From the onset of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to spin the war as a conflict of Russian self defense, rather than an aggressive war of expansion. The aggressor, in Putin’s rhetoric, is not Russia or Ukraine. It’s NATO.
Putin has attempted to justify his invasion as necessary to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. But if his goal was to limit the expansion of NATO, and especially to further divide Ukraine from NATO allies, it seems that he has failed. On the one year anniversary of the war, it is clear that the U.S. and NATO have continued to rally behind Ukraine, pledging aid and strengthening ties. The future of NATO seems to be stronger and bigger—precisely due to Putin’s expansionist war.
NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a defensive alliance between the U.S. and European states that pledges mutual defense if any member state is attacked. Since 1949, the original 12 members have expanded to 30 member states. The defining feature of the NATO alliance is Article V, which pledges, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” The core premise is necessarily defensive, and is aimed to deter an attack on any NATO state.
As early as December 2021, two months before the invasion, the Brookings Institute tracked Putin as he amped up his rhetoric againstNATO,citingaNATO chokehold that would lead to Russian retaliation.
“The threat on our western borders is, indeed, rising,” said Putin at a Kremlin ceremony on December 1, 2021. “We will insist on developing concrete agreements prohibiting any further eastward expansion of NATO and the placement there of weapons systems in the immediate vicinity of Russian territory.”
But the increase in NATO’s members has not been an expansive chokehold, but a plea for mutual defense in the face of Russian expansion and jingoism.
“This wasn’t NATO trying to enlarge, this was countries hammering on the door saying let us in,” an associate professor at the Swedish national defense college said in an interview with The Guardian. “From our worldview, these are small countries that have good reason to be afraid of Russia.”
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022,solidifiedthesefears, strengthening calls within some non-member states to jointhealliancefordefense.
Including Ukraine, five nations have declared their aspirations to join NATO, but have not yet been formally accepted. The remaining four are Sweden, Finland, Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It seems quite likely that Sweden and Finland will become full members of NATO by the end of 2023, and perhaps in only a few short months. Sweden and Finland officially submitted a joint bid to join NATO on May 18, 2022, just a few months into the conflict. 28 of the 30 member states ratified, with Turkey and Hungary holding out.
Turkey initially announced that it would approve only of Finland’s bid, citing disapproval with Sweden’s “harboring” of Kurdish nationalists, some of whom have engaged in insurgent warfare against Turkey.
But just this week, during AntonyBlinken’svisitto Ankara, Turkish officials seemed more willing to discuss bringing both nations into the alliance.
“More meetings will be held with Sweden and Finland on NATO membership,” the Foreign Minister of Turkey announced. Similarly, Hungary announced on February 21 that it would be willing to accept Finland and Sweden into NATO as early as March 2023. And with the two holdouts increasingly on board, it seems that Sweden and Finland will bring NATO members up to 32.
Ukraine itself also seems poised to become a full NATO member—but only after the war has concluded. Ukraine is currently designated as a “NATO partner country,” meaning that it cooperates closely with NATO but does not enjoy the same Article V protections as a member state. The war, however, has bolstered ties between NATO and Ukraine, rendering Ukrainian membership all but inevitable.
In November 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted a formal application for NATO membership. The NATO Secretary-General repledged the organization’s previous commitment to accepting Ukraine into the alliance, but the immediate priority was supporting Ukraine during the war, not admitting new states. Though the first year has demonstrated surprising Ukrainian successes, it seems unlikely that the war will end anytime soon. So Ukrainian membership will have to wait.
Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to be in a similar position to Ukraine. In the wake of Putin’s invasion, Sarajevo strengthened its calls to join the alliance, receiving renewed verbal commitments from NATO allies on the possibilities of future membership.
However, it seems unlikely that NATO will similarly accept Georgia as a member state in the near future.Thismayseemto be a tough claim to make, as the allies pledged at a Bucharestsummitin2008 to accept Georgia sometime “in the future.” However, it’s not so simple.
Shortly after this announcement, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to back pro-Russian separatists in the region. To this day, Russia continues to occupy two regions militarily: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This reality keeps Georgia in limbo status with regard to NATO membership: the allies have little incentive to welcome Georgia into NATO, as it would immediately compel NATO states to engage in warfare against Russia while Russia occupies parts of Georgia. But Georgia cannot repel Russian forces on its own. From the current vantagepoint, it seems that NATO’s promise of Georgian membership “in the future” lies indefinitely on the horizon.
If Putin’s goal was to weaken NATO, though this ever-increasingly seems to be a pure war of expansion, rather than ideological opposition, he seems to have failed. Before the invasion, there was far less enthusiasm within alliance members for adding several of these new states— states that Putin has now made far more eager to join such a defensive alliance. President Biden perhaps made this point clearest at his speech this week in Poland, on the one year anniversary of Putin’s invasion:
“Putin thought he’d get the Finlandization of NATO,” Biden said. “Instead, he got the NATOization of Finland—and Sweden. He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than ever before.”
By the end of his speech, Biden had referenced an upcoming symbolic moment forNATO:the2024NATO summit in the United States planned for the 75th anniversary of the alliance. By that time, it seems certain that Sweden and Finland— and perhaps optimistically, Ukraine—will celebrate as the newest members.