Partnership for Peace initiative. A charter on a distinctive partnership was then signed, and various cooperation programs were launched.

The Ukrainian government announced its intention to join NATO in the mid-2000s. The third President, Viktor Yushchenko, called accession the main goal, and the military doctrine was supplemented with a provision for Euro-Atlantic integration. In early 2008, a letter was even sent to the headquarters requesting a Membership Action Plan. This episode provoked a parliamentary crisis.

At the 2008 summit in Bucharest, the attempt to obtain the MAP was unsuccessful, mainly because of Germany and France. Media reported that even then, Vladimir Putin threatened to seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine if the country moved toward NATO. In December of that year, the Alliance proposed an annual reform program without mentioning the MAP.

Under former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, the Commission for Ukraine's preparation for NATO Membership and the National Center for Euro-Atlantic Integration were liquidated. Only an annual national program was in place, under which Ukraine participated in the transportation of NATO cargo and peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineVolodymyr Zelenskyy, Denys Shmyhal, Ruslan Stefanchuk and Ukraine's application for NATO membership, September 2022 (photo by

After the Revolution of Dignity, the new Ukrainian government abolished the non-aligned status, and in February 2019, amendments to the Constitution came into force, which consolidated the course of joining the Alliance.

At the 2021 Summit in Brussels, NATO leaders confirmed that Ukraine would become a member and that Russia would not be able to veto it. With the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for Ukraine's membership to be granted under an accelerated procedure, and an application was submitted in September.

High hopes were pinned on the 2023 summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. At that time, more than 20 member states had officially supported accession by signing declarations, and Ukraine had expressed its desire to be invited. However, many Western leaders opposed it. This included US President Joe Biden, who said he did not think Ukraine was ready to join NATO.

Following the summit, Stoltenberg said that Ukraine would receive an invitation when all allies agree and the conditions are met. He added that Ukraine would not have to fulfill the MAP, which the Baltic states, Slovakia, Romania, and others have gone through.

The question is whether Ukraine's accession is possible before the war with Russia ends. Earlier, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that direct involvement of NATO countries in the conflict is impossible, so Ukraine will not join while the war is ongoing.

"Not because we don't want to, but because it is impossible," he emphasized.

Earlier, various options were considered on the sidelines, including political accession without Article 5 applying to Ukraine. But this does not make sense, because NATO is about collective defense, explains Cherniev.

"Politically, we were already equal among equals when the status of relations was upgraded to the NATO-Ukraine Council. No country wants to risk that the fighting could spread to its territory. This is the main concern why they are not ready to accept us today," he says in a conversation with the agency.

By the way, a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council at the level of foreign ministers will take place today.

Reserve a seat. Expectations from summit in Washington

The next summit will be held on July 9-11 in Washington, and there are high hopes for it again. The maximum goal is an official invitation from the Allies. Even with the caveat that this does not immediately trigger ratification in national parliaments.

"This should be a signal that a seat is reserved for Ukraine. We are starting the process of negotiations, as it is with the European Union, on what both sides need to do to make us a member of NATO. I don't know if our partners are ready to issue an invitation. But I know that they are working on a formula. We just insist that it should be a step forward compared to what happened in Vilnius," the source says.

Collective defense: How NATO formed and why membership in Alliance important for UkraineUS Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured that the summit in Washington would focus on Ukraine's roadmap (photo by Getty Images)

In turn, partners are lowering their expectations. According to UK Ambassador to NATO David Quarrey, we should not expect a breakthrough. American Ambassador Julianne Smith sees no possibility of an invitation at this stage because of the war.

Ukraine is doing everything in its power at various levels. But future allies, unfortunately, take into account how the Kremlin looks at it, although everyone says publicly that it has no veto power, explains Yehor Chernev. According to him, there is still enough time, and there will be many different meetings before Washington.

"As we remember, last year the decision on the final text of the communiqué in Vilnius was made almost in the last hours," he notes.

At a minimum, the task is a roadmap, which was not provided at the summit in Lithuania. Recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured that the meeting in Washington would focus on its development. He also called the roadmap a bridge to join the bloc.

It will contain a list of steps, possibly with a time frame. Or without, as partners usually avoid precise wording on Ukraine's accession.

"This is practically the same MAP, but less formal. That is, what we have to do to become interoperable. Specific steps. Today we have a national program designed for a year. The roadmap will take into account everything that is needed to become a de facto part of the North Atlantic Alliance," Chernev adds.