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[The West] have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. — Vladimir Putin.
It is not just Russian President Vladimir Putin who has accused the western NATO members of having deceived Russia about their plans for NATO’s eastward expansion. In discussions of the strained relationship between Russia and NATO often turns to how NATO’s eastward expansion in 1999 and 2004 broke a promise made to the Soviet Union in the negotiations that led to of German reunification (for example: Nick Ottens, “Russia’s Crimea invasion Follows Decades of Perceived Humiliation“, Offiziere.ch, May 03, 2014). Judging whether NATO’s extension beyond its 1991 borders represents a broken promise or agreement is a fundamental moral assessment of the defense alliance. This is all the more important because, in 1999, NATO defied international law with Operation “Allied Force” and began bombing Serbian territory (still a part of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the time) without the consent of the UN Security Council. Critics of NATO readily saw this operation and that year’s initial eastward expansion of NATO as a power grab on the offense, sufficient grounds for Russia to perceive a threat from the Western defense alliance.
Offiziere.ch already addressed this issue with a 2015 post that was completely rewritten taking into account newly declassified documents at the end of 2017. The question remains, however: Could Russia assume on the basis of Western assurances that NATO would not extend its sphere of influence further east? To what extent was NATO’s eastward expansion a broken promise or even a breach of an agreement?
In answering these questions, a distinction must be made between two different sets of negotiations which ultimately affected one another: the negotiations on German reunification and those on a new European security structure, addressed in Chapters 1 and 2, respectively. Chapter 3 takes up the events in 1999 when the actual breach of trust between Russia and the NATO members occurred which would be so decisive for the subsequent relationship between NATO and Russia.
1 – The negotiations on German reunification
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the inner-German border in autumn 1989, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was asking itself whether its continued existence was justified. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl took advantage of the opportunity and sought the fastest possible path to reunification. He had already indicated such plans to U.S. President George H. W. Bush on November 17, 1989.
At the political level, German reunification was first discussed in Kohl’s Ten-Point Plan on November 28, 1989. Since only a handful of politicians were informed about the project, he surprised both international and German politicians with the proposed gradual approach to unifying Germany and Europe. Although the ten points include a further evolution of the important process for European security that took place in the 1970s during the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), far-reaching and rapid steps towards disarmament and arms control, the ten points did not address whether a reunited Germany would participate in alliances (Markus Lingen, “Kalender: 28.11.1989, Geschichte der CDU, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung“).This question was first addressed by German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher at the end of January 1990 in a speech at the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing. Genscher proposed a reunited Germany within NATO, however, without extending its military infrastructure to the territory of the GDR. He argued that the reunification of Germany would not lead to any impairment of Soviet security interests. For this reason, NATO should refrain from expanding eastwards towards the Soviet border. Genscher saw the basis for the future European security architecture in a cooperative partnership between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which would concentrate more on a political role (U.S. Departement of State, “U.S. Embassy Bonn Confidential Cable to Secretary of State on the Speech of the German Foreign Minister: Genscher Outlines His Vision of a New European Architecture“, The National Security Archive, February 01, 1990).
The “Tutzing formula” formed the basis for the initial round of negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the beginning of February 1990. Baker made assurances three times that NATO would “not move an inch towards the east” and that NATO expansion would also be unacceptable for the United States (“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow. (Excerpts)“, The National Security Archive, February 09, 1990). Afterward, Baker jotted down the following note: “End result: Unified Ger. anchored in a changed (polit.) NATO — whose juris. would not move eastward!” (Mary Elise Sarotte, “A Broken Promise?“, Foreign Affairs, August 11, 2014).
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|Baker:||I want to ask you a question, and you need not answer it right now. Supposing unification takes place, what would you prefer: a united Germany outside of NATO, absolutely independent and without American troops; or a united Germany keeping its connections with NATO, but with the guarantee that NATO’s jurisprudence or troops will not spread east of the present boundary?|
|Gorbachev:||We will think everything over. We intend to discuss all these questions in depth at the leadership level. It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.|
|Baker:||We agree with that.|
Quelle: “Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow. (Excerpts)“, The National Security Archive, February 09, 1990).
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It was only after the “London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance” issued at the end of the NATO summit in early July 1990 that the Soviet Union came back to the table for continued negotiations on German reunification. This declaration provided for an increased emphasis on the political aspects of NATO and a strengthening of the CSCE. Following a bilateral meeting between Kohl and Gorbachev in July 1990 and an emotional telephone conversation in September, Kohl convinced Gorbachev (or “bought him off”, as some would claim, for 15 billion marks) to let a reunited Germany belong to NATO. At the end of the negotiations, the agreed terms were formally laid down in the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany“, which was signed in Moscow on September 12, 1990. Article 5 of the treaty sets out the following points:
- until the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from the former GDR, only personnel in the Bundeswehr that were not part of NATO could be deployed to the territory of the former GDR;
- the force strength and quantity of equipment belonging to US, British, and French troops stationed in Berlin could not be increased;
- after the Soviet withdrawal, German forces assigned to NATO could be station on the territory of the former GDR, but no foreign forces or nuclear weapons.
