Part of the background to the war in Ukraine has been the decades-long eastward creep in Europe of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) – the US-led western military alliance.
Indeed, Putin has attempted to justify Russia’s brutal invasion and occupation of Ukraine in order to prevent the latter joining Nato, and thereby stopping hostile US-linked military forces being stationed on Russia’s borders.
Of course, the perceived threat of Nato to Russia is not the only reason for Putin’s war. He also wants to reinstall a pliant regime in Ukraine in order to pursue his grandiose scheme of re-establishing a Tsarist-style ‘Greater-Russia’ empire.
Nonetheless, as Dave Carr writes, it begs the question what is Nato, and what role does it play in the current geopolitical conflict?
Origins and history
Nato was established following World War Two when the rival superpowers of the US and its western allies on the one side, and the USSR and its satellite states in eastern Europe on the other, squared off during the ‘Cold War’.
One of the main drivers behind the formation of Nato was Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary in Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government.
A former right-wing leader of the T&G union, Bevin’s pro-capitalist credentials could knock Keir Starmer’s slavish support of the profit-system into a cocked hat!
As Minister of Labour in Churchill’s wartime coalition government Bevin pushed through ‘Essential Work’ legislation which outlawed strikes. He also used this legislation to deskill coal mining occupations by conscripting 50,000 young men (‘Bevin Boys’) to work in the mines.
It was more dangerous working in the coal mines than being in the armed forces. One-third of Bevin Boys were either maimed or killed during the first year.
In 1948, Bevin spearheaded a military alliance of five countries – Britain, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – in western Europe. But, with British capitalism enfeebled by the consequences of the war, he was anxious to include US imperialism in a pact to counter the expansion of Stalin’s Soviet Union (USSR), whose huge Red Army had defeated Nazism in eastern Europe in 1945. In its westwards march, the Red Army had eliminated capitalism and landlordism in its occupied territories, albeit without any workers’ democratic control.
Bevin opposed the USSR, not because it represented a repressive Stalinist counterrevolution – a grotesque caricature of a workers’ state in contrast to the Bolsheviks’ socialist revolution of 1917 – but because he detested revolutions against capitalism, full stop.
US president Truman agreed with Bevin to form Nato but a sticking point arose over article five of the Nato treaty, which stated that ‘an attack on one member would be considered an attack against them all. In the event of such an attack, each member would assist the party, or parties, so attacked’.
Some US senators, who didn’t want to be dragged into a new European war, objected. Bevin was furious but a compromise was reached when the phrase ‘as it deems necessary’ was inserted.
Nato and the Warsaw Pact
The North Atlantic Treaty was signed by the Foreign Ministers of 12 states on 4 April 1949 and Bevin was later cheered by Labour and Tory MPs in Parliament.
In 1954, at a ‘big four’ summit with the US, Britain and France, the USSR’s foreign minister, Molotov, proposed ‘German unification, pan-German elections, the withdrawal of western forces and German neutrality’.
The West clearly regarded ‘withdrawal of western troops’ and ‘neutrality’ as meaning USSR control of Germany and rejected the proposal. Afterwards, the USSR tactically applied to join Nato ‘in the interests of peace’, but this disingenuous move was also rejected.
The incorporation of West Germany into Nato the following year prompted the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev, along with its eastern European satellite states (apart from Tito’s Yugoslavia), to counter Nato by formally establishing the Warsaw Pact.
The existence of Nato and the Warsaw Pact cemented the ‘Cold War’, which was waged ideologically in Europe for decades, while localised wars, typically using proxy forces, were fought between East and West in the colonial and ex-colonial world.
Khrushchev did, however, use Warsaw Pact troops to suppress the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when the working class rose up, arms in hand, in an attempt to establish a democratic workers’ state. Similarly, Warsaw Pact forces were used to smother the 1968 Czechoslovakia uprising.
Nato forces did not intervene to support these uprisings in what was an agreed USSR ‘sphere of influence’.
