Gordon M. HAHN
Some have tried to debunk the view that the West implicitly or explicitly promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand east after German reunification and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact). These claims are misleading and obfuscate the historical record of at least a clear understanding, if not promise that there should be no NATO expansion eastward in any way, shape or form. At the very least the West made a implied commitment not to expand NATO east. It is more precise to say, however, that the West gave an explicit verbal, that is, unwritten guarantee not to expand NATO beyond a united Germany; something both sides understood. This broken promise or understanding and the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders has led now to the misnamed ‘new cold war.’
One commentator, for example, argues there was no promise, claiming the discussions only touched on NATO deployments to the territory of what would become the former GDR after German reunification. But the writer obfuscates the meaning of a recent Gorbachev statement in making his claim. He quotes Gorbachev from an RBTH interview this way: “‘The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled'”.
To be sure, Pifer acknowledges that Gorbachev also said that NATO’s expansion beyond Germany was “a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990”. The vagueness lies in the fact, as Gorbachev notes, that NATO expansion per se was never explicitly discussed. How can something that was not discussed be considered a violation of a trust when it later happens? Because it was assumed by all sides and implied by various Western statements that the West understood that USSR was opposed to NATO expanding to the former GDR’s territory, no less its expanding much farther east, and that per the 1990 discussions it was implicitly understood that NATO would not expanding to GDR territory or anywhere further east.
This becomes evident in reading a more precise rendering of the Baker-Gorbachev exchange than the one Pifer presents, and RBTH managed to get Gorbachev to expound on. In reality, new archival documents show that Baker said to Gorbachev: “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?” As one author notes: “Baker’s phrasing of the second, more attractive option meant that NATO’s jurisdiction would not even extend to East Germany, since NATO’s ‘present position’ in February 1990 remained exactly where it had been throughout the Cold War: with its eastern edge on the line still dividing the two Germanies. In other words, a united Germany would be, de facto, half in and half out of the alliance. According to Baker, Gorbachev responded, ‘Certainly any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.’ This means that their discussion implied an assumption that the discussion was about any kind of expansion anywhere to the east, whether in Germany or elsewhere. Other statements and discussions further suggest that the assumption was there should be no NATO expansion eastward in any way. That assumption means a tacit agreement was reached.
An Assumed and Implied Promise Broken
At a minimum, the West certainly gave the impression during talks on Germany’s reunification in early 1990 that it was promising Moscow that NATO at the least for some time would not take in any new members besides reunified Germany or take advantage of the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact in any way. This approximates the position of then US Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock. Western diplomats’ language in discussions with Soviet officials, moreover, resembled full-fledged promises not to expand NATO beyond Germany, and it is no surprise the Soviets perceived it that way. For all intents and purposes, there was a de facto promise not to expand NATO after united Germany’s incorporation into the Atlantic alliance. The sum of the discussions at the time makes this clear.
On 9 November 1990, for example, US Secretary of State James Baker told Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin’s St. Catherine Hall that NATO would not expand beyond reunified Germany “one inch in the eastern direction” if NATO even maintained its presence in Germany after reunification. He added: “We think that consultations and discussions within the framework of the mechanism ‘Two Plus Four’ should give a guarantee that the unification of Germany will not lead to the spreading of the military organization NATO to the East” (Yevgenii Primakov, Gody v Bolshoi Politike (Moscow: Sovershenno Sekretno, 1999), pp. 231-32 and Uwe Klussman, Matthias Schepp, and Klaus Wiegrefe, “NATO’s Eastward Expansion: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?,” Der Spiegel, 26 November 2009). Baker now claims he never made any such promise. However, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s chief of staff, Frank Elbe, has written that when he met with Baker on 2 February 1990, the two agreed that there was to be no NATO expansion to the East and this would be communicated to the Soviets to facilitate their acceptance of reunified Germany’s entrance into the alliance (Klussman, Schepp, and Wiegrefe, “NATO’s Easteward Expansion: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?”). In his 1995 memoir, Gorbachev remembers Baker asking him: “Assuming that (German) reunification takes place, what is preferable for you: a united Germany outside NATO, fully independent without American troops, or a united Germany preserving ties to NATO but under a guarantee that NATO jurisdiction and troops will not spread to the east from today’s position.” Gorbachev says that although he did not commit to either of these at that time, “the latter part of Baker’s phrase became the nucleus of the formula on the basis of which compromise on Germany’s military-political status was later reached.” (Mikhail Gorbachev, Zhizni i reform, Kniga 2, Moscow, Novosti, 1995, p. 167).