Future membership in the NATO alliance was a key negotiating point in the reunification of Germany. Verbal assurances that NATO would not expand eastwards and the “London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance” were decisive factors in overturning Gorbachev’s initial reservations about allowing a reunified Germany to join NATO. The Western assurances must, however, be judged in the context of that time, when the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was not yet foreseeable and reunited Germany’s border with Poland bordered directly with a member state of the Warsaw Pact (Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia“, The Washington Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, April 2009, p. 39–61). Baker’s promise of “not one inch eastward” referred to the territory of the former GDR, no more and no less, was subsequently also formally stipulated in the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany”.
2 – Negotiations on a new European security structure
The Western side repeatedly stressed to Gorbachev that the US and NATO would take the interests of the Soviet Union into account. For example, at the Malta Summit at the beginning of December 1989, US President Bush verbally assured Gorbachev that the US would not take advantage of the upheavals in Eastern Europe to the detriment of the Soviet Union (Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard“, National Security Archive, December 12, 2017). In February 1990, Genscher discussed with British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd the possibility of an eastward expansion of NATO into the territory of the Central and Eastern European states as part of the negotiations on German reunification. He argued that the Soviet Union would need guarantees that the Polish government, for example, would not one day leave the Warsaw Pact and join NATO the next day (“Mr. Hurd to Sir C. Mallaby (Bonn). Telegraphic N. 85: Secretary of State’s Call on Herr Genscher: German Unification“, The National Security Archive, February 06, 1990). Genscher also told Baker that NATO should not be extended to the territory of the former GDR or anywhere else in Central and Eastern Europe. Baker agreed with this view (Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?: The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion”, International Security, vol. 40, no. 4, May 10, 2016, p. 22). Later, in April 1990, Hurd also assured Gorbachev that Britain would take no action that would undermine Soviet interests and dignity. At this meeting, Gorbachev expressed his idea of a European security structure covering the territory from the Atlantic to the Urals (“Sir R. Braithwaite (Moscow). Telegraphic N. 667: ‘Secretary of State’s Meeting with President Gorbachev'”, The National Security Archive, April 11, 1990). A report by Baker to Bush after a meeting with the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on May 4, 1990, describes the wording of the Western heads of state towards Gorbachev as follows:
I used your speech and our recognition of the need to adapt NATO, politically and militarily, and to develop CSCE to reassure Shevardnadze that the process would not yield winners and losers. Instead, it would produce a new legitimate European structure – one that would be inclusive, not exclusive. — Stellungnahme des U.S.-Aussenminister James A. Baker an den U.S. Präsident George H. W. Bush.
In a later meeting in May 1990, Gorbachev expressed initial concerns to Baker that the US wanted to separate the Eastern European states from the Soviet Union. At the same time, he suggested that a new overarching security structure should replace both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Baker confirmed his view that the US goal was not to separate Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union. The US would be interested in creating a stable Europe in cooperation with the Soviet Union. In nine points, he promised the transformation of NATO into a political organization, the strengthening of security structures within Europe by the further development of the CSCE, the securing of a Germany not equipped with weapons of mass destruction, and the inclusion of Soviet security interests (“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow“, p. 3f, 19, 21ff). These assurances finally led to the “London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance” at the NATO summit in July 1990, which made the negotiations for German reunification possible and was regarded by the Soviet side as a significant milestone for the future of the European security structure. With this declaration, Gorbachev was able to confront the hardliners in his government and argue that the US was serious about transforming the European security structure to include the Soviet Union. However, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact on July 1, 1991, and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of that year fundamentally changed the European security structure and created a power vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe that should not be underestimated.
There is evident movement in NATO towards a transformation, with an emphasis on the political range of action. In London, a big step was taken to throw off the shackles of the past. The fact that the Soviet Union is no longer regarded as an enemy by the West is very important for the development of plans for the future. — Michail S. Gorbatschow in einem Vier-Augen-Gespräch mit Helmut Kohl am 15. Juli 1990 in Moskau.
Now the West has no argument to say no to Poland. Until now the West has been using the argument, ‘We don’t want to upset the Russians.’ Now we will see the true intentions of the West toward Poland. — Andrzej Drzycimski, Sprecher des polnischen Präsidenten Lech Walesa nach der Rede von Boris Jelzin im August 1993 in Warschau zitiert in Jane Perlez, “Yeltsin ‘Understands’ Polish Bid for a Role in NATO“, The New York Times, 26.08.1993).
