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Did The West Promise Moscow That NATO Would Not Expand? Well, It's Complicated.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (second from left) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President George Bush as President Ronald Reagan stands behind them before talks in New York in December 1988.

Some myths go back millennia.

This myth, if it is one, goes back to 1990 -- and just over three decades later, it continues to form a central grievance in Russian President Vladimir Putin's testy narrative about Moscow's ties with the West.

It's the question of NATO expansion -- an unhealed scab that, with Russian-Western relations at their lowest ebb since the Cold War, has been picked off yet again and is now bleeding into public view.

Casting the issue into the spotlight this time was not an angry tirade from Putin but a report by the London-based think tank Chatham House, which, in a May 13 publication, aimed to dispel a host of what it called "myths and misperceptions" that have shaped Western thinking and kept it from establishing "a stable and manageable relationship with Moscow."

One "myth" in particular kicked off a furious debate in e-mail threads, chat rooms, listservs, and on Twitter: "Russia was promised that NATO would not enlarge."

"The U.S.S.R. was never offered a formal guarantee on the limits of NATO expansion post-1990," John Lough, the research associate who authored the section, wrote. "Moscow merely distorts history to help preserve an anti-Western consensus at home."

Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian diplomat who served in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow between 1987 and 1992, disagrees. "The Chatham House piece is very bad -- it sounds to be as a piece produced by the Ideology Department of the Central Committee" of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he told RFE/RL.

"We didn't have to come to this, though, and the issue could have remained a small script in history that does not need to be resolved," he said. "It is more about the manner of NATO enlargement and the arguments used to promote enlargement."

And so, more than two decades after NATO's original 16-member Cold War composition was first enlarged to take in three former Warsaw Pact states, and with Putin poised to potentially stay in office into the 2030s, the past is very much present.

"We are still debating it because the proponents of enlargement believe they acted honorably and helped millions of people who had been under Soviet domination achieve their freedom," said Jim Goldgeier, who served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

"The Russian narrative is the West deceived them and acted in a way that left them out of post-Cold War Europe. It's just very hard to bridge these positions, and emotions do run high, given that the hopes 30 years ago of Russia being part of Europe didn't materialize," Goldgeier told RFE/RL. "So there are those who want to blame the West, and those who want to blame Putin."

'Not On The Agenda'

For many Cold War scholars, the genesis of the narrative can be primarily traced back to a February 1990 visit by James Baker, the U.S. secretary of state under President George Bush, to Moscow, where Baker met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Berlin Wall had come down three months earlier, and Western leaders were openly discussing whether a divided Germany would be reunified, something that Moscow feared -- and if that happened, whether NATO forces would ultimately be stationed in what was then East Germany, something that terrified Moscow.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker

According to transcripts released years later by the United States and Russia, Baker broached the subject with the argument that it was better to have a unified Germany within NATO's political and military structure than outside of it.

"At no point in the discussion did either Baker or Gorbachev bring up the question of the possible extension of NATO membership to other Warsaw Pact countries beyond Germany," according to Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies Project at Harvard University's Davis Center, who reviewed the declassified transcripts and other materials.

"Indeed, it never would have occurred to them to raise an issue that was not on the agenda anywhere, not in Washington, not in Moscow, and not in any other Warsaw Pact or NATO capital," Kramer wrote in a April 2009 journal article.

Gorbachev met with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the day after the meeting with Baker. According to Kramer's research, the subject of German unification was more prominent on the agenda than it had been with Baker. "Gorbachev did not seek any assurances about [NATO enlargement] and certainly did not receive any," Kramer wrote.

Ultimately, according to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador who was serving at the State Department at the time, the United States, France, and Britain, along with Germany, agreed not to deploy non-German NATO forces in the former East Germany.

In 1999, years after German reunification and the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, NATO admitted three former Warsaw Pact countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl exchange fountain pens after signing a contract in Bonn in November 1990.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl exchange fountain pens after signing a contract in Bonn in November 1990.

Ten years later, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Gorbachev complained that the West had tricked Moscow. "Many people in the West were secretly rubbing their hands and felt something like a flush of victory -- including those who had promised us: 'We will not move 1 centimeter further east,'" he was quoted as saying.

Gorbachev later appeared to reverse himself, saying the subject of enlargement in fact never came up in 1989 or 1990. "The topic of 'NATO expansion' was never discussed; it was not raised in those years. I am saying this with a full sense of responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country brought up the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact had ceased to exist in 1991," he told the newspaper Kommersant in October 2014.

Gorbachev could not be reached for comment. A spokesman did not immediately return an e-mail.

'The Spirit Of The Treaty'

Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, was wary about NATO expansion but did not oppose it, according to declassified memos. "We understand, of course, that any possible integration of East European countries into NATO will not automatically lead to the alliance somehow turning against Russia," Yeltsin wrote in a September 1993 letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton. "But it is important to take into account how our public opinion might react to that step."

