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Russias NATO Expansion Myth

It has recently been argued by some that Russia’s invasion and intrigue in the Ukraine was foreseeable and a natural consequence of NATO’s broken promise to Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapsing USSR not to expand eastwards into its former domains. Russian President Vladimir Putin is, so the theory goes, reacting to a 24-year program of US/NATO eastward expansion stemming from that broken promise. This is a grievance Russia has put forward in arguments against Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States joining NATO and again in 2008 when possible NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine was discussed. The ‘broken promise’ thesis was also offered to explain Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. The claim is that this course of events, or a similar one, was reasonably foreseeable, that some predicted it, and that it is a natural consequence. You reap what you sow. The problem is that NATO did not sow these seeds.

The myth that such a promise was made has been allowed to grow by assertion, speculation and incomplete information. More and more primary sources and memoirs of the participants in the negotiations between Washington, Bonn and Moscow have become available over time. There is a rich background of study of this particular controversy by academics such as Fred OldenbergMark KramerMary Elise Sarotte, and Kristina Spohr, among others. From the available interviews, memoirs, written documents, agreements, transcripts and notes on the multiple bilateral negotiations—from Soviet and East German sources as well as Western—it is clear the subject of the eastward expansion of NATO into former East bloc states was never discussed as a stand-alone issue and no such agreement or promise was given by Washington to Moscow. At a recent Council on Foreign Relations event, for example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said U.S. negotiators never agreed to such a thing at the time.

The closest the participants ever came to directly tackling the issue was at the very beginning of the negotiations quickly following the collapse of Eastern European governments and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. West Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher—more concerned with German issues than the larger Cold War—was concerned Moscow would take a hard line and wanted to make a pre-emptive offer to smooth their feathers—before the issue had ever been formally discussed between East and West—that a unified Germany would not be a member of NATO, but rather either neutral or a member of another strictly European organisation, the OSCE. Interestingly, Genscher became Chairman of the OSCE in 1991.

If NATO expansion was as vital an issue to Russia then as is claimed today, Moscow would and could have insisted on a clear statement of it in writing.

However, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl did not endorse even this view. It would essentially mean West Germany leaving NATO. The U.S. and UK also disagreed. NATO without West Germany would have significantly weakened the organisation, making it an almost solely an Anglo-American affair after France all but exited in 1966. The official West German, U.S. and UK positions in negotiations with Moscow never included Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s idea. NATO’s eastward expansion was only discussed in clear text in the context of German reunification—namely whether NATO troops would be allowed on former-East German soil. NATO took the position that they had to be, as it would make no sense to have unified Germany as a full member with security guarantees for only half the country. Moscow agreed in the 1990 Treaty on Final Settlement with Respect to Germany that, yes, reunited Germany would remain in NATO, but no NATO troops should be moved into former East Germany until after all Soviet troops had departed. NATO was held to and kept this promise. Arguably, as NATO’s security blanket now also covered eastern Germany, it already represented an eastward expansion of NATO—by way of agreement with Moscow.

If NATO expansion was as vital an issue to Russia then as is claimed today, Moscow would and could have insisted on a clear statement of it in writing. It certainly would and should have wanted more than verbal assurances given during ongoing and evolving diplomatic negotiations. Of course some argue this away by claiming Moscow was outsmarted or outmaneuvered by George HW Bush and Helmut Kohl and that the Soviets were under pressure to move quickly because of the impending collapse of Eastern European governments. Such a vital point must surely have been apparent to the Soviets. That former East bloc states may want to join the alliance one day was not so far outside the realm of possibilities. The idea had occurred to the U.S. State Department and Hungary and Poland were already discussing NATO membership in February 1990.

One important question should be asked: Why would NATO agree not to expand NATO eastwards? In 1990 the world held its breath at the prospect of the end of 45 years of Cold War. The United States and its trans-Atlantic partners had come out on top. Many in the Bush administration saw the job now as to help Gorbachev hold the situation together so that it did not descend into violent chaos. However, it would be extremely naïve to believe that the U.S. and its allies would agree to leave everything east of the Oder-Neisse Line alone, especially when they had finally won the Cold War. To do such a thing would fly in the face of 45 years of fighting a battle for democracy, capitalism and freedom against a communist vision of collectivism, oppression and stagnation. Why would NATO agree to forgo the fruits of victory? There is no written provision addressing NATO expansion contained in any of the agreements or communiques stemming from any of the negotiations. Those, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and  Americans such as former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, who assert such a promise was made have no concrete evidence to point to. They rely on retellings of flawed memories or the myths built from an assertion over time, all refuted by primary-source evidence. No such promise was ever made.

