On January 10, as Russian and U.S. diplomats held talks in Geneva on European security, the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom tweeted a quote attributed to Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“NATO has become a purely #geopolitical project aimed at taking over territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union,” the tweet quoted Lavrov as saying.
But the assertion that Ukraine and other sovereign countries are merely Soviet ‘orphans’ is false, as is Lavrov’s claim that NATO “takes over” its members.
NATO does not gain new members via conquest. The 30-member international alliance has what it calls an “open door” policy for countries that wish to join. As a NATO news release said in 1999:
“The door to NATO membership remains open to other European countries which are ready and willing to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership and whose membership contributes to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
NATO members are also free to leave the alliance. France pulled out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966 following disputes with the U.S. and Britain over nuclear policies.
Although France did not fully withdraw from NATO, it ordered NATO bases and personnel off its territory, prompting the alliance to move its headquarters to Belgium. France did not fully return to NATO until the administration of Nicholas Sarkozy in 2009.
NATO is a defensive alliance. Decisions are made by consensus, and all member states have a voice. Five NATO member states border Russia – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia in the Baltic region, Norway and Poland, which abuts the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Russia is demanding that NATO provide binding assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will not become members, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has called on NATO return to its “1997 borders.”
These demands violate the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords, which laid out the principles for human rights and security in Europe. It was signed in 1975 by the United States, the Soviet Union, various European countries – both NATO and Warsaw Pact members – as well as by nonaligned countries.
On the issue of joining alliances, the act states:
“They (countries in Europe) also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be or not to be a party to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance; they also have the right to neutrality.”
Were they to declare Ukraine or Georgia ineligible to join NATO, NATO member states would be violating the Helsinki agreement. Although Russia claims NATO planned to let Ukraine and Georgia join in 2008, the alliance that year declined to offer either country the necessary Membership Action Plan.
At that time, support for NATO membership was extremely low in Ukraine and only rose after Russia-backed attacks on that country in 2014. NATO powers, notably France and Germany, also opposed NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The United States also reportedly dropped its support for the two countries’ admission.
The Helsinki Final Act also bars the use of force or threat of force against another nation, something Russia violated by occupying Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and instigating and sustaining a war by separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Although NATO has not forced nations to join the alliance, Russia has used coercive measures to keep nations out of NATO.
One example is the 2016 attempted coup in Montenegro, aimed at ousting then-President Milo Djukanovic, who was in favor of NATO membership. Fourteen defendants, including two Russian nationals, were convicted for their involvement in the plot, but their verdicts were later overturned by an appellate court.
Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 after a unanimous vote by its parliament.