NATO's Eastward Expansion Is Vladimir Putin Right?

Vladimir Putin insists that the West cheated Russia by expanding NATO eastward following the end of the Cold War. Is there anything to his claims? The short answer: It's complicated.
U.S. troops during a military exercise in Bavaria. The issue of NATO expansion has poisoned the relationship between the West and Moscow in recent decades.

U.S. troops during a military exercise in Bavaria. The issue of NATO expansion has poisoned the relationship between the West and Moscow in recent decades.

Foto: Armin Weigel / dpa

In September 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin wrote a long letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton. The letter, addressed to "Dear Bill," began with a mention of the two leaders’ "candid exchange of opinions." And then Yeltsin let loose.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were interested in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was a source of concern to the Russian president. Of course, Yeltsin noted, every country can decide for itself what alliance it would like to be a part of. But the Russian public, he continued, saw the eastern expansion of NATO as "as a sort of neo-isolation" of Russia, a factor, he insisted, that must be taken into account. Yeltsin also made a reference to the Two Plus Four Treaty pertaining to Germany’s reunification in 1990. "The spirit of the treaty," he wrote, "precludes the option of expanding the NATO zone into the East."

That letter marked the first time that Russia had accused the West of having broken its word. And despite the fact that the Americans rejected the accusation, a resolution to the conflict has never been found – a situation which has had far-reaching consequences stretching to the present-day. There is essentially no other historical issue that has poisoned relations between Moscow and the West as much in the last three decades as the disagreement over what, precisely, was agreed to in 1990.

DER SPIEGEL 7/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2022 (February 11th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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"You Cheated Us Shamelessly"

In the years since Yeltsin sent his letter, NATO has accepted 14 countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe into the alliance. And the Kremlin has complained of having been duped every step of the way. Just recently, current Russian President Vladimir Putin complained: "You cheated us shamelessly."

The focus of the Kremlin’s ire is no longer exclusively on the Two Plus Four deal, but essentially on all accords negotiated since the fall of the Berlin Wall. "You promised us in the 1990s that (NATO) would not move an inch to the East," Putin said in late January. And he is using that history to justify his current demands for written guarantees that Ukraine will never be accepted into the Western alliance.

But that’s not all. At the end of January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote an open letter to his Western counterparts in which he cited additional understandings. In particular, he focused on the Charter for European Security, rooted in agreements reached in 1990. East and West had concurred at the time that every country has a right to freely choose the alliance it wished to be part of, while also emphasizing the "indivisibility of security." Later, that became "the obligation of each State not to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of other States," as Lavrov explicitly mentions in his letter.

So, is Putin right in feeling that Russia has been duped by NATO’s eastward expansion?

There is no lack of accounts from a variety of witnesses to the various discussions between the West and Moscow following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1990, a veritable army of politicians and high-ranking officials from Moscow, Washington, Paris, London, Bonn and East Berlin met for discussions on German reunification, on the disarmament of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and on a new charter for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) – which became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1995.

"Categorical Assurances"

But the recollections of those involved aren’t always consistent. Roland Dumas, who served as the French foreign minister in 1990, would later say that a pledge was made that NATO troops would not advance closer to the territory of the former Soviet Union. But the U.S. secretary of state at the time, James Baker, has denied that any such promise was ever made – a claim that some of his own diplomats, however, have contradicted. Jack Matlock, who was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time, has said that "categorical assurances" were given to the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand eastward.

The versions of the talk provided by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, are particularly confusing. On one occasion, he said that German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Americans had promised him that NATO "will not move one centimeter further east." But in another instance, he said that "the topic of NATO expansion was never discussed" – yet he nevertheless insisted that the West had violated the spirit of the agreements reached at the time.

Luckily, there are plenty of documents available from the various countries that took part in the talks, including memos from conversations, negotiation transcripts and reports. According to those documents, the U.S., the UK and Germany signaled to the Kremlin that a NATO membership of countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic was out of the question. In March 1991, British Prime Minister John Major promised during a visit to Moscow that "nothing of the sort will happen." Yeltsin expressed significant displeasure when the step was ultimately taken. He gave his approval for NATO’s eastward expansion in 1997, but complained that he was only doing so because the West had forced him to.

There is, of course, no legally binding agreement between the two sides from the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The verdict as to whether the West has broken its word depends entirely on how binding one believes the assurances made by Major and the others actually were.

The wrestling over NATO’s eastward expansion began in January 1990 with an initiative from German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Across Eastern Europe, the people had toppled Moscow’s satellite governments, and Genscher was concerned about the Kremlin’s possible response. He still had vivid memories of the 1956 uprising in Hungary. When an element of the rebellion sought to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and establish closer ties to the West, the Soviets moved in to crush the rebellion. Genscher wanted to avoid a repeat, and he was prepared to make broad concessions to the Kremlin.

Boris Yeltsin with Bill Clinton in 1997: He agreed to NATO's eastern expansion in 1997, but complained the West had forced him into it.

Boris Yeltsin with Bill Clinton in 1997: He agreed to NATO's eastern expansion in 1997, but complained the West had forced him into it.

