The answer to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could be NATO expansion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not even a week old, and the lesson for many in the United States and the West was already clear: the NATO alliance must be further strengthened after an expansion major over the past two decades has failed to deter conflict.

“We need to lean in and have a bigger focus and focus,” Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan think tank, told a Senate panel on Tuesday. “Now Europe understands the stakes. Its own freedoms and security are at stake as well as ours.”

NATO has admitted more than a dozen new members since 1999, including Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, which border Ukraine and Russia. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been deterred by the alliance’s eastward expansion, and has instead spent that time destabilizing Ukraine and ultimately invading last week, in what he has said to be an attempt to prevent him from joining the alliance.

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Now NATO could continue to expand in ways unthinkable before Putin’s invasion, analysts say, such as granting membership to Sweden and Finland, which would place another member of NATO along Putin’s border.

The seismic shift in countries’ interest and commitment to NATO comes just a few years after commentators questioned its survival under former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Trump has sought a close relationship with Putin, questioned the value of the alliance throughout his presidential tenure and accused other member countries of not throwing their weight behind defense spending. He has also, according to several aides, repeatedly played with the alliance completely removed. He also delayed aid to Ukraine in actions that led to his first impeachment.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a dramatic break with all disinterest and doubt. Putin has “renewed the sense of purpose, which is that Russia is aggressive,” James Goldgeier, a professor at the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, DC, said in an interview.

All indications point to the post-WWII alliance being re-energized by Ukraine after long-running tensions with Putin’s Russia finally erupted into the biggest European war in generations and the Member states have banded together on the sidelines over the past week to send security aids and condemnations.

“I feel like the West has a moment here, and NATO has a moment,” Christopher Skaluba, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, told Military.com. “It looks like Ukraine has lit something that reminds us why we have these organizations in the first place and how important they are.”

With grievances dating back to the Cold War and a chip on his shoulder for the United States and Europe’s handling of the demise of the Soviet Union, Putin had set about elevating Russia to something resembling his Cold War glory in the 2000s.

The alliance continued to expand as Putin consolidated his power, and in 2008 he began talking about adding Ukraine, a move hotly opposed by the Kremlin.

In 2014, Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president was overthrown in a coup, and Putin responded by backing a separatist war in his ethnically Russian eastern region of Donbass, while also annexing his Crimean peninsula, an area strategic on the Black Sea.

At the time, the alliance was growing but also adrift, Goldgeier said.

“Without Putin’s actions since 2014, with the first invasion of Ukraine, NATO would have totally lost its meaning. It would have been more divided,” he said. “I think the United States probably would have lost a lot of interest in that.”

The alliance called the annexation of Crimea “illegal and illegitimate”, and the allies responded with a series of sanctions against Russia in 2014, including restrictions on access to Western financial institutions for its banking industry, state-owned defense and energy; on high-tech oil exploration and production equipment; and on exports of military and dual-use goods, according to NATO.

Dual-use items are products and technologies that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes. A common example is rocket technology – used for launching both peaceful satellites and warheads.

The sanctions caused oil prices to fall and the Russian currency to devalue, according to a NATO analysis a year later. but had relatively negligible effects on the Russian economy as a whole and apparently did not deter Putin from acting in the future.

But last month’s invasion triggered a much more dramatic response from NATO, with some caveats. President Joe Biden and NATO members have repeatedly made it clear that they will not send military forces to Ukraine, a non-member that is not part of the Article 5 mutual defense clause. which considers that an attack against one member of the alliance is an attack against all.

Despite weeks of demonstrating historical unity, NATO was unable to convince Putin to turn back before the invasion. The alliance has since activated the NATO Response Force, an elite multinational military force that includes the United States, for the first time following the invasion, and has continued to send aid to security in Ukraine to help him in his fight. Member Germany lifted a ban on sending weapons to war zones and said it would supply Stinger missiles and anti-tank weapons.

In an address to the nation at the start of Putin’s invasion, Biden said “the good news is that NATO is more united and more determined than ever.” The United States was one of the founding members of the alliance in 1949 in an effort to counter the former Soviet Union and was the linchpin as the remaining global superpower after the Cold War.

Public moves toward NATO membership have intensified in both Finland, which shares a border with Russia, and Sweden in recent days, according to European news reports. The two countries have been close allies in the alliance but had avoided seeking membership before the Ukraine crisis, appearing to turn the tide in a stunning development amid Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities.

Kosovo also demanded a fast track to NATO membership and a permanent US military base after the invasion, according to Reuters.

“I actually think there’s a very good chance that we could see NATO expansion this year,” Skaluba said.

Russia had pushed more than 80% of the 175,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s borders into the country on Tuesday as heavy fighting and shelling continued, according to a senior defense official. Russian forces have fired more than 400 ballistic missiles, with reports and videos of indiscriminate bombardments with cluster munitions and the presence of thermobaric vacuum weapons that could be dangerous to civilians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky maintained control of the country’s capital, Kyiv, while the Ukrainian military fought back and still controlled airspace in parts of the country. The Russian advance on Kiev has stalled, at least temporarily, due to a shortage of fuel and food for its troops, the defense official said.

In 2018 Ukraine amended its constitution to include its hopes of joining the NATO alliance, according to Ambassador Oksana Markarova. The majority of Ukrainians – 62% – supported this decision.

The future of this government is now deeply uncertain, and it remains unclear what Putin might do if his invasion overcomes fierce Ukrainian resistance.

“The No. 1 priority is to defend the country,” Markarova told reporters in Washington, D.C. agenda items, including NATO membership.

— Travis Tritten can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

— Konstantin Toropin can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Russo-Ukrainian War: Russia Steps Up Attacks on Ukrainian Cities

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