According to declassified German documents, on 10 February 1990, FRG Foreign Minister Genscher told his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze: “We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east” (James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War, Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2003, pp. 184-5). Videos of Genscher’s and Baker’s 1990 statements to the press promising NATO would not expand beyond Germany are readily available (“Abmachung 1990: ‘Keine Osterweiterung der NATO’ – Aussenminister Gensher & Baker,” Antikrieg TV, 6 July 2014). However, weeks later Baker was claiming he already was getting signals that “Central European countries wanted to join NATO,” to which Genscher responded that they “should not touch this at this point.” The exchange seems to suggest that at least Genscher did not necessarily see the commitment not to expand NATO as permanent or one encompassing the east outside the GDR (Klussman, Schepp, and Wiegrefe, “NATO’s Eastward Expansion: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?”). Although some, perhaps all of these pledges came in discussions of a possible NATO expansion to the former GDR’s territory as part of the FRG after reunification, the assumption at the time was that expansion beyond the GDR was unthinkable. Since Western and Soviet leaders were agreeing that a unified Germany could join NATO, the promises not to expand to the east had to mean not to do so anywhere beyond the GDR.
In other discussions explicit pledges appear to have been made not to expand NATO beyond the GDR. In his memoir, the late former Russian Foreign Minister (January 1996 – September 1998), Prime Minister (September 1998 – September 1999), and perestroika-era Politburo and Presidential Council member Yevgenii Primakov quotes Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry archival documents from various meetings, showing Baker, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister John Major, and French President Francois Mitterand all telling Gorbachev in February and March 1990 that former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe would not become NATO members. In addition, British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd told Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh in March that there “were no plans” to expand NATO beyond united Germany (Primakov, Gody v Bolshoi Politike, pp. 231-33). Finally, in June 1991, NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner said publicly that granting NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact members “would be a serious obstacle to reaching mutual understanding with the Soviet Union” (TASS, June 16, 1991).” Thus, again, what seems clear is that there was at least a joint assumption and informal agreement that NATO would not expand to the east beyond the GDR.
Many Russians, including Primakov, would later harshly criticize Gorbachev with justification (and hindsight’s advantage) for failing to codify this in a signed agreement (Primakov, Gody v Bolshoi Politike, p. 233). Claiming this was possible, none of them can produce evidence they proposed this to Gorbachev or his inner circle. These were heady days of rapprochement and hopes for peace in a ‘common European home’ from Paris to Vladivostok. Some would say they were days of naivete` soon trumped by cynicism. In memoirs Gorbachev’s closest advisor, Georgii Shakhnazarov, lamented the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution without “achieving the liquidation of NATO.” He added: “This is just a question of time. One should not regret the end of the military blocs. They are Europe’s yesterday. In (Europe), security should, of course, be built on a rational, collective basis” (Georgii Shakhnazarov, Tsena Svobody: Reformatsiya Gorbacheva glazami ego pomoshnika, Moscow, Rissika-Zevs, 1993, p. 128).
