Author: Anastasia Tsalughelashvili
The start of full-scale Russian military operations on February 24, 2022, kicked off a plethora of adjustmentsinternationally, and resulted in a clear change to the world’s existing status quo. First and foremost, the issue of peace and security on the European continent was called into question. The international order and numerous agreements were violated, and Russia once again proved that its fighting method is not limited to information warfare. At the same time, the issue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO, the Alliance) expansion and its effectiveness was brought to the fore. In view of the ever-increasing threat and the war raging in NATO’s neighborhood, those countries earlier considered neutral in their relations with Russia – Sweden and Finland – applied to join the Alliance. Further, the issue of assisting war-torn Ukraine and helping it to join NATO moved to the top of the agenda. Accordingly, we have witnessed an interesting development in the Alliance over the past 19 months, a period in which the global order has changed significantly. The purpose of this blog is to analyse the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on NATO’s internal and external activities, and its role in building a new security format.
The positioning of NATO on the eastern flank
It is well known that joining the Alliance is a rather long and rigorous process, especially for states whose territory is occupied by another country. Although Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden, and Finland all cooperated faithfully with NATO, accession did not appear to be on the horizon, especially for Georgia and Ukraine, as there were still impeding economic, political, and military factors that delayed the process of their being granted a Membership Action Plan (MAP). With the Russia-Ukraine war, new circumstances emerged and new security guarantees became necessary, seeing NATO having to adapt to the situation and actively participate in the establishment of a new order. NATO’s assistance to Ukraine against the Russian aggression was a logical move. Ukraine is not only a partner country of NATO, but also one of the largest states in Europe in terms of area and population, one which also shares a land border with four member states of the Alliance, namely Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. On the other side is the Russian Federation, whose leaders have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the expansion and strengthening of NATO. The Kremlin believes that deepening relations between Kiev and NATO crossed a red line, and its attack on Ukraine, among other reasons, was motivated by the desire to indirectly attack NATO.
At the 2023 Vilnius Summit, the Alliance members decided to accept Ukraine into NATO without the MAP, thereby ushering in a new era in the organization’s expansion policy. Before the events of February 2022, it was hard to imagine that such a scenario for the Eastern European state. Although the end of the war will not automatically mean an invitation to join the Alliance- for this the agreement of all the member states is required -the fact is that Ukraine has received guarantees of simplified membership, and as such, the expansion of NATO’s borders to the east has become even more realistic. In short, Russia will ultimately end up sharing a land border with another member of the Alliance.
This decision is historic in several ways. First, NATO has returned to its original focus – Russia, and established a strong position on its Eastern European flank. In response to the war, the Allies increased military readiness on NATO’s eastern borders and created four additional battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, doubled its defences from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and laid the foundation for a new format of cooperation- the NATO-Ukraine Council, which offered clear statements about the importance of the security of the Black Sea region. It was in this format that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Russia’s violation of the grain agreement and announced the strengthening of surveillance on the Black Sea, a vector of NATO that will be maintained until Ukraine becomes a member of the Alliance, and until then, financial and material aid packages will continue to flow. At the same time, Ukraine will be automatically affected by the Fifth Article of NATO, which seeks to protect member states’ security and, in Ukraine’s case, would prevent a third Russian attack. In fact, the aforementioned Article calls into question the issue of Ukraine’s accession to the Alliance as, although its admission without the MAP has been resolved, if it still has occupied territories at the end of the war, accepting it into the alliance will trigger the Fifth Article and therefore push NATO to become engaged in a war against Russia. However, since we have seen several unexpected and non-standard decisionscoming from NATO of late, we can assume that NATO will propose a specialized action plan in this case as well.
The Vilnius Summit brought more novelties to the history of NATO. Finland attended the summit as a member for the first time, and the accession of its neighbor Sweden was officially confirmed by Jens Stoltenberg, who announced that negotiations with Turkey had been finalized and, therefore, that all countries of the Alliance were in agreement. For a long time, the Scandinavian countries had followed a neutral policy towards Russia: Neither the war of August 2008 nor the occupation of Crimea in 2014 led them to a decision to join NATO. When asked “why now?” the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland singled out two reasons, the first being that, shortly before the war in Ukraine, Moscow had clearly expressed its intentions if NATO were to expand further eastwards. The second turning point was the start of the war itself, which showed the Finnish and Swedish people that Russia was capable of pursuing any actions it wished to achieve its goals. At the same time, the support for NATO among the population also increased significantly. According to research by the SOM Institute, in autumn 2021, only 29% of Swedes were in favor of joining NATO. In 2022, this number increased to 64%. The same trend can be observed in the case of Finland: after the start of the war, the percentage of those supporting accession to NATO was 60%, a rise of 34 points compared to the previous data of 2021.
Unlike Finland, Sweden has taken a relatively longer and more difficult path on its way towards the Alliance. The main role in these processes was played by Turkey, which blocked Sweden’s accession for several months. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Sweden was supporting Kurdish fighters, which Turkey had declared terrorists, and in this way the interests of Sweden and Turkey clashed and cooperation in the Alliance was impossible. The preconditionswere thus set, namely, that the Kurdish terrorists living in Sweden were to be extradited, and the arms embargo for Turkeyhad to be lifted. These were partially fulfilled by Sweden – only a number of individuals were not extradited. Nevertheless, an agreement was reached after long negotiations, and Ankara finally gave the green light to Stockholm.There is an opinion that the change in Turkey’s position is related to Joe Biden’s statement that America would transfer F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, the precise benefit Turkey sought from its negotiations. All in all, though, Sweden will be joining the Alliance, becoming the 32nd member state of NATO and contributing to the strengthening of the Alliance and global security.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has left a lasting mark on NATO. As a result, we see a strengthened and structurally changed Alliance; an expansion that even the newly joined countries themselves did not plan took place, laying the foundation for a new security format for the European continent. NATO’s expansion to the north is largely a result of the Russian aggression, and it is even said that NATO’s 9th enlargement will go down in history as “the enlargement that Vladimir Putin made happen”. At the same time, from a historical perspective, the NATO-Ukraine relationship also changed, and the possibility of joining the Alliance without the MAP was officially confirmed- also a non-standard case. The war is still ongoing, but after 19 months, a sharp change in the internal and external dynamics of NATO is already palpable, leading to fundamental changes in world security.