October 2023

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked the beginning of a new era and the beginning of the largest war in Europe since World War II. Russian President Putin justified the invasion in two ways. First, he claimed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Ukraine posed a military threat to Russia. Putin also claimed that Russia was entitled to Ukraine through its historical ties to the Soviet era and Russian Empire, a claim both Ukrainians and historians reject as inaccurate. 

The United States and its NATO allies see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a threat to European security, stability, and power and to democracy generally. The United States and the other members of the NATO alliance have supplied weapons to Ukraine, but are concerned that the war could escalate and spread to other countries. NATO governments want to support Ukraine, but also to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia. Some analysts worry that if the war were to spread, the fighting could become a wider war and even lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

This lesson introduces students to NATO and allows students to explore multiple perspectives about its role in international relations today. 

Note: Though this lesson can be completed as a stand-alone activity, the Choices curriculum unit, Russia and the United States: Perspectives from History—Choices for Today provides a comprehensive introduction to the history of U.S.-Russia relations.


Students will: 

  • Review the history and role of the NATO alliance.
  • Analyze primary source documents about NATO expansion and the war in Ukraine.
  • Explore multiple perspectives on NATO expansion.
  • Consider NATO’s role in current events in Ukraine.


NATO Source Sets

In the Classroom

1. Set the Stage: Put the questions “What is a treaty?” and “What is an alliance?” on the board. Give students a few minutes to write down their own ideas and then ask them to share them with the class. Can students think of examples of treaties or alliances? What role do they play in the international relations between countries?

Review the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with your students. What was its original purpose? What happened to the organization after the Soviet Union ended? What effect has NATO had on U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Soviet Union? 

2. Analyze Sources: Distribute NATO Source Sets to the whole class. Use the Article 5 excerpt to model the process of source analysis with the whole class. Begin by reading the directions out loud. Follow the steps outlined in the instructions and ask students for input. What phrases or terms need clarification? What phrases or sentences seem most important? Challenge the class to summarize the excerpt in one to two sentences. What is the significance of Article 5?

Divide the class into groups of four. The sources under “Source Set: NATO and the War in Ukraine” are arranged chronologically. Assign the sources in the pairs suggested below. (Teachers can also choose to assign all or some combination of them.)

  • U.S. Perspectives: Sources 1 and 4
  • Russian Perspectives: Sources 2 and 8
  • Ukrainian Perspectives: Sources 3 and 5
  • European Perspectives: Sources 6 and 7

Remind students to read and follow the directions for analyzing their assigned sources.

3. Share Findings and Make Connections: Have the groups share their findings from their assigned sources. Have students begin by summarizing their sources’ views on the NATO alliance. Is NATO perceived as something that brings security or as a threat? How does President Clinton’s 1996 view of NATO differ from President Putin’s view from 2007?

What arguments did the Swedish government make for joining NATO? What Ukrainian perspectives are presented in the sources? Do any of the sources contain surprising or interesting information? In what way?

Which sources mention historical events? What historical events does President Andrzej Duda refer to in his speech for supporting NATO? What historical arguments does President Putin use? In what ways do the leaders’ differing interpretations of history in the sources affect how they see current events?

How would students describe NATO’s importance to the war in Ukraine? Challenge students to make two arguments: one supporting the role of NATO in Ukraine and one critiquing it. Have students brainstorm the different ways the war in Ukraine could come to an end. Are there events that make these possible endings more likely?

Image: NATO and Ukrainian forces in Ukraine in 2011. Credit: Cpl Jax Kennedy, CC-BY-2.0.

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