NATO's Eastward Expansion Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has accused the West of breaking promises made after the fall of the Iron Curtain, saying that NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe violated commitments made during the negotiations over German reunification. Newly discovered documents from Western archives support the Russian position.
No one in Russia can vent his anger over NATO's eastward expansion quite as vehemently as Viktor Baranez. The popular columnist with the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ("Komsomol Truth"), which has a readership of millions, is fond of railing against the "insidious and reckless" Western military alliance. Russia, Baranez writes, must finally stop treating NATO as a partner.
Baranez, a retired colonel who was the Defense Ministry's spokesman under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, asks why Russia should even consider joint maneuvers after being deceived by the West. NATO, he writes, "has pushed its way right up to our national borders with its guns." He also argues that, in doing so, NATO has broken all the promises it made during the process of German reunification.
There is widespread agreement among all political parties in Moscow, from the Patriots of Russia to the Communists to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, that the West broke its word and short-changed Russia when it was weak.
In an interview with SPIEGEL at his residence outside Moscow in early November, President Dmitry Medvedev complained that when the Berlin Wall came down, it had "not been possible to redefine Russia's place in Europe." What did Russia get? "None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration," Medvedev said.
The question of what Moscow was in fact promised in 1990 has sparked a historical dispute with far-reaching consequences for Russia's future relationship with the West. But what exactly is the truth?
The various players involved have different versions of events. Of course there was a promise not to expand NATO "as much as a thumb's width further to the East," Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president at the time, says in Moscow today. However, Gorbachev's former foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, says that there were no such assurances from the West. Even the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the Eastern military alliance, "was beyond our imagination," he says.
For years former US Secretary of State James Baker, Shevardnadze's American counterpart in 1990, has denied that there was any agreement between the two sides. But Jack Matlock, the US ambassador in Moscow at the time, has said in the past that Moscow was given a "clear commitment." Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister in 1990, says this was precisely not the case.
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.
On Feb. 10, 1990, between 4 and 6:30 p.m., Genscher spoke with Shevardnadze. According to the German record of the conversation, which was only recently declassified, Genscher said: "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." And because the conversion revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly: "As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general."
Shevardnadze replied that he believed "everything the minister (Genscher) said."
Not a Word
The year 1990 was one of major negotiations. Washington, Moscow, London, Bonn, Paris, Warsaw, East Berlin and many others were at odds over German unity, comprehensive European disarmament and a new charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Soviets insisted that everything be documented in writing, even when all that was at issue was the fate of Soviet military cemeteries in East Germany. However, the numerous agreements and treaties of the day contained not a single word about NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.
For this reason, the West argues, Moscow has no cause for complaint today. After all, the West did not sign anything regarding NATO expansion to the east. But is that tough stance fair?
At the beginning of 1990, the Soviet Union was still a world power with troops stationed at the Elbe River, and Hans Modrow, the former Dresden district chairman of the East German Communist Party, the SED, was in charge in East Berlin. But the collapse of the East German state was foreseeable.
Bonn's allies in Paris, London and Washington were concerned about the question of whether a unified Germany could be a member of NATO or, as had already happened in the past, would pursue a seesaw policy between east and west.
Genscher wanted to put an end to this uncertainty, and he said as much in a major speech to the West on Jan. 31, 1990 in Tutzing, a town in Bavaria. This was the reason, he said, why a unified Germany should be a member of NATO.
Moving with Caution
But how could the Soviet leadership be persuaded to support this solution? "I wanted to help them over the hurdle," Genscher told SPIEGEL. To that end, the German foreign minister promised, in his speech in Tutzing, that there would not be "an expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union." East Germany was not to be brought into the military structures of NATO, and the door into the alliance was to remain closed to the countries of Eastern Europe.
Genscher remembered what had happened during the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Some of the insurgents had announced their intention to join the Western alliance, giving Moscow the excuse to intervene militarily. In 1990, Genscher was trying to send a signal to Gorbachev that he need not fear such a development in the Soviet bloc. The West, Genscher indicated, intended to cooperate with the Soviet Union in bringing about change, not act as its adversary.
The plan that was proclaimed in Tutzing had not been coordinated with the chancellor or West German allies, and Genscher spent the next few days vying for their support.
As Genscher's chief of staff Frank Elbe later wrote, the German foreign minister had "moved with the caution of a giant insect that uses its many feelers to investigate its surroundings, prepared to recoil when it encounters resistance."
US Secretary of State James Baker, a pragmatic Texan, apparently "warmed to the proposal immediately," says Elbe today. On Feb. 2, the two diplomats sat down in front of the fireplace in Baker's study in Washington, took off their jackets, put their feet up and discussed world events. They quickly agreed that there was to be no NATO expansion to the East. "It was completely clear," Elbe comments.
- Part 1: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?
- Part 2: Calming Russian Fears