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In Context: Nato expansion

In Context: Nato expansion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, apparently in an attempt to stop Nato expansion on Russia’s borders, has had the opposite effect, with Sweden and Finland now looking to join the defensive military pact. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also recently confirmed that an independent Scotland would apply to join Nato, despite her party’s long standing opposition to nuclear weapons.

What is Nato?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was established during the Cold War by western democracies, concerned by the threat posed to Europe by the Soviet Union. The pact between the countries is essentially one of collective security, an agreement that an attack on one country is deemed an attack on all – and each party has agreed to come to the aid of any member country which is attacked.

Nato originated as the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, with its original membership comprising Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the USA.

In the 1950s, the partnership expanded to include Greece, Turkey and West Germany, with Spain joining in 1982 following the restoration of democracy in the Iberian country.

Why is Russia concerned with Nato expansion?

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a flurry of former Iron Curtain countries liberalised their economies, became democracies and over the next decade applied for Nato membership.

Between 1999 and 2009, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia joined the military pact. East Germany too, became part of Nato following German reunification in 1990.

The expansion of Nato members into countries which were formerly either part of the Soviet Union, or within Russia’s sphere of influence, has had a profound effect on Russian leadership. Vladimir Putin himself has referenced his early career as a young KGB officer in Dresden, saying it “hurt” watching the Soviet Union’s former empire collapse around him: “But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.”

Nato interventions

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nato conducted no military operations. Following the end of the Cold War, however, it took on a more interventionist approach, with the first operations taking place in 1990 and 1991, in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Airborne early warning aircraft were sent to provide coverage of south-east Turkey, and later a quick-reaction force was deployed to the area.

During the Bosnian war, which began as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Nato implemented no-fly zones in response to a UN Security Council Resolution. Later in the war, following the Srebrenica genocide, Nato used airstrikes to bring the Yugoslav Wars to an end.

Nato also led a bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999, which forced Slobodan Milošević to accept an international peace plan and end the war.

During the Libyan civil war in 2011, Nato implemented a no-fly zone and conducted airstrikes on Colonel Gadaffi’s forces.

Has the protection pact ever been triggered?

Just once, by the United States, following the September 11th attacks on New York. The actions taken by Nato included patrolling the skies above North America following the attacks, and a naval operation in the Mediterranean that sought to prevent the movement of terrorists and weapons.

Why aren’t Finland and Sweden members?

Finland and Russia have history, to put it mildly. The two countries share a 1,300km border, and fought a bloody war in 1939 when Russia invaded, after demands to cede territory to the Soviet Union were refused by Finland. The war ended in 1940 with a peace treaty in Moscow, following approximately 70,000 Finnish casualties and between 321,000 and 381,000 Russian casualties.

Since World War Two, Finland has maintained a strict policy of neutrality and non-alignment, viewing Nato membership as a provocation of Moscow.

Sweden too, has stayed out of military alliances, and has not fought a war for more than 200 years.

What’s changed?

Russia. The invasion of Ukraine, a non-Nato and non-nuclear country, has shown Putin is willing to use his armed forces to take back Russia’s former sphere of influence. The level of support for Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s apparent willingness to invade sovereign European democracies, has dramatically swung public opinion in both Sweden and Finland towards favouring Nato membership, and its politicians have listened. They have now formally applied to join.

Will they be accepted?

Probably – the two formerly-neutral countries wishing to join, as a direct result of Russia’s aggression, is a huge coup for Nato. However, the accession process requires the unanimous approval of all the alliance’s members and Turkey has said it will not support the applications – though the other current Nato countries are optimistic they will overcome Turkey’s objections.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is facing elections next year, and is seeking concessions for domestic political advantage.

The SNP’s approach to Nato

During a speech in Washington, USA, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed an independent Scotland would join the Nato alliance, saying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that joining the alliance is “absolutely right and essential”.

However, the SNP’s policy of removing the UK’s nuclear deterrent from an independent Scotland could hinder its chances of being accepted into Nato.

Nato is a nuclear alliance, with the UK, the USA and France all possessing nuclear arsenals, which are used to guarantee the safety of other Nato countries. Demanding such a radical change to the partnership’s nuclear deterrent could become a huge stumbling block, should an independent Scotland attempt to join, and leaving the UK’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane could be tabled as a condition of membership.

Read the most recent article written by Joseph Anderson - Section 30 orders: what are they, and can a referendum be held without one?

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