Did NATO cheat on Russia? Promises made but Russia didn't cash

The enlargement of NATO to Central and Eastern Europe is a controversial issue. What was the meaning of the suggestion of American government-officials in February 1990 that the NATO wouldn’t expand ‘one inch eastwards’ after the reunification of Germany: a gentlemen-agreement or just a point of discussion? New sources and interpretations of the National Security Archive shed new light on this ongoing dispute between Russia and the Western alliance.

 RIAN archive 667881 US president George Bush and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Mikhail GorbachevBush and Gorbachev in Washington in 1990 (photo Wikimedia)

by Hubert Smeets

(English summary of extensive Dutch article)

In 1990, when USSR and USA negotiated the geopolitical future of a reunited Germany, high American government officials suggested in different dialogues with the Soviet-leadership that NATO wouldn’t expand ‘an inch eastward’ outside Germany.

But a decade later the alliance did the opposite. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic entered the alliance in 1999. Finally even the three former Soviet-republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became member of NATO in 2004. Although Georgia and Ukraine were not invited in 2008 to the preliminary Membership Action Plan, the discussion about such an invitation was unacceptable for Russia. More and more president Putin started to condemn the steady enlargement of NATO.

Since then this alleged ‘broken promise’ is a controversial issue, in contemporary historiography as well as in international politics.

Did the West in fact promise Moscow that its alliance would halt?

At the end of 2017 an article by the Russian/American historians Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive in Washington gave a new impulse to the debate. Commenting on older and recently released documents they concluded that several western leaders in 1990 never did concrete promises, but indeed gave the Soviet Union guarantees for its security.

Discussions then focused on the future of Germany: would the reunited country be allowed to become a member of NATO or not? US-secretary of state James Baker and German chancellor Helmut Kohl suggested in February 1990 to Soviet-leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his foreign minister that the alliance would halt after the probable incorporation of Germany. This idea was never formalized in the negotiations after the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, let alone in a ‘black on white’ treaty. But the suggestion of Baker was not a gaffe; it was a short-lived policy-line of the State Department. Therefore, Moscow has reason to complain that the West spoiled a gentlemen’s agreement, both scholars at the American institute conclude in their essay ‘What Gorbachev Heard’.

Discussion closed? No. Savranskaya and Blanton are too much focused on the conversations between the Soviet-leadership and the American officials at government-level. They neglect the circumstances outside their meeting-rooms. A closer examination of the unclear position of the Soviet leadership is needed to understand the historical context of the ‘broken promise’.

The American sources indeed give an inside view of the atmosphere of the talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American authors write that notes of the talks show that Moscow in 1990 had reason to conclude that NATO would not be expanded after Germany. Apart from the German Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl several American government officials - like minister of Foreign Affairs James Baker and CIA-director Robert Gates - suggested this in a more than casual way.

But formally the materials of Savranskaya and Blanton offer no conclusive evidence. No official documents have been drafted, let alone signed, partly because President George H. Bush immediately blew the whistle on his underlings and his counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev never capitalized on the potential concessions from the West.

Notwithstanding this formal aspect one should also take into account the context. The negotiations on German unification were no one way road, but a process in which the Soviet Union also had a role of its own to play. That makes the conclusion that Soviet Russia in 1990 one-sidedly was cheated by the West unfounded. The available sources and historical research rather lead us to the following ambivalent conclusions:

  • Indeed the American administration in February 1990, by mouth of several functionaries, more than once gave the Russians the impression that it was willing to limit NATO expansion, on the condition that the Soviet Union would accept NATO-membership of a united Germany. But these suggestions never were put on paper, nor resulted in formally documented proposals.
  • The Soviet leadership was so focused on the unification of Germany (in Russia called the 'German question') and their own huge domestic problems that it repeatedly missed the occasion to capitalize on these rather vague promises of the American side and insist on the drafting of a solid treaty.
  • In view of the weakness of the Soviet Union and the speed of developments in the whole 'socialist camp' President Gorbachev even was willing to embrace the American military role in Europe as a stabilising factor. Had the policy of the Soviet Union always been aimed at rolling back the US, starting from 1989 it wanted the Americans to stay.
  • The government in Moscow was too ignorant of the mood in its 'satellite states' in Middle and Eastern Europe. It supposed that all these countries for historical reasons were anti-German, but underestimated the fact that the post-war anti-Russian sentiments in these satellites could end up with them asking for NATO membership.
  • Only in the middle of the 90s NATO began to understand that Russia viewed expansion to the east as a security threat. It reacted with the formation of the NATO/Russia council that seemed to disband these fears. It was not until the twentieth century, when Russia resurfaced from its economic downfall that this expectation proved groundless.
  • The countries of Middle and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War were not willing to play a servilient role in spheres of influence, but demanded true independence. That's why Russia's desire to restore its power positions more and more vehemently clashed with the national ambitions in Eastern European states who wanted to become truly sovereign after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Later, the former Soviet ambassador in Germany Valentin Falun thus poignantly phrased this pressure cooker of 1989-1990: ‘History compressed one hundred years in one hundred days.'

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