But Yeltsin also cited what he cast as assurances given to Soviet officials during the negotiations on German unification, writing that "the spirit of the treaty on the final settlement...precludes the option of expanding the NATO zone into the East."

U.S. President Bill Clinton (right) meets with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in November 1999.
U.S. President Bill Clinton (right) meets with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in November 1999.

Four years later, in an effort to assuage Moscow's concerns, NATO and Russia signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a political agreement stating, among other things, that "NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries." In 2002, NATO and Russia agreed to set up a joint consultative council, ostensibly as a venue to resolve disagreements. But the council was seen as ineffectual by many in Moscow.

Then, two years later, NATO underwent the largest expansion in its history, admitting seven more Eastern European countries, including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had been republics of the Soviet Union and chafed under Moscow's rule. While it wasn't the first time a NATO member bordered Russia or the Soviet Union, now a NATO member's troops potentially could be located just 625 kilometers from Moscow.

In 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, an annual high-level gathering of officials, diplomats, and experts from both sides of the Atlantic, Putin unleashed a broadside against NATO, as well as the United States, accusing the alliance of duplicity and of threatening Russia.

"I think it is obvious that NATO expansion has no relation with the modernization of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in February 2007.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in February 2007.

"What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?" Putin asked -- a remark that prompted some head-scratching, because the debate has focused almost exclusively on remarks made before the Warsaw Pact fell apart. "Where are these guarantees?"

A year after Putin's speech, at a Bucharest summit in April 2008, NATO declined to offer Georgia and Ukraine a fast-track path to membership but assured the two countries that they would eventually join the alliance.

Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia, destroying its armed forces, occupying two regions that had already had near complete autonomy, and humiliating the country's then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who had openly called for Georgia to join NATO.

In 2014, after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and equipped, financed, and provided military support to separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine, stoking a war that continues today, NATO called off any consultations with Russia.

Shortly after Russia's parliament endorsed the takeover of Crimea, Putin said in a speech that Russia was humiliated by NATO's expansion. "They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact," he claimed.

'Selling The Narrative'

Among those who have fueled Russian claims of a promise was the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, who has repeatedly insisted, both in congressional testimony and more recently, that Gorbachev had received assurances that if Germany united, and stayed in NATO, the borders of NATO would not move eastward.

But Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador and deputy foreign minister who is now head of the Munich Security Conference, said that agreements on German reunification, including the 1990 treaty known as the 2+4 Treaty, which formally paved the way for the two countries to become one again, made no mention of NATO enlargement.

"Russia has been quite successful in selling the narrative that, in exchange for their acceptance of German unification via the 2+4 Treaty, they were promised that there would be no NATO enlargement," Ischinger told RFE/RL. "Russia presents herself as the victim."

Wolfgang Ischinger delivers remarks at the 56th Munich Security Conference in February 2020.
Wolfgang Ischinger delivers remarks at the 56th Munich Security Conference in February 2020.

"Whatever promises about non-enlargement may have been 1990, the hard fact is Russia accepted enlargement, with detailed conditions, and in writing, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was agreed," Ischinger said in an e-mail. "Later Russian claims that different promises had been made in 1990 are therefore simply not relevant. In fact, this is propaganda, and it is in bad faith!"

Sokov, the former diplomat who is now at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, said the biggest issue was that NATO's enlargement could have been "managed" to minimize misunderstandings.

A Missed Chance?

The initial expansion, in 1999, came around the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, aimed at stopping advances by Serbian forces against the Kosovar population. Russia's outrage over the campaign was crystallized by the decision of then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to turn his U.S.-bound jet around over the Atlantic Ocean in protest. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was another action that raised Moscow's ire.

"It is wrong to wave away Russian concerns," Sokov said.

The 1997 Founding Act was well-intentioned, as was the 2002 creation of the NATO-Russia Council, he said. But he argued that these agreements have "never worked," arguing that the alliance often takes actions that affect Russian or regional security without consulting Moscow.

"The procedure that is used instead is that NATO makes a decision and then tries to convince Russia that [the] decision is good and should be accepted. The latter is a formula for disaster," he said. "I strongly believe that it was possible to both enlarge NATO and avoid conflict. The chance was missed and today we see a worsening conflict of which the question about guarantees given by Baker is nothing but a symbol."

But for other scholars, the problem lies mainly in Moscow, with the way Putin and the Kremlin perceive the history of NATO enlargement and the way they present it to the Russian public and the West.

"The notion that NATO made and broke a promise that it would not accept any new member states in Eastern Europe is one of the core ideas driving Russia's view of a hostile West," said Keir Giles, a consultant and co-author of the Chatham House report.

And that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

In an article for the Brookings Institution in 2014, Pifer, the former ambassador, predicted that for Putin, "The West's alleged promise not to enlarge the alliance will undoubtedly remain a standard element of his anti-NATO spin.

"That is because it 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," Pifer said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.