Further NATO Enlargement: Putin's "red lines" and myths about Western promises

Was a promise really made to Russia in the early 1990s to prevent the expansion of NATO? What are the key issues Western allies should address to prevent NATO from becoming a thing of the past?

Kristina Zeleniuk is a Ukraine-based political and international observer and journalist, and a 2021 FES DC Media Fellow. 

In his most recent annual speech at the Russian Foreign Ministry, Vladimir Putin demanded clear security guarantees from the United States and the West on Russia’s Western borders.

By this, Putin means NATO's non-expansion to the east. Moscow has set this as the main topic of Putin and US President Joe Biden’s virtual summit before the end of the year. The Kremlin continues to claim that the West has deceived Russia by allegedly neglecting a verbal promise ostensibly made in 1990 not to expand NATO to the east, in exchange for Russian support for German reunification. That’s why more than 30 years later, Russia’s President Putin wants to renegotiate with Biden about Europe's new security architecture – that is, to arrange a kind of "Yalta-2".

Moscow has already made its demands, which go far beyond NATO's non-enlargement to the east: withdrawal of American nuclear weapons stationed in Germany; guarantees that the NATO's new weapons systems won’t be deployed in Poland and the Baltic states; and a ban on the expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine.

On the one hand, if the Alliance gives in, it will in fact recognize Russia's "veto" on further enlargement. On the other hand, NATO still has no response to whether Article 5 should be activated in the event of ongoing Russian occupation of Ukrainian and Georgian territories, assuming Ukraine and Georgia join the Alliance. Was a promise really made to Russia in the early 1990s that NATO would not expand to the east?

I dug into the past, including the historical and archival record, and have highlighted here a number of key issues that Western allies need to address in order to prevent NATO from becoming an alliance of the past.

Was a Promise Made?

Curiously enough, the answer is not to be found in the events of 1990 when Germany was reunited, but in 2008. In a 2017 in an interview with the German newspaper BILD, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR, stated: "[West German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl, US Secretary of State James Baker and others have assured me that NATO won’t move an inch to the east".

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Gorbachev made this statement after three crucial events for the US and Europe.

  • First, Putin's famous Munich speech in 2007, where he accused the US of building a unipolar world, reminding Western partners of certain "assurances" made after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
  • Second, the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, which took place six months after the Munich Conference, where Ukraine and Georgia were denied entrance to a Membership Action Plan.
  • Third, Russia's military aggression against Georgia, which began four months after the NATO summit in Bucharest.

Putin's Munich speech considered the starting point for a change in Kremlin policy based on an external threat. Russia began to explain that it was  protecting itself from the expansion of the "enemy NATO bloc" to its borders, and Putin clearly confirmed it only after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 in an appeal to the State Duma. However, he clarified that this promise "wasn’t fixed on paper."

As for Gorbachev, in numerous interviews after Russia's attack on Georgia and Ukraine, he made confusing statements and in the end denied that the West had ever promised him anything about NATO expansion. However, the myth continues to live. I tried to understand whether the last Soviet president was really guaranteed the preservation of a kind of "buffer" zone between Germany and Russia.

Back to the Future?

Let’s return to 1990. James Baker was quoted as having said this following personal talks with Mikhail Gorbachev: "We understand that it would be important not only for the USSR but also for other European countries to have a guarantee that if the United States maintains its military presence in Germany within the NATO framework, there will be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or military presence one inch to the east".

Analyzing the declassified transcripts of negotiations on German reunification, this myth was strongly refuted in 2009 by Mark Kramer in his article "The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia".

Kramer argues that Baker was referring to East Germany (also referred to as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), not Eastern Europe outside of Germany. After all, at that time almost no one doubted the future existence of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact which included Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. According to Kramer, transcripts show that neither Gorbachev nor other Soviet officials ever raised the issue of the Warsaw Pact's accession to NATO. Moreover, these countries didn’t even consider accession to be a possibility.

Just to make sure, I talked to retired American Ambassador Stephen Pifer. He was a Deputy Director on the State Department's Soviet desk during discussions about the reunification of Germany. Pifer concurred: "Secretary Baker said that, following German reunification, there would be no movement by non-German NATO forces into what had been East Germany. The focus was on Germany and reunification. NATO enlargement more broadly was not on the radar, a point that Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged in 2014".

