What is Nato? Hungary backs Sweden joining alliance, removing last obstacle to membership

What is Nato? Hungary backs Sweden joining alliance, removing last obstacle to membership

After more than 18 months of delays, Sweden will become a Nato member as Hungary has finally voted in favour of it joining.

Dubbed a “historic day” by Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, Hungary’s approval means the last roadblock in the way of Nato membership has been removed. All 31 Nato members have now approved Sweden’s application; however, when it will actually join is not yet clear.

On Monday Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, approved the country joining Nato and parliament subsequently voted in favour of membership. The country had previously stood in the way of Sweden’s membership. The populist leader has long had ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and had expressed concerns about Sweden joining Nato before having a change of heart.

“Today is a historic day. The parliaments of all NATO member states have now voted in favour of Swedish accession to NATO. Sweden stands ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security,” Sweden’s PM wrote on social media.

News of Sweden’s imminent membership to Nato came after Donald Trump released some concerned comments about the organisation.

Earlier this month, he said he would not defend any Nato member that had failed to meet a longstanding target of spending two per cent of its gross domestic product on defence – and would even encourage Russia to continue attacking it.

His comments have been criticised by European leaders, including UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who said his remarks were "not a sensible approach".

While some of the White House candidate’s Republican allies supported his inflammatory remarks, President Joe Biden’s administration called them "appalling and unhinged”.

So what is Nato and which countries are members?

What is Nato?

Nato – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – is a political and military alliance formed of 31 mostly European countries, as well as the US and Canada.

The heart of the Nato alliance is Article 5, an agreement that an armed attack on one member will be viewed as an attack on all, and that they are obliged to defend one another.

Nato was formed by 12 countries in 1949 to counter the threat of post-war communist Russian expansion in Europe. In 1955, Soviet Russia responded to Nato’s formation by creating its own military alliance of eastern European communist countries, called the Warsaw Pact.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several former Warsaw Pact countries switched sides and became Nato members.

Nato does not have its own armed forces. Instead, it has a military command structure that works with the militaries of member countries in peacekeeping operations.

Nato members’ list

Nato comprises 31 nations, including many European countries and the US and Canada.

The founding members were:

  • Belgium

  • Canada

  • Denmark

  • France

  • Iceland

  • Italy

  • Luxembourg

  • The Netherlands

  • Norway

  • Portugal

  • the UK

  • the US

Members who have joined since are:

  • Albania (2009)

  • Bulgaria (2004)

  • Croatia (2009)

  • Czech Republic (1999)

  • Estonia (2004)

  • Finland (2023)

  • Germany (1955)

  • Greece (1952)

  • Hungary (1999)

  • Latvia (2004)

  • Lithuania (2004)

  • Montenegro (2017)

  • North Macedonia (2020)

  • Poland (1999)

  • Romania (2004)

  • Slovakia (2004)

  • Slovenia (2004)

  • Spain (1982)

  • Turkey (1952)

Why has Nato not sent troops to Ukraine?

Nato said it condemned “in the strongest possible terms” Russia’s attack on Ukraine but it has not sent any troops there.

Ukraine is not a member of Nato, so the alliance was not obliged to defend it. But, the Nato secretary general has now confirmed that Ukraine will become a member of the organisation once the war ends.

He said in a news conference: “Let me be clear, Ukraine’s rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family. Ukraine’s rightful place is in Nato.”

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, member countries have been supporting Ukraine by sending tanks and defence equipment.

Why does Russia want to block Ukraine from joining Nato?

Russia vehemently opposes Ukraine’s potential membership of Nato. It has demanded a formal veto on it ever becoming a member – something the alliance has refused to agree to.

Russia fears Nato has been encroaching on it by taking on new members in Eastern Europe. It said that admitting Ukraine would bring Nato forces into its backyard. Nato denies that this is a valid concern since it is a peacekeeping alliance.

In December 2021, Mr Putin said Russia would seek “reliable and long-term security guarantees” from the US and its allies “that would exclude any further Nato moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory”.

More broadly, Mr Putin wants Nato to pull back its existing military presence in eastern Europe. This includes a regularly rotating series of exercises in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all former Soviet states.

Six Nato countries currently border Russia or the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Poland.

Will Nato fast-track Ukraine’s membership?

In September last year, Ukraine submitted a formal application to join Nato, in response to Russia’s proclaimed annexation of territories it invaded in the east of the country.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has asked Nato to offer a clear and rapid path to membership.

“At the Vilnius summit, we need a very concrete and clear signal that Ukraine could become, and has the right to become, an equal member of Nato after the war,” Zelenskiy said at a news conference in Kyiv on July 1.

Ukraine's request is already backed by Nato members – including Britain, Poland, and the Baltic states. The Lithuanian president, Gitanas Nauseda, who was the host of the summit, said it was important that allies gave Kyiv a clear signal.

The United States and Germany, however, have not yet endorsed fast-tracking Ukraine’s membership.