With the decision made to expand without Russia, American hubris was communicated to Moscow in no uncertain terms by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, whom President Barack Obama dubbed “one of the giants of American foreign policy” after the former’s passing in 2010 (Robert D. McFadden, “Strong American Voice in Diplomacy and Crisis,” New York Times, 13 December 2010). At a Washington conference in 1997, Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. Yuli Vorontsov reported how Holbrooke and other U.S. officials repeatedly and sometimes abruptly rejected queries regarding Russia’s possible entry into NATO: “When the decision was originally floated, I came to the State Department and had a long talk with the then assistant secretary of state, Mr. Holbrooke. I said, ‘Have you thought about Russia while you were putting forward this idea of enlargement of NATO?’ And his answer was very honest. He said, ‘No, not at all; you have nothing to do with that.’ ‘Aha,’ I said, ‘that is very interesting, and what about an invitation for Russia to join the enlarged NATO?’ He said, ‘Anybody but Russia! No’. That was a nice beginning of our conversations about enlargement of NATO in the State Department and later on in the corridors of power in Washington. And from all quarters I received that kind of answer: ‘Anyone but Russia. Not you!’” (Yuli Vorontsov, “NATO Enlargement Without Russia: A Mistake on Four Counts,” The NATO-Russian Charter and the Emerging Relationship, Russia and NATO International Panel, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., February 1997.
The Implications of Promise Broken: Maximal Distrust
The increasingly cynical realism of Russian foreign policy as successive rounds of NATO expanded to Russia’s borders as well as the hyper-cynicism of much of Putin’s foreign policy at present have their roots in Russian disenchantment that resulted from NATO expansion. The most crucial contingent cause of the present Russo-West and Ukrainian crises was NATO expansion without the inclusion of Russia. From its outset, post-Soviet Russia was a potential threat to its neighbors and the West, especially if not integrated into the West. That potential, however, needed to be actualized to become an actual or kinetic threat. Potential’s actualization was contingent on policies—whether Western or Russian—that isolated and/or alienated Russia from the West. The expansion of Western institutions, especially NATO – world history’s most powerful military-political bloc – to Russia’s borders without Russia’s inclusion in the bloc gradually actualized the Russian threat. Moreover, NATO expansion without Russia institutionalized and reinforced the geopolitical and civilizational divides Mackinderians, Huntingtonians, and neo-Eurasianists on both sides of the Atlantic perceived.
There were several aspects of the 1993-95 discussion, the 1995 decision and 1997 implementation of the first round of NATO expansion that brought Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into the military alliance which altered the Soviet-American and Russian-American early post-Cold War honeymoon. First, the decision to expand NATO eastward broke the trust and implied if not explicit promise not to so expand and thus take advantage of the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution. Second, the U.S. policy made no extra effort to entice Russia into NATO commensurate with the country’s great power status. To the contrary, policymakers appear to have discouraged, if not outright rejected Russian overtures. Third, NATO enlargement shifted the correlation of forces in Russian domestic politics from support for, to opposition against Westernization and democratization. Fourth, NATO expansion undermined Russian national security vis-à-vis NATO. This not only further alienated the Russian power ministries or siloviki from the West and Russia’s pro-Western leadership, it humiliated Russia’s proud military and national security establishment. This was all the more so, since NATO’s more forward-leaning configuration required adjustments to Russian force structure, defense procurement, and military and national security doctrines, many of which Moscow was in no position to carry out because of the dire economic depression into which the collapse of the USSR had plunged the country.
The idealistic and naïve Russians of the democratic perestroika generation learned a harsh lesson from the partner they hoped for in the United States. The lone superpower, increasingly hubristic hegemon, ‘victor in the Cold War’ – the United States – demonstrated that Russian national security, even domestic stability placed a distant second when it came not just to America’s maintenance of its position as world leader but also to the unlimited enhancement of U.S. power globally and especially within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
One can discount the promise, implied promise, assumed promise to one’s liking. But more than the spirt of statements and assurances was broken along with the ‘promise’. The spirit of that minimal trust that Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had built up between our two countries’ elites and peoples was gravely undermined. It would be fatally undermined with each successive round of NATO expansion.