by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freien Universität Berlin.
In discussions on the relationship between Russia and NATO the argument is often heard that NATO, with their eastward expansions in 1999 and 2004, broke a promise which had been given to the Soviet Union at the time of German reunification (see, for instance, Nick Ottens, “Russia’s Crimea invasion Follows Decades of Perceived Humiliation“, Offiziere.ch, 03.05.2014). But is this argument really true? This article aims to provide clarification.
In his addresses, the Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly emphasized that NATO’s eastward expansion was nothing short of the breaking of a promise. Russia, taking the Realist view, saw NATO’s eastward expansion as a shift in power carried out to Russia’s disadvantage, and it was accordingly interpreted negatively. Whether NATO expanded eastwards with good or bad intentions is irrelevant and can be ignored in the following analysis.
[The West] have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. — Vladimir Putin, “Address by President of the Russian Federation“, President of Russia, 18.03.2014.
Whether NATO, with its expansion across the borders in 1991, indeed broke a promise or even an agreement represents an important moral judgement of the defence alliance. This is all the more important because in 1999 NATO, in Operation “Allied Force“, defied international law and bombed the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia without the consent of the UN Security Council. Critics of NATO could construe both “Allied Force” and the eastward expansion as an offensive form of power expansion. The Russian perception of threat by the Western defence alliance, verging on paranoia, would have been at least to some extent justified by the action, and NATO identified as the real source of tension in the relationship with Russia. A careful examination of the case would therefore definitely be called for. It should be remembered that a Russian draft resolution presented in late March 1999 to the UN Security Council and aimed at condemning the NATO operation “Allied Force” was clearly rejected by 12 votes to 3 (Russia, China and Namibia). (United Nations, “Belarus, India and Russian Federation: draft resolution“, 26.03.1999). The NATO intervention in the war in Kosovo is therefore considered today by the majority of international law experts as morally legitimate (see Bruno Simma, “NATO, the UN and the use of force: legal aspects“, European Journal of International Law 10, no. 1, 1999, p 1-22).
The question of whether there was a formal agreement between NATO and Russia regarding expansion eastwards was raised in 1997 (see Michael R. Gordon, “The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding“, The New York Times, 25.05.1997). In February 1990, in the wake of the reunification of Germany, US Secretary of State James A. Baker and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev discussed the possibility of a German entry into NATO – at a time when the Warsaw Pact still existed and no wider expansion of NATO into the east had yet been spoken of. Various negotiating options relating to the alliance membership of the reunified Germany existed. One of these ruled out Germany’s integration into NATO. Hence Baker, after the negotiations in February 1990, recorded in a memorandum: “End result: Unified Ger. anchored in a changed (polit.) NATO – whose juris. would not move eastward!” (Mary Elise Sarotte, “A Broken Promise?” Foreign Affairs, 08.11.2014). However, negotiations with Gorbachev were still ongoing and no agreement had been signed. In a bilateral meeting in July 1990 and in an emotional telephone conversation in September of the same year, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl convinced (or “paid”) Gorbachev to allow the reunified Germany join NATO, subject to certain conditions which were formally recorded and signed on 12 September 1990 (Elise, 2014).
The conditions included the following: (Steven Pifer, “Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge? Gorbachev Says ‘No’“, The Brookings Institution, 06.11.2014):
- Until Soviet forces had completed their withdrawal from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), only German territorial defense units not integrated into NATO would be deployed in that territory.
- There would be no increase in the numbers of troops or equipment of U.S., British and French forces stationed in Berlin.
- Once Soviet forces had withdrawn, German forces assigned to NATO could be deployed in the former GDR, but foreign forces and nuclear weapons systems would not be deployed there.
Gorbachev was therefore not promised that NATO would not expand eastward. There are no corresponding formal agreements and the cited memorandum from Baker is quoted out of context of the German reunification (Gordon, 1997). Final clarity comes in a comment made by Gorbachev in an October 2014 interview:
The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement, mentioned in your question, was made in that context. Kohl and [German Vice Chancellor Hans-Dietrich] Genscher talked about it.
Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled. 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 observed all these years. So don’t portray Gorbachev and the then-Soviet authorities as naïve people who were wrapped around the West’s finger. If there was naïveté, it was later, when the issue arose. Russia at first did not object. — Maxim Korshunov und Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mikhail Gorbachev: I am against all walls“, Russia Beyond The Headlines, 16.10.2014.
NATO cannot officially be blamed for any breach of promise or agreement. There nevertheless remains a stale aftertaste when referring to the expansion eastward, as expressed by Gorbachev in the above interview: “[To expand NATO into the east was] a big mistake from the very beginning. It was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990” (Korshunov and Gorbachev, 2014; emphasis added). In addition, the NATO member states must have been aware that any further expansion of influence into Russia’s areas of interest (in particular the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States) would increase tensions in mutual relations.