NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – is very much in the news these days. Russian President Vladimir Putin considers it a major adversary. “If Ukraine were to join NATO,” he said in a televised address on Feb. 21, “it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia.”
Preventing this from happening is doubtless one of the goals Putin had in mind when he launched his invasion of Ukraine. NATO, for its part, has strongly condemned the invasion. Furthermore, according to the organization’s website, “Individual NATO member countries are sending weapons, ammunition, medical supplies and other vital military equipment to Ukraine,” and “providing millions of euros of financial assistance” to the beleaguered nation.
To assemble a list of NATO member nations and to briefly sketch out the organization’s history, 24/7 Wall St. drew primarily from the NATO website and sourced additional information from Reuters and the U.S. Office of the Historian. (Population figures are from World Population Review.)
While the 12 founding members of NATO – also known by its French-language acronym, OTAN (Organisation du traité de l’Atlantique nord) – were all Western European nations in addition to the U.S. and Canada, it must particularly rankle Putin that 14 of NATO’s 30 current member states were once either part of the USSR or within the Soviet sphere of influence. (These are the 14 former Soviet or Soviet-aligned republics that joined NATO after the Cold War.)
NATO was founded after World War II as an outgrowth of a mutual defense agreement signed by France and the U.K. and subsequently expanded to include Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. This became the basis for the North Atlantic Treaty, a new military alliance formed at the request of the U.S. The Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, by America and Canada, the five members of the original alliance, and Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. The signatories agreed to consider an attack against any one of them an attack against all, and to respond accordingly. (These days, here’s what every NATO nation thinks about America.)
A number of other countries joined NATO following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the most recent being North Macedonia (formerly part of Communist Yugoslavia), which was accepted by the organization in 2020. NATO says that “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area” may be considered for membership.
As early as 2008, Viktor Yushchenko, then the Ukrainian president, signed a statement asking for his country to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan, the first step towards membership. His own parliament blocked the measure, and the Russians vigorously protested the idea. NATO said at the time that it would not yet offer membership to Ukraine (or to Georgia, which was also interested in joining) but that both would likely become members eventually – though the odds of Ukraine becoming part of NATO now look slim, regardless of the outcome of the war.
In an example of unintended consequences for Russia, however, two traditionally non-aligned European nations, Sweden and Finland, have recently said that they might now apply for NATO membership as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine. This would infuriate Moscow, providing further challenges to its power grab on the continent, but would be a direct result of its aggressive actions.
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