January 3, 2022
10 minute reading time
It’s a bit more complicated with (Putin’s) claim that NATO broke Russia’s promise not to expand eastward, says author Michael Rühle. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, NATO’s eastward enlargement was seen as an absolutely fantastic opportunity. However, after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the Central European countries of the former Soviet bloc rightly applied for NATO membership because, unsurprisingly, they were scared and afraid of Russia. To deny them this possibility would be to confirm the division of Eastern and Western Europe for forty years and to deprive them of the right to self-determination.
In a speech to the Russian parliament on April 18, 2014, in which President Putin justified the annexation of Crimea, he highlighted the humiliation Russia had suffered due to numerous broken Western promises, including the alleged not to expand NATO beyond a united Germany. Putin struck a chord with his audience. For more than 20 years, the story of the so-called “broken promise” not to expand NATO eastward has been an integral part of Russia’s post-Soviet identity. It is therefore not surprising that this narrative resurfaces in the context of the Ukrainian crisis. Dealing with the past remains the most convenient tool for distracting attention from the present.
But is there any truth to these claims? In recent years, countless documents and other archival materials have become available, allowing historians to go beyond interviews or autobiographies of political leaders who were in power during key events between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and acceptance by the Soviet Union. of a United Germany, July 1990. However, even these other sources do not change the basic conclusion: there was never any political or legally binding commitment on the part of the West not to expand the NATO beyond the borders of a united Germany. However, it should come as no surprise that such a myth could have arisen. The rapid pace of political change at the end of the Cold War caused confusion. It was a time when legends could easily emerge.
The origin of the myth of the “broken promise” lies in the singular political situation in which the main political actors found themselves in 1990 and which shaped their ideas on the future European order. The reform policies of former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev have long spiraled out of control, the Baltic countries have demanded their independence and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have shown signs of upheaval. The Berlin Wall has fallen, Germany is on the way to unification. However, the Soviet Union still existed, as did the Warsaw Pact, whose member countries in Central and Eastern Europe did not speak of joining NATO, but rather of “dissolving the two blocs”.
The debate on NATO enlargement therefore developed exclusively in the context of German unification. During these negotiations, Bonn and Washington managed to dispel Soviet reservations about maintaining a united Germany in NATO. This was achieved thanks to generous financial aid and a “2+4 treaty” which excludes the deployment of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, this was also achieved through countless personal talks in which Gorbachev and other Soviet officials were assured that the West would not abuse the Soviet Union’s weaknesses and willingness to withdraw militarily. from central and eastern Europe.
It was these talks that may have given some Soviet politicians the impression that NATO enlargement, which began with the joining of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, was a violation of these Western commitments. Indeed, certain statements by Western politicians – notably German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher and his American counterpart James A. Baker – can be interpreted as a general rejection of any enlargement of NATO beyond the East Germany. However, these statements were made in the context of German unification negotiations, and the Soviet partners never responded to their concerns. This issue was never raised during the key “2+4” negotiations that ultimately led to Gorbachev accepting a united Germany as a member of NATO in July 1990. As the former Soviet minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze, the idea that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would collapse and that NATO would accept former members of the Warsaw Pact was inconceivable for the protagonists of the time.
However, even assuming that Genscher and others tried to prevent future NATO enlargement in light of Soviet security interests, they would never succeed. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 then created a whole new situation, as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe could finally assert their sovereignty and define their own foreign and security policy objectives. Since these goals centered on integration with the West, any outright refusal to join NATO would mean a de facto continuation of the division of Europe along previous Cold War lines. The right to choose an alliance, already enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Charter, would be denied – an approach the West could never sustain, politically or morally.
The problem of NATO enlargement
Does the absence of a promise not to expand NATO mean that the West has never had any commitments to Russia? Was the policy of expansion of Western institutions independent of Russian interests? The facts tell us something else. However, they also show that the dual objective of admitting the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO and at the same time developing a “strategic partnership” with Russia was much less compatible in practice than in theory.
When the enlargement of Central and Eastern Europe began to be seriously discussed over NATO enlargement around 1993, there was considerable controversy. In particular, some academic observers have opposed admitting new members to NATO, as it would inevitably antagonize Russia and threaten to undermine the positive results achieved since the end of the Cold War. After all, from the beginning of NATO’s enlargement process after the end of the Cold War, the main concern of the West was how to reconcile this process with Russia’s interests. That is why, from the outset, NATO has striven to create an environment conducive to enlargement, while building extremely strong relations with Russia. In 1994, military cooperation with virtually all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area was established under the Partnership for Peace program. In 1997, the NATO-Russia Founding Act established the Permanent Joint Council as a specialized framework for consultation and cooperation. In 2002, as the Allies prepared for another major round of NATO enlargement, the NATO-Russia Council was established, giving relations greater direction and structure. These measures were part of the continuation of the efforts made by the international community to give Russia its rightful place: Russia was admitted to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G7 and the World trade.
The need to avoid hostility from Russia was also evident in the way NATO’s military expansion unfolded. As early as 1996, the Allies declared that, in the current circumstances, they had “no intention, no plan, no reason to deploy nuclear weapons in the territory of the new members”. These statements were incorporated into the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, along with similar references to significant combat forces and infrastructure. This “soft” military approach to the enlargement process was meant to signal to Russia that the goal of NATO enlargement was not the military “encirclement” of Russia, but the integration of the Central and Eastern Europe in the Atlantic Security Zone.
Russia has never interpreted this development as sympathetically as NATO had hoped. For Russian Foreign Minister Primakov, the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 was only “damage limitation”: because Russia had no means of stopping the enlargement of the nato, it had no choice but to accept whatever the Allies were prepared to offer, even at the risk of appearing to agree with the enlargement process. The basic contradiction of all NATO-Russia bodies – that Russia was at the negotiating table and could co-decide but could not veto key issues – has not been overcome.
However, these institutional shortcomings have faded against the backdrop of real political conflicts. NATO’s military intervention in the Kosovo crisis was interpreted in Moscow as a geopolitical coup in the West, which aimed to marginalize Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. NATO’s approach to missile defence, although aimed at third countries, has been interpreted in Moscow as an attempt to weaken Russia’s second nuclear strike capability. Worse, the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine and the ‘Pink Revolution’ in Georgia brought to power elites who envisioned their country’s future in the EU and NATO.
In this context, Western arguments about the benefits of NATO enlargement have never – and probably never will – carried much weight. The appeal to Russia to recognize the benefits of NATO enlargement misses the most important point: NATO enlargement – like European Union enlargement – is designed as a project of continental unification. It therefore has no “end point” that can be intellectually or morally convincingly defined. In other words, precisely because the enlargement processes of the two organizations are not designed as anti-Russian projects, they have an open end and – paradoxically – will necessarily be perceived by Russia as a permanent attack on its position. and its influence. As long as Russia avoids an honest debate about why so many of its neighbors are trying to orient themselves to the West, that won’t change – and NATO-Russia relations will continue to be haunted by the myths of the past instead to look to the future.