NATO Expansion to Central and Eastern Europe

NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

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The NATO expansion to the East and the alleged encirclement of Russia was the pretext of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Founded in 1949, at the very beginning of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization experienced a restrained enlargement for 52 years, incorporating just four countries as new members: Greece and Turkey, West Germany and Spain.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO received several new members from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union facing each time a new member arrived fierce reactions from Russia.

NATO Enlargement in Western Democracies

The 12 founding members of NATO were the US and Canada, UK, France, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxemburg, Denmark, Portugal, Denmark, and Iceland. The first expansion of the Alliance was to the East as in 1952, the two parliamentary democracies of the eastern Mediterranean, Greece, and Turkey, became members. Greece was recovering from a devastating civil war with considerable human casualties, infrastructure damages, and extended economic consequences.

A key point in NATO history was the decision of Western Germany’s membership. This action provoked reactions from the USSR that resulted in the foundation of the Warsaw Pact. Since then, the confrontation between USSR and then Russia and the Alliance experienced different kinds of disputes.

The admission of the post-Franco Spain in 1982 was a step towards the full integration of the country into western institutions. A referendum in 1986 ratified with 56.85% positive votes the decision of the Spanish government.

NATO expansion to the East

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries signed the rapid expansion of the Alliance towards Eastern and Central Europe, the Baltics, and the Balkans. Before this had happened, profound changes occurred in many of these countries.

The Visegrad Group

On February 15, 1991, the three central European republics, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, formed the Visegrad Group to achieve EU and NATO membership through institutional and economic reforms. In addition, on December 31, 1992, following the “Velvet Revolution”, Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

The 1997 Madrid summit invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the Alliance. It excluded Slovakia due to the nationalist government of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. A referendum, held in Hungary in November 1997, confirmed the desire of citizens to join NATO with 85.3% favorable votes.

The Washington summit in 1999 accepted the three Visegrad republics as members of the Alliance and established the protocol for Membership Action Plans.

The Vilnius Group

In May 2000, a larger group of countries from the Balkans, former Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union formed the Vilnius Group to promote their candidacy in the NATO capitals. These countries were Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia.

However, only seven received an invitation to join the Alliance in the 2002 Prague summit. Two years later, the Istanbul summit accepted the membership of the three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, together with Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia.

In 2009, before the Strasbourg-Kehl summit, two more Balkan countries, Albania and Croatia, became members of NATO.

In 2017 and 2020, respectively, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, joined the Alliance.

By 2020, the entire area once forming the Warsaw Pact, the Baltic states, and four former Yugoslav republics plus Albania had joined the Alliance.

Aspirations for membership

In 2020 Ukraine, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina formally expressed their aspiration for membership. Nevertheless, all three presented complicated political and military situations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina resulted after a devastating civil war between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in 1995. The Serbian component of its federal government opposes NATO membership and expresses pro-Russian sentiments.

In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia, and two of its territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are occupied by the Russian army.

In 2014 Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a territory belonging to Ukraine. In addition, two separatist movements in Donbas and Luhansk received the support of Russia.

A debate for membership 

In Sweden and Finland, two traditionally neutral countries, their parliaments currently debate an eventual NATO membership. In Serbia, where its NATO membership was also under debate, the pro-Russian sentiments of the political leadership represent a significant obstacle for membership aspiration.

Russia’s reaction

Russia expressed its firmed opposition to any expansion of the Alliance to the East, considering its security is under threat.

In 1993, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed his discomfort in the view of Poland’s membership, although earlier this year, in a meeting with his Polish counterpart Lech Wałęsa said he had no objections.

Similarly, in May 1997, President Yeltsin did not object to NATO enlargement to completely change his position by the end of the same year.

In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted to Georgia’s NATO member aspiration by invading the country. In February 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

In the view of a possible NATO membership of Sweden and Finland, Russia responded with threats of severe consequences.

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