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NATO leaders are pictured as they watch a flypast of military aircraft on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014.


When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization turned 65 this year, it seemed ready for retirement. Its main adversary, the Soviet Union, no longer existed, Germany has re-unified and democracy movements had swept through many of the old Warsaw Pact countries.

NATO's raison d'etre had been forced to change in response. Yet as Russia re-emerges as a territorial threat to Europe, or at least flexes its military and economic muscles as one, the question is whether the Alliance is positioned to counter such a threat.

NATO faces a great challenge, and not just in Ukraine. The Alliance, which has grown from 12 to 28 countries since its inception – adding 12 members in the past 25 years – is far from united. Competing interests, many that deal specifically with Russia, threaten to weaken any resolution that might come out of the Wales summit.

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What is NATO and why was it formed?

NATO was created in 1949 as an alliance of Western nations that had one clear goal and one core principle: To prevent the further expansion of the Soviet Union and to come to the aid of any member state in the event of a Soviet invasion. Article 5 of NATO's founding charter established that an attack against one member is an attack against all, and if a NATO ally is ever the victim of an armed attack, all other members would rally to their defence.

The impetus behind the formation of NATO was clear. Between 1945 and 1949, the USSR occupied, annexed or orchestrated the election of pro-USSR governments in states across Eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Twelve nations formed the original alliance – the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Belgium, Iceland, Luxembourg, Italy, and the Netherlands. Within six years it grew to 15 as West Germany, Greece, and Turkey joined (with Spain in 1982 making 16). By 1955, Europe was divided into two alliances: NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

For 40 years, NATO and the Soviet empire faced off, pointing nuclear missiles at each other but never once firing a shot.

In that regard, NATO fulfilled its mandate by keeping the USSR at bay in Europe. But even then the alliance faced internal strife. The United States maintained a dominant position in NATO and from 1959 to 1996, France withdrew its support from NATO's military apparatus, unhappy with America's control.

What place did NATO serve after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

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Since 1989, NATO has grown from 16 to 28 member nations, including several former Warsaw Pact states, including four countries that share a border with Russia: Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (Poland and Lithuania border Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian-controlled region outside of Russia proper).

The organization, which had maintained a purely defensive position during the Cold War, established a new strategic concept in 1991, allowing it to expand its doctrine of collective defence and conduct security missions that might include peacekeeping, conflict prevention and crisis management. NATO's first war operations were launched in 1995, bombing Bosnian Serb positions and later conducting peacekeeping duties in Bosnia-Herzegovina. NATO targeted Serbia and Serb positions in Kosovo in 1999 and has had a presence in Afghanistan against the Taliban since 2001. NATO also conducted air strikes in Libya in 2013. Canada has participated in all of NATO's military actions.

But with NATO's expansion and its shifting strategic focus, today the Alliance faces diverging priorities among member nations, the greatest of which might well be NATO's view of Russia.

How does NATO view Russia?

It depends whom you ask. NATO's 28 members have their own interests, tolerance for risk and history with Russia to consider. Some view it as an aggressor, while others are dependent on its natural resources see good Russian relations as vital to their national interests.

Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are nervous about Russia's growing influence and willingness to supply arms to ethnic Russians in other countries. All four countries have, at one point or another, been part of, satellites of or have been invaded by Russia. Some also all have sizable Russian-speaking minorities within their borders; in Estonia, 25 per cent of the population identify themselves as ethnic Russians, 27 per cent in Latvia and 6 per cent in Lithuania. The recent NATO rapid reaction force is meant to ease the anxiety these countries and establish a show of force that's hoped to deter possible Russian meddling.

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Other European nations, while wary, rely heavily on Russia's natural resources. Russia is Europe's largest supplier of oil, coal and natural gas, and its gas pipelines criss-cross through Ukraine. Finland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria import all of their natural gas from Russia while Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, Poland, Turkey, and Greece import more than 50 per cent. According to the International Energy Agency, Russia supplies about 38 per cent of German gas imports.

According to news reports, the European Union is preparing for a disruption of natural gas this winter by banning the re-selling of gas and limiting industrial use. But Europe's reliance on Russia's resources makes imposing stiff sanctions very difficult when Russian retaliation may include turning off the gas flowing into Europe.

Great Britain, the United States and Canada, on the other hand, do not rely on Russia for energy, and have been very vocal in their opposition and tactics with Russia. The UK recently floated the idea of barring Russia from using the SWIFT payment system, one of Russia's main connections to the international financial system that would cause Russia problems in cross-border banking and potentially disrupt trade.

What are NATO's options in Ukraine?

In the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Empire, Russia has had a succession of weak, ineffectual or unpopular leaders. With Vladimir Putin's ascension, Russia once again has an outwardly strong leader. Yet even he is not immune to dissent. Putin's approval bottomed out in 2012 as protesters took to the streets and accused him of rigging the 2012 elections. Since the Ukraine crisis, his popularity has risen dramatically.

While Britain, the United States and Canada vowed at the recent NATO summit in Wales, to reinvent the military alliance so that it's better able to deal with events such as the Ukraine crisis, NATO's options are limited. NATO is not likely to put itself in a position to confront Russia directly. While NATO does not want to concede to Russian demands, neither does Europe want to press Russia to the point where natural gas stops flowing.

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The most likely scenario to end the current violence in the region is a negotiated peace deal, which would in effect capitulate to Russia's demands. However, what happens to Ukraine in the long term is still in question.

What does Russia want?

Russia cannot abide by a Western-influence Ukraine. Russia has said on several occasions that NATO or EU expansion into Ukraine would be unacceptable, as would any effort to turn those countries against Russia. Ukraine has a large Russian-speaking minority and is of historical significance to Russia. Russia wants Ukraine as a buffer between it and the West and as a client state whose main economic partner is Russia, not the EU.

Whether that's likely is questionable. Ukraine has watched as its Polish neighbour has enjoyed economic growth and prosperity thanks to EU and NATO membership and wants that, too. NATO, responding to Russian warnings against Ukraine's bid to join the western alliance, has said they, not Russia, will determine the Alliance's enlargement policy. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference on the second day of the Wales summit: "NATO's door remains open. Each country will be judged on its merits."

How is NATO trying to redefine itself?

The prospect of thousands of Russian tanks sweeping westward into Europe is not NATO's prime concern in 2014. In Ukraine, Russia effectively stirred up a rebellion and sowed ambiguity in a region rife with instability.

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The two key planks from the Wales summit – the announcement of a rapid-response force and a greater presence in the Alliance's Eastern European members – is meant to prevent such events in the Baltic states.

As well, NATO has identified a need to increase military spending and aim to move toward the Alliance's target of spending 2 per cent of economic output on defence within a decade. "Allies whose current proportion of GDP spent on defence is below this level will halt any decline in defence expenditure; aim to increase defence expenditure in real terms as GDP grows (and) aim to move towards the 2 per cent guideline within a decade," NATO leaders said in a communiqué issued after the NATO summit in Wales.

And NATO, as it did in Afghanistan and Libya, is expanding its area of interest to include more than Europe. The U.S. has called for an international coalition to combat the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

With files from Steven Chase, Doug Saunders, Mark MacKinnon (The Globe and Mail) and Reuters

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