It grew out of the Cold War. Now the NATO alliance faces fresh challenges as Russia flexes its muscles in Eastern Europe and Syria.

U.S. President Harry Truman speaks at the signing of NATO treaty in Washington, 4 April 1949 (AP Photo)
U.S. President Harry Truman speaks at the signing of NATO treaty in Washington, 4 April 1949 (AP Photo)
This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.

By Pauline Bock

A military alliance that grew out of the Cold War might seem irrelevant a quarter of a century after the demise of the Soviet Union.

But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has assumed an expanded remit since the end of the Cold War and now faces fresh challenges as Russia flexes its muscles in Eastern Europe and Syria.

Conceived in 1949 as a transatlantic alliance to protect Western Europe and prevent the expansion of communism, NATO has transformed itself since the end of the Soviet Union and now has 18,000 personnel involved in operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa.

Fighting in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria — located adjacent to several NATO states including Poland and Turkey — has raised alarm bells among NATO’s 28 member nations and begs a question that has been asked before: What would NATO do if one of its members clashed with Russia?

That question and a spate of conflicts well outside of Europe that have implications for its member states ensure that NATO will remain on call and in the headlines.

Collective self-defense

As the first NATO secretary general, Lord Ismay, put it, NATO’s purpose when it was created in 1949 was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

In other words, NATO made sure the United States, with the world’s most powerful army, was locked in to the alliance’s pledge of collective self-defense, enshrined in Article 5 of the founding treaty.

NATO aimed to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding beyond its sphere of influence that extended through Central Europe, and it would keep a lid on any German militarism.

The 12 countries that signed the founding treaty were Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the United States.

Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, followed by West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982.

After West Germany entered NATO, the Soviet Union formed its own alliance, called the Warsaw Pact, which included eight communist states of Central and Eastern Europe.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, several states that had been in Moscow’s orbit or in the Warsaw Pact signed up to NATO: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

In 2009, the Balkan nations of Albania and Croatia joined, bringing NATO’s total to 28. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are applicants for NATO membership.

New threats

It wasn’t long after the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 that nationalism and ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia drew NATO to the Balkans.

In 1995 the Alliance carried out air strikes against Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, strikes that played a role in ending a conflict on Western Europe’s doorstep. It then deployed a UN-mandated, multinational force of 60,000 soldiers to help implement a peace agreement.

In 1999, again in the Balkans, the alliance launched its largest military operation: 11 weeks of air strikes to force the Serbian army out of Kosovo. NATO-led forces remain in Kosovo today.

NATO's logo
NATO’s logo

Following the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, NATO’s member states invoked the Article 5 collective self-defense clause for the first and only time, although NATO was not involved in the U.S.-led military operations that followed.

There was a brief warming of relations between NATO and Moscow after 9/11. That ended as the Alliance pushed to expand towards Russia’s border, and Moscow under Vladimir Putin adopted a tougher stance towards what it viewed as provocative moves by a U.S.-dominated pact.

Put succinctly, NATO and Russia have had contradictory views: While the Alliance sees its expansion as promoting democracy and stability, Moscow viewed it as a threat to regional order. Russian incursions in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 were consistent with Moscow’s views even if NATO was not the direct cause.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict raises the stakes even further because Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, is a long-time NATO member. Russian war planes have entered Turkey’s air space in recent days, and last week Turkey shot down a drone that its prime minister said was Russian-made.

Referring to Russia’s involvement in Syria, a senior NATO official was recently quoted as saying the the Mediterranean “is a contested space again.”

Ukraine also looms as a potential flash point. In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for a separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, NATO has stepped up operations in Poland and Romania, and in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas.

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