NATO Membership and the Rising Tensions Between Ukraine and Russia

Jason Orringer

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

Russia has recently been assembling their troops along their shared border with Ukraine in what is seemingly amounting to a planned invasion of the country. While Ukraine is warning that Russia is attempting to destabilize and invade the country, Russia denies any potential plans to attack and insists that NATO support for Ukraine is a threat on Russia’s border. As the world watches in suspense, the United States and other NATO members are at a crossroads as to whether Ukraine may join the pact.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, most commonly known as NATO, was created in 1949 by a consortium of nations to collectively provide security against the Soviet Union in the wake of the second world war. The thirty member countries of NATO include the United States, Canada, and a majority of European nations.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO began to expand further east into Europe, including many countries recently freed from communist control, such as Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. These countries were optimistic that in joining, they would be protected from future aggressions from Russia. During his presidency, George W. Bush voiced his support for Ukraine joining NATO but was met with resistance from member-countries France and Germany who feared that by accepting Ukraine into NATO, they would potentially upset Russia. This resulted in a shaky compromise that promised Ukraine the ability to join NATO eventually but lacked any sort of timeline as to when that could happen.

Why has Ukraine still been unable to join NATO to this day? Well, NATO has not granted them the opportunity to join by providing them with a Membership Action Plan, which is the first step toward obtaining membership. After Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the country has been vocal regarding their desires for membership and protection via NATO and on the flipside, Russia has repeatedly voiced their frustration for the eastward expansion of NATO and wants a ban to prevent Ukraine from ever being able to join.

Punishments for Putin?

While Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has expressed his outrage toward NATO for decades, he does not have solid ground to stand on when claiming that NATO promised to not expand further east. Putin himself broke the Budapest Memorandum (a commitment to respect the existing borders of Ukraine) in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Between Putin’s consistent disregard for Russia’s own treaties and now mounting pressure along the Ukrainian border, the United States and other global powers are looking for alternative measures to prevent a full-scale invasion. This is easier said than done however, as there is generally no formal way to enforce a nation to comply with international treaties or laws. Thus, in order to help promote compliance within the global sphere, countries must look to more alternative methods.

United States officials, including President Biden himself, are threatening to impose sanctions on Russia that are so severe, they could potentially cause inflation and a stock market crash in their country. By effecting the entire Russian economy and affecting the everyday lives of Russians, these sanctions would likely upset the Russian people and stir the pot domestically. The proposed sanctions, described as taking a sledgehammer to the pillars of Russia’s financial system, including cutting off foreign lending, sales of sovereign bonds, technologies for critical industries and the assets of elite citizens close to Putin himself.

Across the pond, Britain has actively moved to broaden the range of sanctions available if Russia indeed invades Ukraine. They hope that these sanctions will further deter aggression from Russia. Britain, who is already supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons, has also offered to increase their troop deployments elsewhere in Eastern Europe. While Britain and the rest of the world hope diplomacy will prevail, they are preparing for the worst-case scenario.

The Worst-Case Scenario

A common question these days is whether the United States is legally allowed to intervene through military action if Russia does indeed invade Ukraine. The short answer to this is yes. Under Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, aggressive war is prohibited, rendering any aggressive war on the part of Russia illegal. Additionally, Article 51 gives all states the right to self-defense on behalf of one, authorizing collective self-defense via the international community of states against aggressive war. This is the mechanism the United States would use to put boots on the ground if it came to war. However, this of course is a worst-case scenario and will hopefully never come to fruition if diplomacy can prevail.