By Jamie Dettmer
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his senior aides have repeatedly claimed that Western powers broke promises they made not to expand NATO as the Soviet Union collapsed.
In his annual end-of-year press conference in Moscow in December, Putin accused NATO of deceiving Russia by giving assurances in the 1990s that it would not expand “an inch to the East” — promises made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during negotiations between the West and the Soviet Union over German unification, the Russian leader said.
“They cheated us — vehemently, blatantly. NATO is expanding,” Putin said. He cited former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as Exhibit One in his indictment and quoted a remark Baker made to Gorbachev in 1990, saying, “NATO will not move one inch further east.”
The Russian leader has made the claim frequently about NATO skullduggery, accusing Western powers of taking advantage of a weakened, disoriented Russia as the Soviet Union fell apart. And the West’s supposed trickery and violation of a solemn pledge not to expand has figured prominently as an important component in a Putin foreign policy narrative which presents Russia as a victim and aggrieved party.
In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he asked, “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”
And then again in a Kremlin speech after Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, he accused Western leaders of having “lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed before us an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East.”
After that speech, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said in an essay, “Western leaders never pledged not to enlarge NATO,” but that the story “fits so well with the picture that the Russian leader seeks to paint of an aggrieved Russia, taken advantage of by others and increasingly isolated—not due to its own actions, but because of the machinations of a deceitful West.”
Most authoritative Western scholars and historians who have studied diplomatic memos, the minutes of meetings and transcripts released by both sides since the 1990s dispute the idea that NATO made any formal pledges.
And Western leaders have vigorously protested the Putin narrative, saying there was never any deal about not expanding NATO into central Europe. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, on the eve of bilateral talks between American and Russian diplomats in Geneva, told reporters: “NATO never promised not to admit new members. It could not and would not — the ‘open door policy’ was a core provision of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty that founded NATO.”
Blinken referred reporters to remarks in 2014 by Mikhail Gorbachev to Russia Beyond, a multilingual project operated by the nonprofit of the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. During the interview, the former Soviet leader was asked why he had not sought a document to legally encode what Baker had said about not moving “one inch further east.”
What Baker meant
Gorbachev explained that the Baker remark was being taken out of context and replied: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all.” But another issue was discussed: “Making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR [German Democratic Republic] after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context.”
Gorbachev added, “The agreement on a final settlement with Germany said that no new military structures would be created in the eastern part of the country; no additional troops would be deployed; no weapons of mass destruction would be placed there. It has been obeyed all these years.”
But Gorbachev did say in the interview that what has unfolded since 1990 with more countries deciding to join NATO was “a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990,” although he did not elaborate.
Scholars take Gorbachev to mean that the West had portrayed the coming era as one of security cooperation between East and West with the United States working with Russia on the development of a new, inclusive European security arrangement. That inclusive security structure did not materialize, although Putin’s critics argue the blame for that lies more with Russian adventurism, than with NATO.
Gorbachev also acknowledged in May 1990 when signing off on German reunification that NATO expansion was likely, saying that he was aware of “the intention expressed by a number of representatives of east European countries to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and subsequently join NATO.”
Declassified American, Soviet, German, British and French documents posted online in 2017 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University in the American capital suggest Gorbachev had some reason to be disgruntled later.
“The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory,” the Archive notes in its assessment of posted documents.
Boris Yeltsin became angry when the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Baltic states joined NATO in waves from 1997 onward. Yeltsin upbraided then U.S.-President Bill Clinton, who maintained that NATO was not breaking promises and argued, as subsequent U.S. administrations have done, that sovereign independent states have the right to choose whether to join alliances.
Russian diplomats say the principle that countries can choose their alliances should not override Moscow’s essential security needs and concerns. For Moscow, the “old principles of security on the continent are no longer working. NATO expansion has created a new military and political landscape,” Fyodor Lukyanov, an influential Russian international affairs analyst, noted recently.
“Russia will have to change the system,” he argued in a commentary, suggesting that countries adjacent to Russia should “retain their sovereignty but stay out of the geopolitical fray.”
Western policy makers say that Russia in effect acquiesced to enlargement when in 1997, it and NATO signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. In that political agreement, which was meant to build East-West trust and establish habits of consultation and cooperation, NATO committed to avoid stationing permanent substantial combat forces on the territories of the former Warsaw Pact states which had joined the Western alliance. It could, however, rotate detachments in and out to conduct drills and maintain the interoperability and integration of alliance forces.
Yeltsin wanted a Russian veto on any further expansion included in the Founding Act, but Western leaders rebuffed him. NATO has avoided stationing substantial forces in the central European countries, although some of their leaders have argued, since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, that Russia has been breaking the commitments it made in the Founding Act to show the same restraint as NATO with force deployments, military buildups, and incursions.