As Russian troops gather on the Ukraine border, European armed forces get into position and high-ranking politicians—including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken—visit the region, fears of a new major conflict arising in Europe are abound.
While the tensions between Russia and its Western neighbor are complex and long-standing, one issue at the heart of the problem has been Ukraine’s declared aspiration to join NATO, the European-North American military alliance.
While the country’s bid to join dates back as far as 2008 and is not expected to be honored anytime soon, the greater context of the treaty’s expansion—from 12 founding members in 1949 to currently 30 predominantly European countries—charts an eastwards course that has been interpreted as an affront by Vladimir Putin for a long time. In December, the Russian president last blasted the organization at his annual end-of-year press conference. “Any further NATO movement to the east is unacceptable”, Putin was quoted as saying. His demand of a formal ban of NATO expansions is not expected to be heeded, however.
This chart shows European countries by the year they joined NATO.
Putin has repeatedly said that NATO’s eastwards expansion was breaking a promise made by Western powers after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet, even Mikhail Gorbachev, who partook in the talks as the last Soviet leader, has said that no such promise was ever made. Meanwhile, NATO’s declared open door policy included in its founding treaty will continue to make membership an option for sovereign nations – post-Soviet or not – despite the risky consequences.
The one that got away
The Soviet Union might be long gone, but Russia has continued to view Ukraine as an important part of its sphere of influence. Like Belarus, Ukraine does not only hold geopolitical significance as a buffer state between East and West but is regarded as a major cultural and historical ally of Russia – more so than other post-Soviet nations whose heritage and geography are further removed from the power center of Moscow.
Adding insult to injury in Russia’s eyes is the fact that a second aspiring NATO member, Georgia, is also embroiled in a territorial conflict with Russia over the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, where the Russian military has long been present. According to the rules of NATO admission, nations which have territorial disputes with other countries – like Ukraine has with Russia over Crimea – are unlikely to be admitted at all. Yet, the tug-of-war over declared aspirations and expansion bans has become a show of force for both sides that continues to echo the Cold War era.

Charted by Statista

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