Nato did experience a temporary schism in 1958 when France’s right-wing nationalist president, Charles de Gaulle, objected to being the ‘bridesmaid’ to the US and British governments and withdrew French forces from Nato’s command structure. However, behind the scenes all parties continued to collaborate militarily.
Collapse of USSR
By 1989, in the absence of workers’ democratic control over planning, the bureaucratic mismanagement of the nationalised economies in the USSR and eastern Europe had led to chronic economic stagnation and dysfunctional societies. This collapse of Stalinism led to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in July 1991.
After the collapse of the USSR the Russian economy was subjected to a rapid capitalist transformation, guided by western powers, but with enormous detrimental costs to the population.
While a small number of former state managers seized the assets of former nationalised industries to become super-rich oligarchs, Russia’s economy shrunk by 50% in five years between 1990 and 1995, and life expectancy fell dramatically. A nascent middle class was also squeezed by an economic crash in 1998. Undoubtedly these national humiliations are etched into Putin’s febrile mind.
Putin has a point when he says the West reneged on an agreement not to expand eastwards. In February 1990, US secretary of state James Baker agreed with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would not extend beyond East Germany’s border following German reunification.
But despite Nato’s raison d’etre having evaporated as a result of the collapse of Stalinism, and despite its assurances to Russia, Nato continued to expand into eastern Europe.
In the 1990s, under Russia’s pro-Western president Boris Yeltsin, Nato expansion was not objected to. Indeed, the 1997 Madrid Nato summit, attended by Russian government representatives, issued a statement saying: “Nato and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries”.
In 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined Nato, followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia in 2004 and Albania in 2009. In 2016, an anti-missile shield was provocatively deployed in Romania close to Russia.
And while there was some draw-down of Nato troops, equipment and spending between 1990 and 2015, Nato increased its bloody interventions around the world, notably in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Gulf Wars and the invasion and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of the new millennium, and in Libya in 2011.
At the 2014 Nato summit in Wales, delegates agreed to increase spending to a target of 2% of each country’s GDP. Most member states have increased their commitment, despite former US president Donald Trump repeatedly castigating other Nato members for letting the US shoulder the lion’s share of Nato’s finances.
Trump, a proponent of US isolationism and economic protectionism, reportedly had decided to withdraw the US from Nato if he had won the 2020 presidential election. This partly explains Putin’s previous warm relationship with Trump.
Of course, that didn’t stop Trump recently claiming: “It was me, as President of the United States, that got delinquent Nato members to start paying their dues… There would be no Nato if I didn’t act strongly and swiftly”!
One of the unintended consequences of Putin’s war in Ukraine is an increase in US, UK and French troop deployments in eastern Europe and increased arms spending generally by Nato countries. Germany’s Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s response to the war is a massive €100 billion boost to defence spending.
This increased defence spending comes at a time when the majority of people’s household incomes are being mercilessly squeezed through savage cuts in welfare spending, higher taxes and rampant inflation. This cost-of-living crisis reflects the underlying stalling of the global capitalist economy and exacerbated during the Covid pandemic.
Interventions under the banner of Nato have been an unmitigated disaster for workers and poor people in the Balkan countries, Afghanistan, and Libya. Thousands of civilians have died from Nato bombs, and from unending civil wars and sectarianism fostered by the capitalist occupying powers.
Yet, Labour leader Keir Starmer recently proclaimed his devotion to Nato, claiming in an attack on Jeremy Corbyn and the left that “to condemn Nato is to condemn the guarantee of democracy and security it brings”.
For Marxists, war is the inevitable outcome of rivalry between capitalist powers in the age of imperialism, in order to secure domination over markets, labour, resources, territory and hence profits.
To achieve a socialist society, thereby achieving a cooperative egalitarian system of democratically planned production to meet people’s needs, requires a revolutionary transformation of capitalism and a sweeping aside of the ruling classes and their repressive state institutions and alliances, including Nato.