More countries are joining
At the NATO summit in Madrid in July 1997, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were invited to negotiate membership. The three countries were formally admitted as NATO members at the Alliance’s 50th anniversary in April 1999.
With George W Bush in the White House from 2001, the pace of the enlargement process increased. The United States felt that it had a moral obligation to help the small countries of the Baltics, for example, secure their place in Western Europe through NATO membership. Over the next two years, therefore, a process was led within NATO to address not only the southern and eastern European countries Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, but also Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Russia judged that enlargement would take place whether it protested or not, which is why the Russian resistance was significantly toned down.
At the NATO summit in Prague in 2002, all seven countries were invited as members.
No new members were admitted to the Riga Summit in 2006, but NATO leaders noted that Albania, Croatia and Macedonia were on the right track within the plan drawn up for the path to NATO membership, the Membership Action Plan (MAP).
At the summit in the Romanian capital Bucharest in the spring of 2008, Albania and Croatia were invited to join NATO as soon as the criteria set out in the MAP process were met. In April 2009, Albania and Croatia formally joined NATO according to electronicsmatter.
With regard to Georgia and Ukraine, whose governments have acted actively to join NATO, NATO leaders at the 2006 summit promised an “intensified dialogue”. In plain language, this meant that the two countries’ domestic and foreign policy problems, especially with regard to Russia and minority issues, meant that NATO could not promise any membership to them either in the short or medium term. But the 2008 summit was preceded by an intense debate among NATO countries. The United States and others wanted to give Georgia and Ukraine MAP status, while France and Germany, among others, were opposed, which was mainly due to the strong Russian opposition to the plans. Russia saw both Georgia and Ukraine as part of its historical sphere of interest. The compromise was not to give Georgia and Ukraine MAP status,
But the development came in a different direction. Russia’s annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 effectively put an end to Georgia’s NATO membership. One of the criteria in the MAP process is that a candidate country must have resolved all border and minority conflicts with its neighbors. The same moratorium applies to Ukraine following the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 – at least as long as Ukraine claims Crimea and the territories in eastern Ukraine currently ruled by separatists backed by Russian regular and irregular units. This situation could be changed by NATO rewriting its criteria for the membership process. All NATO rules are mainly political decisions in the North Atlantic Council, and can therefore be changed if the NATO countries agree.
Montenegro became NATO’s 29th member in 2017 and in March 2020, northern Macedonia became number 30, after the Greek parliament finally voted in favor of the country’s NATO application. Greece had previously blocked the country’s application due to widespread Greek belief that the name Macedonia (which is also the name of one of the northern provinces of Greece) would imply territorial claims on Greece.
Back to the core task
Russia’s intervention in favor of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the subsequent Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 laid the groundwork for a reassessment of the security situation in Europe. In 2009, NATO began a revision of its strategic concept, and in the version adopted in 2010, the importance of territorial collective defense was again strongly emphasized. In retrospect, however, the Georgia war appears only as a small exercise in what would come in the much larger Ukraine. Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 prompted NATO to put in the highest gear to strengthen defense on the alliance’s eastern front (see Operations and NATO and Russia). The new security situation also meant changes in the military structure (see Structure).
An aggressive and active Russia has put renewed focus on NATO as a member club. During the period after the Cold War, belonging was not an equally important issue, but in a sharp situation, former partners suddenly found themselves without access to information and influence. To maintain the relationship with key partners, the 2014 summit decided on a new program for expanded cooperation with NATO’s closest partners: the Enhanced Opportunities Program, EOP (see Sweden and NATO). This was given to five important partner countries: Sweden and Finland with their strategic location on the Baltic Sea, Jordan on the conflict-torn border with war-torn Syria, Georgia with its special cooperation in the NATO-Georgia Commission and Australia next to the strategically increasingly important Asia.
The new-old threat from Russia is not the only problem for NATO, which is also plagued by major internal tensions. Most notable is the rift between the United States and the other countries in the alliance. US President Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and threatened to condition defense guarantees unless European countries increase their defense spending (see Budget). Analysts, such as former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed concern that Trump, if he regains confidence as president of the United States by 2020, could dismantle NATO. What speaks against it is, among other things, the support for NATO in the US Congress and the US’s continued need for strategic cooperation in Europe, not least when the meltdown as a result of global warming changes the playing field in the Arctic.
Relations with Turkey are another problem for NATO. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has challenged the alliance by establishing a new political and military friendship with Russia. In the debate, therefore, demands have been made for the exclusion of Turkey.