Why would Russia invade Ukraine?

With polls showing that a large majority of Ukrainians would like their country to become a member of the organisation, the Kremlin wants the west to promise that Ukraine will never join Nato, something the defensive alliance has ruled out.

I have several questions about this. NATO's Wikipedia article says "NATO constitutes a system of collective security, whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party", which taken literally would imply it is indeed a defensive alliance. However, the same article goes on to talk about different conflicts in which NATO has intervened: the Bosnian War, the Kosovo War, the War in Afghanistan, and the 2011 intervention in Libya.


  • Does NATO see itself as a defensive alliance, or is it only an assertion by The Independent?
  • If NATO sees itself as a defensive alliance, how are the interventions defensive in nature?
  • I notice the Wikipedia article says "The September 11 attacks in the United States caused NATO to invoke its collective defence article for the first time." This implies that the previous deployments by NATO aren't actually collective defense. In this case, how did NATO justify its deployments?

4 Answers 4

  • NATO was historically a post-WWII alliance, and great-power bloc meant to counter the USSR's influence, which was frightening in the aftermath of WWII. Although rarely heard today, it was at that time anti-communist. The threat of communist takeover by political or non-political means on the European continent was then real (what would be called benevolent or malevolent regime-change in 21st century language). This could certainly be characterized as a defensive alliance.

  • In the "unipolar period" post 1991, NATO reinvented itself with the goal of long term stability on the European continent (plus Turkey). This was welcomed by existing members in Western Europe to facilitate European integration, and considered useful by the US to cement what was then hoped by the Clinton I and Bush II administrations to be a durable "Pax Americana" and "New American Century", respectively.

  • Today, I'd argue its identity is again in flux, and we may be seeing it drift back to a Cold-War-2.0 mode, oriented against countering the influence of a specific power bloc, one anchored by China and Russia, and exchanging the global expansionist policy of the USSR with Chinese economic and industrial linkages, which are in some ways a more serious threat.

  • The most important feature of NATO remains Article V, and is obviously defensive in nature. The strategic context has varied over the years, however, and both member countries and immediate allies have been actively prevented by threat of sanctions from cooperation with non-NATO/allied powers, which complicates the analysis.

  • 1
    "global expansionist policy of the USSR"? NATO is quite explicit about its global expansionist policy. That's what the current squabble is about. Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 16:43
  • 3
    @KeithMcClary - You know, two power blocs can be expansionist at the same time.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 20:08
  • @Obie2.0 And both defensive? Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 22:25
  • @KeithMcClary - If you are asking whether two blocs can both be both defensive and expansionist at the same time, it would take some mental gyrations for the same bloc to be both defensive and expansionist, but if you are asking whether two blocs can both be solely defensive, absolutely. Of course, this is facilitated when there are other, more offensive blocs (otherwise spending on seemingly useless defensive investments becomes hard to justify).
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 22:48
  • @Keith, Obie - Good points. IMO it can be a defensive alliance, at the same time as members of the alliance are very assertively projecting power outside the boundaries of the alliance. Sword and shield concept. The defensive function protects vs retaliation, for example if France were to use military force in Libya, or Turkey were to use military force in Syria ...
    – Pete W
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 21:44

There are three sides to NATO:

  • A mutual defense agreement by the signatory nations. This is the Article 5 case mentioned by Pete W. This has only been used for the 9/11 terror attacks, which were arguably criminal rather than military. It did not apply Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, or any other number of conflicts where some NATO members were involved.
  • A mutual set of values. A cynic might say that "being anti-communist" was enough of a qualification, back during the Cold War. Turkey remained a member through various coups, Portugal was a founding member, and then there are Poland and Hungary.
  • Training to a standard of interoperability, both for the main defensive mission but also useful for "out of area" missions undertaken by ad-hoc groups of NATO members.

These "out of area" missions tend to be not defensive, and they are the most common, but they are not under the NATO mandate for collective defense.

  • 1
    are not under the NATO mandate You sure? Each one of those wiki articles cites several statements issued by NATO. I guess it might be a "coalition of the willing" thing more than a formal trigger engaging all NATO members but it still quacks and walks a lot like a duck. You're on to something, but it's quite a clear cut as your last paragraph makes it out. Maybe it's not a formal thing but participants still use NATO command structure because it's available? Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 20:06
  • 1
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, added three more words. :-)
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 6:50

Looks like the answer to the title question is "yes" - NATO sees itself as a defensive alliance.


FACT: NATO is a defensive alliance, whose purpose is to protect its member states. All Allies reaffirmed at the June 2021 Brussels Summit that “the Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia.” In fact, in 2002 President Putin himself stated “Every country has the right to choose the way it ensures its security. This holds for the Baltic states as well. Secondly, and more specifically, NATO is primarily a defensive bloc.”

However, the document doesn't say anything about NATO's interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya.


The Bosnian War for one was largely perceived as a humanitarian emergency that obligated intervention by the West. European papers were full of pictures of rib-thin prisoners behind barbed wires, with tags like "We thought we'd never we'd see this again in Europe".

Please also remember also that the bulk of the combat involvement, in 1995 and up, came right after the West so reprehensibly failed to intervene in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. A lack of intervention which was itself driven by the Black Hawk Down disaster in Mogadishu in 1993.

After further massacres like Srebenika, it seems hard to portray NATO as an aggressor in this instance, persecuting the helpless and peaceful governments of Mladic, Karadzic and Milosevic.

Furthermore, the Serbs did themselves no favors by using UN observers around Sarajevo as human shield hostages.

  • But that interventions are the main reason for the new Cold War.
    – convert
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 15:04

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