Moreover, Gorbachev even agreed to East Germany’s membership in NATO. And let’s not forget that the Kremlin received a great deal of financial aid – estimated between $31-50 billion – to ameliorate concerns about German reunification, including for the withdrawal of its troops from the GDR. However, a blame game was later initiated against Gorbachev – that he "gave" the GDR to the West Germans on unfavorable terms and betrayed USSR interests. Russia's internal and foreign policy began to build on this narrative, developing as a kind of "Putinism."

Two Stories in Washington?

Neither during Gorbachev's personal talks with Baker and Kohl, nor during the official meetings of the "2+4" (the two German states, plus the United States, the USSR, Great Britain and France) – which led to the signing of the German reunification treaty – was the issue of possible NATO enlargement beyond Germany ever raised.

But according to other American diplomats from the time, there seems to be a sense that perhaps NATO enlargement had been discussed with Gorbachev. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote about the 1999 enlargement to the east in his book "From Cold War to Hot Peace", when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO. McFaul argues that: "Ambassadors George Kennan and Jack Matlock were especially critical, with Kennan calling it "the beginning of a new cold war" and Matlock [who testified in Congress] lambasting President Clinton for reneging on past commitments, stating that "Gorbachev did get an informal, but clear, commitment that if Germany united and stayed in NATO, the borders of NATO wouldn’t move eastwards".

Unfortunately, more than 30 years after German reunification, there seem to be two stories and two camps in Washington about what had been said to Gorbachev. That’s why we see different thoughts in numerous studies, articles and narratives of American diplomats and experts. Some believe that no promises were given to Soviet leaders. Others argue that James Baker's phrase "not an inch to the east" can mean something more.

However, if you consult NATO's official website, the alliance has a section dedicated to "NATO-Russia relations: the facts". NATO’s own position on the issue strongly counters the Russian narrative that "NATO won’t enlarged after the Cold War" – declaring that no such promise or protocol exists: "declassified White House transcripts also reveal that, in 1997, Bill Clinton consistently refused Boris Yeltsin's offer of a "gentlemen's agreement" that no former Soviet Republics would enter NATO."

The active spreading of this myth began in 2014, when for the first time since World War II, Russia changed European borders by annexing Crimea.

Who made Putin anti-Western?

It’s not a secret that NATO's driving force is the US, as well as the membership momentum gained during the two biggest waves of the Alliance enlargement to the east: in 1999, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were accepted; and 2004, when Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO.

Of course, Russia has never been very happy about these expansions. But according to some American diplomats, the Gorbachev and Reagan "reset" was still on the table between the US and Russia before the 1999 NATO enlargement. It was suggested that Washington's decision to push Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO, even during the war in Yugoslavia, was seen by Yeltsin as a personal insult. However, it would be a mistake to say that Moscow's opinion was never taken into account:

  • First, after the 1999 enlargement, it was the Clinton Administration that stimulated further financial IMF support for Russia.
  • Second, the Cold War is over, the bloc confrontation is long gone, and even in the early years under Putin, Russia didn’t seem so aggressive about NATO enlargement.
  • Third, the US really tried to build a reliable partnership between NATO and Russia. Putin himself didn’t reject the possibility for Russia to join NATO, and neither did Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

But the days of this "cold" peace were short-lived once Russia began to build its policy on anti-Western consensus.

Additionally, according to many Western diplomats, the turning point in Russia-Western relations were two key events: the US military operation in Iraq in 2003; and the peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-2005. Shortly thereafter, in 2007, the world heard Putin's aggressive Munich speech, which took Russian foreign policy back to Soviet times.

In Putin's "doctrine", the EU and NATO are anti-Russian alliances. However, did the Alliance and its enlargement really force Putin to become anti-Western? Alexander Vershbow, the former Deputy Secretary General of NATO in 2012-2016, and US Ambassador to Russia from 2001-2005 gave me a very good answer in a recent interview"I don’t think it was NATO that drove Putin to become anti-Western. There were other considerations. Most important is his fear of democracy spreading from places like Ukraine to Russia itself".

No wonder President Biden calls Russia an autocracy. The Kremlin speaks plainly, arguing that two waves of NATO expansion to the East happened when Russia was weak, and the US seized the moment to expand an antagonistic alliance. Putin successfully manipulates history by playing on the Soviet-era sentiment of Russians, cultivating nostalgia for past "greatness" – even though people in the USSR didn’t live very well – rather than answering the question why their life now leaves much to be desired.

NATO enlargement: to be or not to be?