Regardless of the truth, the Russian government asserts, and many Russians undoubtedly believe, that such a promise was made and has been broken by NATO and the US specifically. Many others outside of Russia also believe it as an article of faith. Many want to believe it because it conforms to their Weltanschauung—worldview. With such cases, the truth is—sadly—unhelpful. Regardless of what was not promised, no less a personage than George Kennan asserted in 1998 that NATO expansion was unnecessary, that with the USSR gone there was no longer any threat and US support for continued expansion placed Russia up against a wall. Russia had to struggle to rebuild itself in a new post-Soviet image with a new role in Europe. Unable to join NATO or the EU, it watched as its former foe swallowed up more and more of its former satellites and crept into its ‘near abroad’. A reaction was to be expected. If this view is true, Vladimir Putin maintains a lingering Cold War imperialist mindset. Putin must see the 1990 negotiations, not as the final testament and rites of a dying empire, but as a sort of Neo-Potsdam Conference in which the Oder-Neisse Line was still being maintained, just with open borders, friendlier relations and looser control over satellites. Perhaps he considers it a bit like a much wider and more severe Polish or Prague Spring. He believes Russia was promised something by the US—that it would leave its near-abroad alone. He must also still believe Russia has a right to and shouldmaintain dominance over its bordering states, as in the time of the Czar and Stalin after him. He does not believe these nations have a right to independent self-determination.

Putin must refuse to believe that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Georgia and now the Ukraine determined themselves they wanted to join NATO and/or the EU. For Russia, it can only be that America—and its partners Britain and France—conned or cajoled these states into coming over to their side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. For Putin, there is only Russia and the US and every other state is just a piece on the game board. If this is all true, it is understandable why Vladimir Putin wants to believe the US promised to leave Eastern Europe to him and Russia in 1990. This thinking also portrays some wishful thinking on America’s part, hoping against hope for the ‘end of history’ and the ‘peace dividend’. It is true that NATO was conceived to collectively confront the Soviet threat, now gone. However, to believe that the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact meant that NATO was no longer necessary because the last great evil had been defeated portrays naïve thinking and perhaps the doomed repetition of history.

The West still has not learned some lessons. We believed WWI was the ‘war to end all wars’. It was not. We believed the same at the end of WWII in 1945 and again at the end of the Cold War in 1990. While threats from Islamic terror and atomic rogue states have been exaggerated over the last 15 years, the history of the 20th century shows that America and Europe still need NATO. The world is still a dangerous place in which collective security remains necessary. In fact, looking at individual European military forces and defense budgets, collective security under NATO is all they have. None maintains a fighting force capable of mounting any sizable operation without US support. History always returns. As with the dominant narrative of the Cold War, this thinking also leaves out the agency and will of other states besides the US and Russia. If the Cold War is truly over, then the Baltic and Eastern European states such as the Ukraine are not anymore just pawns or peons or customers to be convinced or coerced into choosing one side or the other. Even if such a promise had been made between NATO and Moscow 24 years ago—and it was not—they do not have the power to make decisions for these other countries today. They are sovereign, independent nations.

These states, their governments and their people control their own relations and chose to be members of NATO, the EU, the OSCE, and etcetera. After all, this freedom is what the US claimed to be fighting the Cold War for. It is within the Western rhetoric of freedom, independence and democracy. It was not the US or Europe who overthrew the Russian puppet government in the Ukraine in some Cold War-esque covert action—it was the Ukrainian people taking to the streets to demand change as they have several times over the last decade. To say that the US and its allies should have predicted and it was foreseeable that expanding NATO and considering Ukrainian EU membership would lead to a backlash from Russia is to ignore the individual will of Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians and reduce what they want to a secondary consideration. Anyone who claims this future was predictable based upon a false version of the past should be seriously questioned. Vladimir Putin believes Russia is entitled to control its neighboring states as in the days of the USSR and the Russian Empire. It is not entitled to, no matter what it falsely believes it was promised 24 years ago.

[Photo Source: NATO.int, May 21, 2014; General View of the Military Committee in Chiefs of Staff Session (MC/CS) Transformation Session]

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