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NATO and the Ukraine crisis

As we all well and truly know, Russia has launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine. In order to provide background to this, it's time to get to know NATO - the military alliance that is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It's at the centre of the stand-off between Russia, Ukraine and the West, so it's necessary for us to know why NATO was established, how it's operated in times of conflict and what it has to do with this crisis.

Let’s start at the beginning. In World War 2 the Soviet Union was an ally of the UK, France, the US and others, but after the war a military alliance called the Western Union was formed that included the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In 1949 the group expanded to include the US, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, after which it was called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - or NATO.

The principal reason for this move were fears relating to the Soviet Union's power and its values - communism versus democracy. Europe had just experienced two hideous world wars, with the UK, France and many other nations fighting to defend the values of freedom. The USSR appeared to be wanting to overthrow democratically-elected governments and impose its economic and social values on more countries in the world. NATO's mission, therefore, focused on three things – deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent and encouraging European political integration.

So why is the US involved if it's all about Europe? Not only did America fight in World War 2, it bankrolled the rebuilding of Europe through the Marshall Plan because it recognised that the best way to stop the spread of communism was to ensure that Europe was economically stable. America also accepted that it needed to step up when it came to military security in the region. One key part of the agreement to note is Article 5. NATO allies agreed that . . . an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all, and following such an attack each ally would take such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force. The 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 saw Article 5 invoked for the first time in the organisation's history, and that response played out in the war in Afghanistan.

There isn’t a NATO military force, so member nations work together on specific operations. In Afghanistan NATO established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the objective of helping the new government to provide effective security and develop an Afghan-led security force. This force was huge: at its height it was more than 130,000 strong, involving troops from 51 NATO and partner nations. ISAF was one of the largest military coalitions ever assembled. NATO has been involved in other conflicts as well. One that didn’t start with an attack on one of its member nations was its intervention in the Bosnian War, which started in 1992 as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia. At the start of this war the United Nations ordered a no-fly zone over central Bosnia and Herzegovina to stop military aircraft from operating in the region, and NATO became the enforcer. When it comes to security matters the UN makes security resolutions which need to be enforced, and in Europe NATO often takes the lead.

Returning to the present conflict, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and many of those new nations in Eastern Europe - those geographically close to Russia - joined NATO. President George H.W. Bush was holding talks with Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev about how NATO troops could operate in the territory of former East Germany at the time, and although nothing was agreed to in writing NATO said it would not expand to the east if Russia accepted Germany’s unification. As history has shown this didn't happen because many nations east of Germany became NATO members: what started with 12 nations at its formation has progressively grown to 30 members. Many of those nations sought democratic futures and the alliance was a way for them to be more secure from a military point of view. For NATO it was a way for them to spread their political and military influence into Eastern Europe. This is a major concern of President Putin, who believes that allowing those nations to join was a huge betrayal by the West.

NATO member countries are now on Russia's border, and to its south there are two countries that provide a buffer: Belarus – which is 100% aligned with Russia – and Ukraine. Ukraine isn’t aligned with Russia. In 2014 a popular uprising saw its pro-Russian government removed – the result of which has been a long-running and violent conflict with Russia – but Russia and Ukraine have a long history and Putin has often talked about Ukrainians and Russians being one people. He doesn't want Ukraine to align with Western powers, and joining NATO would do that militarily in a big way. This is unlikely, but critics say Putin has concocted this crisis as an excuse to invade Ukraine and make it part of Russia.

On the other side of the coin, NATO doesn't necessarily want Ukraine to sign up. That’s because with all the baggage Ukraine and Russia have, it would put NATO in a very difficult position because of Article 5. Remember: an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all, and because Russia is a military superpower it could be tantamount to a new world war. That’s why the US and NATO have said they won’t be sending troops to Ukraine, while Putin has warned outsiders they will face consequences far greater than they've ever faced in history if they interfere. Analysts say that is a rare overt threat of nuclear attack.

Ukraine is the 2nd-largest European country after Russia. It borders Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and Romania and Moldova to the south. Like Belarus, Ukraine used to be a republic of the Soviet Union, being then known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th century, and many consider it to be the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. In more recent times Ukrainian soldiers were pivotal in the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War 2. Although Ukraine was one of the first Soviet republics to vote for independence (in 1991 – not long before the USSR was dissolved) many of those former ties with Russia still run deep. Many Ukrainians speak Russian, and President Putin has said he believes that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and that Ukrainians have never thought of themselves as anything but Russian. Millions of Ukrainians don't share this view, especially when Russia invaded the country and annexed the Crimea region in 2014, after which they strengthened both their military and naval operations.

One of the key threats from the West is to prevent the opening of Russia’s $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to north-east Germany: if that’s switched off – or if Europe doesn’t buy it – it would be a huge hit to the Russian economy. Putin flew to Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, after which he had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He agreed to buying much more Russian gas than China currently does, effectively solving that problem.

Time will tell how this conflict will unfold. But what we do know from Scripture is that Russia will be militarily active again after the rapture of the church when, according to Ezekiel 38, it leads an invasion of Israel. In that instance, Russia faces sure defeat, for God Himself will intervene in order to rescue His chosen people.

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