Each regular NATO summit commits the open doors policy to new members if they meet the necessary criteria and, what is more important, strengthen Euro-Atlantic security. So far, three countries have announced their ambitions to join NATO: Bosnia and Herzegovina (received a MAP in 2010), Ukraine and Georgia.

No matter how loudly we say that we want to join NATO, in practice, it’s always a political decision. There is simply no consensus among allies now on another wave of enlargement. And it's not just because of Russia. Three challenges stand out, in particular:

Problem 1: There is no alternative alliance to NATO

NATO is arguably one of the few post-war organizations that still work as intended. It remains compelling and therefore continues to attract many countries trying to get under its security "umbrella". Neither the UN nor the OSCE are as able to perform their functions as global security arbiters as well as they once seemed to be. No one wants to "bury" NATO without having an alternative alliance or system.

Problem 2: NATO lacks clear leadership – and Europe should lead more

NATO lacks leadership – US credibility as leader of the alliance has been drawn into question since the election of Donald Trump. Trump rocked the foundations of the post-war international order by essentially attempting to establish a mercenary scheme for security protection. President Biden calmed the allies a little, but not for long. The creation of the AUKUS alliance by the US, Great Britain and Australia is viewed by many in the EU as a competitor to NATO, amplifying fears that Washington won’t be able to lead alliances on two fronts, thereby failing to contain China and Russia at the same time. It’s time for Europe to take responsibility for its own destiny and security and assert more leadership in NATO.

Problem 3: Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO is a security challenge

Russia's aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security. Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO is a security challenge, and this is recognized by most member states in "off the record" remarks, but officially maintain that there is no consensus in NATO on further enlargement. NATO allies don’t have a definite answer as to what to do with Russia's military presence in the occupied territories. And Moscow is making good use of this, deliberately creating frozen conflicts – including Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia – occupying Crimea, and continuing armed conflict in Donbas. Russia's goal is to prevent the countries it considers to be in its sphere of influence from becoming closer to the West by creating a "buffer" zone around itself.

NATO 2030

Taking into account all these problems, is there a danger that NATO could become an alliance of the past? Stephen Pifer doesn’t think so. The more aggressive Russia that we have seen over the last decade has restored NATO's original purpose – to deter and defend against aggression from Moscow. Pifer asserts:  "as for further enlargement, there is no interest within NATO now in putting Ukraine on a membership track, because Ukraine is engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Russia. That's unfair to Ukraine, but that is the reality"

Ambassador Pifer is absolutely right. The allies don't want to risk direct conflict with Russia. They think that if Ukraine becomes a NATO member while Russia's military presence continues in the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas, Article 5 should be automatically extended to these territories. The foreign minister of one of the Baltic states told me that the allies have some ideas about circumventing this: for example, Ukraine and Georgia can join NATO, but the guarantees of Article 5 will be extended to the temporarily occupied territories only after de-occupation.

But this is a big risk. The same mechanism was proposed for the East Germany in 1990, but was ultimately abandoned by the Americans. At the same time, let’s not forget about Turkey and Greece – they are NATO members but still have unresolved territorial disputes in Northern Cyprus.  What would their territorial disputes mean in light of a new precedent theoretically set by Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, excluding occupied territory?

Should NATO continue its policy of avoiding confrontation with Russia? Allies are expected to respond in NATO's Strategic Concept 2030, which will be adopted during the June 2022 Summit in Madrid. We’ll see how successfully Moscow is raising the stakes. A year ago, the Kremlin's "red line" was Ukraine’s and Georgia's NATO membership. Now Putin calls the expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states a threat to Russian national security.

Putin is bluffing. NATO has long come close to the Russian borders. In the West, Russia borders Latvia and Estonia, and has its own “island of security" in Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. And with the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarus border, Moscow is raising the stakes even more, testing NATO’s strength. And it seems that the Alliance hasn’t figured out how to respond.

Some may argue that Ukraine’s and Georgia’s entrance into a Membership Action Plan won’t end the armed conflict in Donbas and Russia's occupation of Ukrainian and Georgian territories. Additionally, Ukraine and Georgia have yet to meet the criteria to be ready to join.

But if we constantly turn a blind eye to these problems still accumulating 72 years after NATO was founded, constantly worrying about what Moscow would say, autocracies such as Russia and China will decide our future and our destiny for us. The leaders of the democratic world must address this at the online summit to be convened by President Biden on December 9-10. Otherwise, Moscow and Beijing will be able to convince the world that their regimes are stronger, safer, and more attractive than democracies.

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