Foto: Heikki Saukkomaa / AP

In a Jan. 31, 1990, speech, he proposed that NATO issue a statement saying: "Whatever happens to the Warsaw Pact, there will be no expansion of NATO territory to the east and closer to the borders of the Soviet Union." Genscher’s speech was well received by the allied governments in Britain, the U.S., France and Italy. In a discussion with his counterpart in London, Genscher said that he needed reassurances that "Hungary would not become part of the Western alliance in the event of a change in government."

His American counterpart Baker "wasn’t exactly elated" by the idea, but considered it to be "the best we had at the moment." The primary concern among the Western allies was whether a united Germany would remain in NATO, and not the future of Eastern European countries, all of which were still in the Warsaw Pact.

An Issue Settled

In early February, Genscher and Baker presented the idea in Moscow independently of one another. The German foreign minister assured the Kremlin that: "For us, it is a certainty that NATO will not expand to the east. And that applies generally," clearly meaning beyond just East Germany. The American, for his part, offered "ironclad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward." When Gorbachev said that NATO expansion was "unacceptable," Baker responded: "We agree with that."

Later, Baker would say that his exclusive focus had been on Germany. Apparently, he was uncomfortable with having negotiated with the Soviets to the detriment of Budapest and Warsaw. Genscher would also play down the importance of his visit to Moscow, later saying that he had wanted to "gauge" the Soviet response, nothing more. A short time after that, the Two Plus Four negotiations began, extending into September 1990. The Soviets, Genscher said, never returned to the question of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, a fact he interpreted to mean that the issue had been settled.

There is room for doubt regarding this version of events. As early as February 1990, it was no secret that some Eastern European countries had begun dreaming of eventual NATO membership. Newspapers were writing about it and Soviet officials mentioned it on a number of occasions to Western politicians. Without success. The West only provided general statements of reassurance. U.S. President George H. W. Bush, for example, said: "We have no intention, even in our thoughts, to harm the Soviet Union in any fashion." French President François Mitterrand told Gorbachev that he was "personally in favor of gradually dismantling the military blocs." NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner later expressed his clear opposition to the expansion of the Western alliance.

The message was clear. If Gorbachev were to provide his acquiescence for German reunification within NATO, the West would aim at establishing a Western security architecture that took Moscow’s interests into account.

Informal assurances were not unusual during the Cold War. U.S. political scientist Joshua Shifrinson compares the 1990 discussions with the verbal agreements made between the Americans and Soviets that led to the easing of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

This view of the situation is supported by the fact that it was extremely difficult for Gorbachev to accept NATO membership for a reunited Germany. It is difficult to imagine that the Kremlin boss would have agreed to such a step if he had believed that the pledges from Bonn, London, Paris or Washington were anything but genuine. In fact, the German government ultimately had to accept a special status for the states that formerly belonged to East Germany, guaranteeing that the region would in principle not play host to troops from NATO alliance members or any other country.

Given the documents available, some even speculate that the West intentionally misled the Soviets from the very beginning. A few weeks after his trip to the Kremlin, in any case, Baker expressly told Genscher that some Eastern European countries were eager to join NATO, engendering Genscher’s response that the issue "shouldn’t be touched for now." A formulation which kept all options on the table for later.

The U.S. administration at the time also included influential hardliners like Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and his neo-conservative undersecretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz. These were men who dreamed of developing the U.S. into the only global superpower, and saw NATO primarily as a tool to assert U.S. dominance in Europe. The interest shown by countries in Eastern Europe in joining the alliance was helpful in that regard. The Defense Department urged that NATO leave "the door ajar."

Such statements would seem to support Putin’s assertions that the West has "cheated" Russia intentionally. Nonetheless, that view, in its simplicity, is erroneous.

The 1990s was the decade of good intentions and vast illusions, on both sides. Gorbachev promised that the Kremlin would introduce democracy, respect human rights and recognize the right of countries to self-determination. He even broached the possibility that the Soviet Union itself could become a member of NATO. His successor Yeltsin expressed a similar confidence, claiming that "we are becoming a different country."

Growing Distrust

The eastern empire looked for a time as though it was ready for reform. And with that impression foremost in their minds, Kohl, Genscher, Bush and his successor Clinton really did want to transform NATO and take the Kremlin’s interests seriously. There was, however, one potentially significant contradiction: On the one hand, all countries were allegedly united by the "indivisibility of security," while on the other, each country allegedly had the right to decide which alliance it wanted to join. Still, that seemed at the time to be nothing more than a theoretical problem.

On top of that, Clinton, Kohl and the others spent years rejecting NATO membership for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Such an expansion was viewed as too expensive, the fledgling democracies in those countries appeared too fragile and their militaries were too reactionary. But then, the reform process in Russia slowed and distrust began to grow. And the Republicans, for their part, realized that the issue of expanded NATO membership was useful for scoring political points against Clinton. Many Americans with Eastern European roots lived in the decisive swing states in the Midwest. Leading Clinton to ultimately decide to expand the alliance.

In doing so, the West didn’t break any treaties, but some participants were concerned nevertheless. Years later, Genscher said that the expansion was just fine from a formally legal point of view. But it was impossible to deny, he said, that it was counter to the spirit of the understandings reached in 1990.

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