The people of Ukraine are paying the price today in a struggle over who controls Europe. Capitalist elites from the U.S. to Russia are working hard to paint themselves as heroes. While Russian state leaders declare the invasion a response to NATO aggression, NATO leaders are using the Russian invasion to pursue new legitimacy. The only people who win here are capitalist elites.
By now you’ve probably heard about Russia. So what’s up with NATO? Here we have answers to some fundamental questions about NATO, and what role the alliance has played in the war on Ukraine:
When was NATO started and what is its purpose?
NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a military alliance formed between European and North American countries after World War II. It is an alliance whose stated purpose is collective self-defense; a military attack on one member is considered an attack on all members.
NATO was formed in 1949 at the beginning of the Cold War as an alliance of U.S.-led Western states against the Soviet Union-led Eastern Bloc. NATO’s purpose was to secure US capitalist dominance over the world order, and prevent the Soviet Union and communism from projecting power in Europe and beyond.
What role does NATO play in the world today?
Instead of being for collective self-defense, NATO is a means for several of the most powerful states in the world—including the US, Canada, the UK, France, and Germany—to maintain global control of people and resources to serve western capitalist interests.
NATO is a force for militarization and imperialism in Europe and around the world. In 2020, 57% of all military spending in the world was done by NATO states. NATO has “nuclear sharing agreements,” whereby the US stations nuclear weapons across Europe. In this way, NATO is key to maintaining nuclear weapons in Europe–and the ever present threat of nuclear war.
Is Ukraine part of NATO?
No. This is a key point of tension for both NATO and Russia and the current crisis. In 2008 at NATO’s Bucharest Summit, the alliance announced that it “welcomed” the process for Ukraine to become a member– which Russian state leaders see as a major threat. But Ukraine’s membership in the alliance never actually happened, and it has since been a “partner country.”
What role has NATO played in the crisis in Ukraine?
NATO has admitted more than a dozen new members since 1999, including states which border Ukraine and Russia. This has contributed to instability and increasing militarization across the region. The US is in the process of making its newest Navy base–which is at Redzikowo, Poland–operational. The base, which will be part of NATO’s European missile “defense” system, is an example of NATO’s ongoing expansion and militarization of Europe–especially Eastern Europe–that has increased instability on the continent.
Putin has demanded a guarantee that Ukraine would not be admitted to NATO and declared the Russian invasion as a response to NATO’s refusal to make that promise. Putin’s actions are indefensible, and Russian state leaders are responsible for the current devastation. But by expanding the alliance and its weapons east toward Russia, NATO has played a major role in escalating tensions too.
What has NATO done since the end of the Cold War?
NATO intervened in 1995 in the Bosnian War, carrying out bombing missions and deploying 60,000 troops as part of a peacekeeping mission in response to ethnic cleansing. The alliance intervened again in 1999 during the Kosovo War, bombing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 78 days, killing hundreds of civilians, and destroying bridges, schools, hospitals, and places of cultural significance.
NATO was part of the US-led invasion and twenty-year long occupation of Afghanistan. Its forces played a role in the US-led occupation of Iraq, and carried out operations in Libya against the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
In these cases, the US and other powers used NATO as a multilateral institution to give legitimacy to operations that would not be sanctioned by international bodies like the UN.
So NATO’s reach extends beyond Europe?
Yes! And not only in its military operations, but also with militaries that are brought into coordination with the alliance. One project of NATO is the Mediterranean Dialogue, which promotes cooperation between seven Middle Eastern and North African states. NATO has invited Israel, Egypt, and Jordan to participate in joint operations with the alliance.
NATO has also designated a number of states around the world as “global partners” with which it carries out military cooperation: Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, and Pakistan.
Does NATO promote democracy in the face of authoritarianism?
The idea that NATO has been a force for democracy was false from the start. Portugal was under the Estado Novo regime–an authoritarian dictatorship—when it joined NATO as a founding member in 1949. Greece, which joined NATO in 1952, remained a member of the alliance when a military junta took over the country in 1967. But NATO has also been used by the US and its allies to make profoundly undemocratic moves on the world stage—like the invasion of Afghanistan.
And that’s not all. The alliance has been the target of mass protests throughout its history. These protests—especially at NATO meetings, such as the huge one at NATO’s 25th Summit, held in Chicago in 2012—have been growing in the decades after the Cold War–and the end of the supposed basis for the alliance. Instead of NATO welcoming protests as expressions of democracy, NATO’s gatherings have been marked by massive police presence, arrests, and other repression.
So we should abolish NATO?
So NATO is to blame for everything?
No. Nothing can excuse or justify the horrific attack on everyday people in Ukraine by the Russian military. As anti-imperialists in the west, we understand our central responsibility is to fight the imperialist aggression of the U.S. and NATO, reject expansion and intervention, and refuse to let the US empire grow its power through crisis. But while we do this, we must be careful not discount the agency and harm of warring elites elsewhere, or minimize the lived experiences of people suffering under other militarized regimes like present-day Russia. You can read more about this principle in our points of unity.