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WASHINGTON —At the final press conference marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a question was raised as to whether NATO was partly responsible for current tensions with Moscow, “because it has expanded right up to the borders of Russia” and whether it was a good idea to “publicly advertise open invitations to Georgia and Ukraine” to join the alliance.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General since October 2014, responded by saying: “Just the idea that it is a provocation against Russia that Georgia aspires for membership, or that Ukraine does the same, is really, really dangerous.”
“As soon as you accept that that’s a provocation against Russia, you accept that Russia has the right to decide what neighbors can do,” he said, adding that doing so equates accepting “a world order where big powers can decide what neighbors can or cannot do,” which will then lead to re-establishing “the whole idea of spheres of influence.”
The Cold War-era Warsaw Pact, where Central and Eastern European nations were subjected to Soviet Union’s guidelines and dictates, is widely seen as an example and demonstration of “spheres of influence” at work.
Stoltenberg, who twice had served as Norwegian prime minister before assuming the leadership role at NATO, spoke of his and his country’s experience. Describing his native land as another “small country bordering Russia,” Stoltenberg said: “I'm very glad that back in 1949 when we joined NATO, the United States and the United Kingdom and the other founding members of NATO never accepted (the notion) that the Soviet Union could decide what Norway could (or could not) do.”
Earlier in the week, in a speech delivered at the North Atlantic Council, the principal political decision-making body within NATO, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked the 70th anniversary of NATO by recalling his own personal experience.
“As a young armor officer a couple decades back, I patrolled the border between then-East Germany and West Germany. I know the nature of the regimes that want to undermine what it is we're here to talk about today."
Pompeo reiterated in his speech that NATO’s success lies in deterrence, democratic underpinnings and collective defense commitment.
Two years ago, the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of Montenegro’s membership in NATO; it is now reviewing North Macedonia’s bid.
Speaking on the growing size of NATO, Stoltenberg noted that “the enlargement is not NATO moving east,” instead, he pointed out, it is due to Central and Eastern European nations’ wish - often determination – to seek membership in the alliance.
Daniel S. Hamilton, a transatlantic relations expert at Johns Hopkins University, told VOA that over the years – indeed the last seven decades – NATO has demonstrated a “sort of a magnetic quality.”
In February of this year, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described pursuing membership in NATO and the European Union as a “strategic mission” and amended his country’s constitution to the effect that Ukraine may one day become a member of these organizations.
Meanwhile, Georgia, another country often described as situated on Russia’s doorstep, is acknowledged as “one of the alliance’s closest partners.” Observers have noted Georgia’s significant contribution in support of NATO’s war effort in Afghanistan as an unambiguous sign of its commitment to the organization and existing member states.
Ultimately, “Georgia and Ukraine are independent sovereign nations which have the sovereign right to choose their own paths,” said NATO’s secretary general.
Natalie Liu has been a staff reporter and writer at VOA since 2005. She currently covers the diplomatic beat.