By Jonathan Power*
History and events have not been kind to Russia. Napoleon’s invasion, revolution, two world wars, Hitler’s invasion, Stalin’s communism and, most recently, the expansion of NATO, have shattered the Russian people’s equilibrium and self-regard time and time again.
At the end of the Cold War and with agreement on the NATO-Russia Founding Act it seemed that big steps towards a new kind of future were being taken. First, Russia would have a seat at NATO’s table. Later it would join NATO. Later still, the European Union. Some said this would happen over ten years, others twenty.
Then, smash, the dream came to an end as President Bill Clinton, bucking the advice of nearly all America’s academic foreign policy elite, decided to expand NATO’s membership to former members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.
George Kennan, America’s elder statesman on Russian issues, commented, “It shows so little understanding of Russian and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then the NATO expanders will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.”
He characterized it as the most dangerous foreign policy decision that the US had made since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, it is the root of the present-day estrangement and hostility.
Defending Clinton and, later, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump who all continued the NATO expansion policy, their supporters have said that in expanding NATO eastward the West did not break any promise to Moscow not to. There was no written promise.
Some re-writing of history has gone on. Now Baker has ambiguously denied there was any such agreement. He said, “he never intended” to rule out the admission of new NATO members.
Nevertheless, the evidence that a commitment was made not to expand is strong.
Jack Matlock, who was ambassador to Moscow for both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior, and who was in the room when Baker met Gorbachev, has said on a number of occasions that Gorbachev was given “a clear commitment” not to expand NATO. “If a united Germany was able to stay in NATO, NATO would not move eastward”.
The British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, when meeting his German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, on February 6, 1990, to discuss Hungary’s forthcoming free elections, was told that the Soviet Union needed “the certainty that Hungary will not become part of the Western alliance”. The Kremlin, Genscher said, would have to be given assurances to that effect. Hurd agreed.
I talked with Georgi Arbatov, the chief foreign policy advisor to Gorbachev, at his dacha a couple of years before he died, and he admitted that Russia made a mistake in not getting these promises formalized in a properly signed agreement. But he told me, “You have to remember the feelings at the time—both in Russia and the West—that the Cold War was over and done with. We were now friends. There was talk of Russia entering NATO, even the European Union. No one could have imagined that all these good feelings would come to an end.” To quote the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, “It was beyond the realm of our comprehension”.
Der Spiegel, the German political weekly, has been through the German and British archives. It found a minute of a conversation on February 10, 1990, when Genscher spoke with Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Genscher said: “For us one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.”
In a major speech on January 31, 1990, in Tutzing, Genscher said, “Whatever happens to the Warsaw Pact an extension of NATO territory to the East, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union, will not happen.” Genscher’s intention was to make it easier for the Soviets to go along with the reunification of Germany on terms the West could accept. He went on to say, “The West must be guided by the realization that the changes in Eastern Europe and the German reunification process cannot be allowed to compromise Soviet security”.
Two days after he had given his Tutzing speech Genscher met Baker. According to an account of the meeting that was sent to Vernon Walters, the US ambassador in Bonn, at Baker’s request, “Genscher confirmed that neutrality for a unified Germany was out of the question. The new Germany would remain in NATO because NATO is an essential block to the new Europe interests. In stating this Genscher reiterated the need to assure the Soviets that NATO would never extend its territorial coverage to the area of the German Democratic Republic, nor anywhere else in Europe for that matter.”
Genscher repeated this at the press conference that followed his meeting with Baker. The official US transcript shows that he made exactly the same points. The press was left in no doubt about what Genscher said had transpired at his meeting with Baker. Genscher, referring to Baker who stood at his side, talked of “we”. The Americans were left in no doubt about Germany’s stance and that they were in accord with it. The State Department issued no clarification. The US was clearly in step with Genscher.
Baker and Genscher went to Moscow on February 9 and 10. According to the State Department’s minutes of Baker’s meeting with Shevardnadze, Baker spoke of the importance of anchoring the reunified state in NATO, otherwise Germany “would undoubtedly acquire its own independent nuclear capability”.
However, he understood that if Germany remained part of NATO, “there would, of course, have to be iron-clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction of forces would not move eastward”.
Later in the afternoon of February 9 met with Gorbachev. According to the US minutes, Baker repeated what he said to Shevardnadze, adding, “If we maintain a presence in Germany that is part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east”. He repeated this at the press conference that followed.
Many American politicians and academics refute the Russian charge of deception. “Nothing was ever written down into a binding agreement”, they say. When interviewing Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US National Security Advisor to the president, I asked him his opinion, he just shrugged and told me to consult the experts. But he was the American expert. I knew him reasonably well and he was always a straightforward man, so to me his answer looked like an evasion.
One academic, Kristina Spohr, has made the point that the Russian claim that they were given guarantees was completely unfounded. She stresses the point that no “legally binding” pledges were ever made. “If no de jure pledges were made no pledges could have been broken or betrayed.”
Henry Kissinger has argued that verbal assurances don’t count. There must be a formal written agreement. But the Americans did not follow that precept with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. If a formal agreement on solving the crisis had been demanded by President John Kennedy, there would have been no solution. There probably would have been war between the US and the USSR, leading perhaps to a nuclear Armageddon. Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev accepted the understandings and promises both made informally in a handful of sentences made via telex.
Another criticism of the Russian interpretation hones in on Gorbachev. In April 2008 Gorbachev wrote a column for the New York Times damning the Western countries for the “unending expansion of NATO…All these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership”.
In April 2009, Gorbachev in an interview with the German paper Bild said that the US “did not abide by” its assurances. He said that “Perhaps the Americans even rubbed their hands with glee at how they had hoodwinked the Russians”. But then, inexplicably, in early 2014 he withdrew his criticism.
“The only issue they dealt with”, he wrote, “was the question of the extension of NATO’s military structures into eastern Germany”. After all the evidence presented in this column, this seems to be quite an amazing somersault. One cannot easily explain it, especially so, given that later in 2014 in an interview, he said that the decision to expand NATO “was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990”. I hope he lives long enough to clarify his contradictions.
Meanwhile, the lesson of all this is clear. If we want to get back to the period of peace and harmony that followed the end of the Cold War the expansion of NATO has to be rolled back. Russia is not a threat. Historically it has been always the one threatened. What are we in the West trying to do? Where does continuing hostility towards Russia lead to? What do the protagonists of NATO expansion have as their long-term objective? An endless state of hostility, the like of which the world has not experienced before?
This rollback should be President Joe Biden’s immediate task. History will more than thank him.
[Note: NB: Much of the evidence above, but by no means all, comes from an article published in the current issue of Harvard University’s influential quarterly, International Security. The author is Marc Trachtenberg, a research professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.]
* About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com