During a televised speech to parliament on March 17, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa blamed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the war in Ukraine, echoing one of the Kremlin’s justifications for the invasion of Russia’s neighbor.
Ramaphosa emphasized that his government cannot condone the use of force and violations of international law. But he also criticized “coercive measures,” such as sanctions imposed on Russia outside the legal framework of the United Nations.
“The war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region,” said Ramaphosa.
That is misleading, as it neglects Russia’s repeated military aggressions in the region, including those against Ukraine in 2014, as well as NATO’s purpose as a defense organization.
Founded in 1949, NATO is a defense organization formed by the United States, Canada and a number of West European countries after the Second World War, in part to stop the spread of communism under the former Soviet Union.
In the years following German reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has added numerous new members. The alliance now includes 30 countries, including many former Soviet republics or satellite states.
NATO has an “open door” policy that allows countries to join based on unanimous consent of alliance member states. Despite Ukraine’s desire to join, however, and its increasingly close ties with the U.S. and European Union, NATO membership has not been extended to Ukraine.
A key reason for that has been Russia’s opposition. Indeed, top U.S. officials and foreign policy experts alike have over the years viewed Ukraine’s entry into NATO as a “red line” for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who in December complained loudly about NATO expansion.
“'Not one inch to the East,' they told us in the 90s,” Putin said at his annual news conference, as Russian troops massed along the Ukraine border. “So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us!”
Putin was referring to 1994 negotiations that led to the Budapest Memorandum, an agreement between the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom and Ukraine that provided security assurances – not guarantees – to Ukraine for giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
The deal pledged Russia and the parties to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial borders. In 2014, Russia violated those borders by using military force to annex Crimea, stage a phony accession referendum and instigate an anti-Kyiv rebellion in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
In other words, Russia had already invaded Ukraine eight years ago, in a conflict that has cost an estimated 14,000 lives since. Thousands more – combatants and civilians – have died in the months since Russia’s all-out invasion began on February 24.
In 1997, Russia signed the Founding Act with NATO, agreeing to mutual relations, cooperation and security with the aim of building peace in the Euro-Atlantic region. The act clearly states that signatories do not consider themselves adversaries.
In 2002, the NATO-Russia Council was established, and Moscow was granted access to NATO’s headquarters.
The countries have pledged to “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples' right of self-determination.”
The Founding Act made no mention of preventing NATO from expanding eastward. Among other things, the act commits NATO and Russia to the following:
“Acknowledgement of the vital role that democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and civil liberties and the development of free market economies play in the development of common prosperity and comprehensive security;
“Refraining from the threat or use of force against each other as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence in any manner inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and with the Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations Between Participating States contained in the Helsinki Final Act;
“Respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples' right of self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE documents…”
After Russia’s armed annexation of Crimea, NATO suspended cooperation with Russia.
NATO clearly states that it is a defensive alliance, “does not impose any threat to Russia,” and acknowledges every state’s right to adopt its own security measures.
“In fact, after the end of the Cold War, Russia committed to building an inclusive European security architecture, including through the Charter of Paris, the establishment of the OSCE [The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], the creation of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act,” NATO says on its website.
South Africa has cordial relations with the Kremlin and close economic ties. The country is one of 16 in Africa that abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On March 19, Ramaphosa said Putin had asked him to mediate in the Ukraine war because of South Africa’s ties with Russia and its membership in the BRICS group of emerging economies – which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Some analysts say Ramaphosa’s statement on NATO expansion undercut his potential to serve as an unbiased mediator.
Meantime, U.S. President Joe Biden stated clearly prior to the invasion that the Western alliance and Ukraine did not present a threat to Russia.
“Neither the U.S. nor NATO have missiles in Ukraine. We do not — do not have plans to put them there as well,” Biden said. “We’re not targeting the people of Russia. We do not seek to destabilize Russia.”
For its part, Russia repeatedly denied in the months leading up to its invasion that it planned to attack Ukraine, even as it was building up a large invasion force along Ukraine's borders while U.S. and European diplomats worked urgently to head off a war.
Since the invasion, the U.S. and its European allies have enacted an unprecedented number of economic sanctions against Russia, Putin and other Russian leaders and influential oligarchs.