Did NATO betray Russia, breaking the deal to stay out of Eastern Europe?

Summary:  The news that “NATO invites Montenegro to join alliance, defying Russia” has sparked return (again) of stories that the US broke its deal with the Soviet Union to stay out of Eastern Europe. These accusations by Putin and other Russian leaders frame and poison relations with the West. Here are the facts.

Trust broken

Putin’s claims of perfidious behavior by the West show his understanding that the moral high ground is, as so often the case, of value. His most vehement accusations are that the NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe violates agreements made in 1989 and 1990. In his February 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference he said…

“And we have the right to ask: against whom is this [NATO] expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? … I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Where are these guarantees?”

In his March 2014 speech justifying Russia’s annexation of Crimea (we’re bad, so he’s bad)…

“{Western leaders} have 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, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.”

Many on the US Left take Putin’s claims seriously, an example of the Left’s long affection for tyrants (shared, of course, by the US Right). These claims have have only a weak basis in fact. The last years of the Soviet Union were marked by remarkably hasty and poorly thought-out actions by its leaders. Their reliance on a vague verbal agreement — between Secretary of State James Baker and the USSR’s Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze — was poor statecraft (but by no means their worst errors).

To Russia, with Love: NATO breaks its deal with Russia

Jack Matlock Jr. (Wikipedia bio) was the US Ambassador to Moscow at that time. He gives a nuanced version than the usual black/white version in this April 2014 article. It’s a complex story, typical for diplomacy. Here is the bottom line…

These conversations and negotiations were in the context of a general understanding Bush and Gorbachev reached in December 1989 (Malta Summit) that the USSR would not use force in Eastern Europe and the U.S. would not “take advantage” of changes there. This was not a treaty binding on future governments. (The 2+4 agreement was a binding treaty, and has been observed {i.e., the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany}.

The Malta understanding was between President Bush and President Gorbachev. I am sure that if Bush had been re-elected and Gorbachev had remained as president of the USSR there would have been no NATO expansion during their terms in office. There was no way either could commit successors, and when Gorbachev was deposed and the USSR broke up, their understandings became moot. Even formal treaty agreements are subject to the “rebus sic stantibus” principle; when the Soviet Union collapsed -– something the U.S. neither desired nor caused -– the “circumstances” of 1989 and 1990 changed radically.

When NATO expansion occurred some years later it was not the result of some U.S. or NATO decision to press eastward or to threaten Russia. The impetus came from the East European countries, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary,

Der Spiegel (high on my list of trustworthy news media) explains how this happened: “NATO’s Eastward Expansion: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?“,  26 November 2009. Red emphasis added.

After speaking with many of those involved and examining previously classified British and German documents in detail, SPIEGEL has concluded that there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

… In late May 1990, Gorbachev finally agreed to a unified Germany joining NATO. But why didn’t Gorbachev and Shevardnadze get the West’s commitments in writing at a time when they still held all the cards? “The Warsaw Pact still existed at the beginning of 1990,” Gorbachev says today. “Merely the notion that NATO might expand to include the countries in this alliance sounded completely absurd at the time.”

Some leading Western politicians were under the impression that the Kremlin leader and his foreign minister were ignoring reality and, as Baker said, were “in denial” about the demise of the Soviet Union as a major power.

On the other hand, the Baltic countries were still part of the Soviet Union, and NATO membership seemed light years away. And in some parts of Eastern Europe, peace-oriented dissidents were now in power, men like then-Czech President Vaclav Havel who, if he had had his way, would not only have dissolved the Warsaw Pact, but NATO along with it.

No Eastern European government was striving to join NATO in that early phase, and the Western alliance had absolutely no interest in taking on new members. It was too expensive, an unnecessary provocation of Moscow and, if worse came to worst, did the Western governments truly expect French, Italian or German soldiers to risk their lives for Poland and Hungary?

Then, in 1991, came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the war in Bosnia, with its hundred thousand dead, raised fears of a Balkanization of Eastern Europe. And in the United States President Bill Clinton, following his inauguration in 1993, was searching for a new mission for the Western alliance.

Suddenly everyone wanted to join NATO, and soon NATO wanted to accept everyone. The dispute over history was about to begin.

Philip Zelikow agrees, explaining in the NYT that “NATO Expansion Wasn’t Ruled Out”  (Aug 1995). He is an attorney, diplomat, and Professor of History — and was then on the National Security Council staff (Wikipedia bio).

Also see the thoroughly research study “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia” by Mark Kramer in the Washington Quarterly (Spring 2009), using declassified documents.


“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
— From a speech by Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s great Foreign Ministers (and Prime Minister), on 1 March 1848.

This history is rich with lessons about the past and implications for the future. The accounts of this incident from Americans (such as Mattlock’s) are clearly biased. Most notably shown by the false story that the 1980 discussions with Soviet leaders were purely about NATO’s status in East Germany. While that was the focus, the broader issue of NATO in Eastern Europe was mentioned.

But these details only confuse the key point. Diplomacy is usually conducted as a contest between rivals. America’s leaders are not obligated to help Russia by ignoring their mistakes, such as relying on an insufficiently precise verbal agreement for such a key matter. NATO, led by America, took advantage of their errors. There was no betrayal.

On the other hand, this would have been a historic opportunity to go beyond the deal and forge (if not an alliance) a friendship with Russia by acknowledging that we could expand NATO into Eastern Europe, but negotiate conditions which made it unnecessary.

That would have been possible when Russia was weak during the 1990s. Such an agreement would have benefited Russia and America, as well as Europe and the world. We didn’t, probably because Russia is more useful to US elites as an enemy than a friend.

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