On the U.S. side, Yeltsin’s letter led to the idea of the “Partnership for Peace” (PfP), which was first presented to Yeltsin on October 22, 1993, by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Yeltsin was assured that the PfP would cover all European states, including Russia. However, Christopher also mentioned in his conversation that the PfP would serve as a basis for long-term NATO membership – “PFP [sic!] today, enlargement tomorrow”. However, Yeltsin and his advisers failed to hear this part of the message (“Secretary Christopher’s Meeting with President Yeltsin, 10/22/93, Moscow“, The National Security Archive, October 25, 1993). Rather, they saw the PfP as a successor to NATO (Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton, “NATO Expansion: What Yeltsin Heard“, National Security Archive, March 16, 2018). In a direct conversation in January 1994, Clinton informed Yeltsin that the US did not want to speed up NATO’s eastward expansion, but that Russia had no veto rights on this issue.
In response to a NATO study initiated by U.S. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke on the “how and why” of new member states, Yeltsin reiterated in a letter to Clinton his hope that the CSCE would be expanded into a fully-fledged European security organization (“Official Informal No. 248 ‘Boris-Bill Letter’“, The National Security Archive, 06.12.1994). Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev refused to sign the PfP in December 1994, when he was annoyed by Holbrooke’s insistence. Yeltsin also surprised Clinton at the CSCE summit in Budapest with the question of why NATO member states viewed Russia with suspicion. Clinton then clarified once again that no country outside NATO would have a veto right in any membership applications (Elaine Sciolino, “Yeltsin Says Nato Is Trying to Split Continent Again“, The New York Times, December 06, 1994). At a meeting with Yeltsin in May 1995, Clinton stressed that Yeltsin could not prevent the Central and Eastern European countries from joining NATO, although the timing of their accession could be influenced. Yeltsin then seemed increasingly willing to accept NATO’s eastward expansion if it took place after Russian parliamentary and presidential elections in 1996 to avoid any negative domestic influence on his political future (“Summary Report on One-on-One Meeting between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, May 10, 1995, Kremlin“, The National Security Archive, May 10, 1995).
Domestically, however, the situation in Russia was different. Not surprisingly, the Russian military saw NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat (thus stated the Russian military doctrine of November 1993). There was also increasing opposition in the Duma: in a closed hearing in April 1995, concerns were expressed that the US wanted to exploit the power gap with Russia to such an extent that Russia would retain the status of a junior partner on a permanent basis. NATO’s eastward enlargement was seen as a threat to Russia’s national security interests and the security of Europe. Ignoring Russian interests were perceived as isolating Russia from the rest of Europe (Vladimir Lukin, “Information Memorandum on the Results of the Parliamentary Hearing on the Subject: ‘Russian-American Relations’“, Committee of Foreign Affairs, April 25, 1995).
It is true that the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany” referred only to the reunification of Germany, and that otherwise there was no written assurance that NATO would not expand to Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the informal and formal talks and the negotiations on a new European security structure which continued after the reunification of Germany could not simply be ignored. At the end of his term as Soviet President, Gorbachev was credibly assured that NATO would not expand into the territory of the Central and Eastern European states. At the same time, however, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union did fundamentally change the European security structure. Neither Russia nor any other European security organization could fill the resulting power vacuum alongside NATO. To the contrary: with all the political and economic turbulence in Russia, there was no guarantee of a stable future in Eastern Europe. Indeed, it was not primarily NATO, but the Central and Eastern European states that wanted to join NATO at all costs for the sake of their security. Unlike with Gorbachev, it was made clear to Yeltsin from the beginning that NATO membership for the Central and Eastern European states was unavoidable. After all, it was Yeltsin himself who had set the ball rolling with his speeches in Warsaw and Prague and his support for the Helsinki Final Act of the CSCE.
3 – The breach of trust in 1999As agreed between Clinton and Yeltsin, the announcement of an eastward expansion of NATO was postponed until after the end of the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections. Since it was not possible for Russia to prevent NATO’s eastward enlargement due to its economic and military weakness, Russia tried to demand a voice in NATO’s decision-making processes. For that reason, the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security” was signed with Russia before the 1997 NATO summit and a “NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council” was created. However, this did not increase Russia’s voice in NATO, as became apparent in 1999 with NATO’s operation “Allied Force”.
At the NATO summit in early June 1997, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were invited to enter negotiations with the prospect of joining NATO by 1999. This invitation did not come as a surprise to Russia, but it was still a defeat. Not only did Russia oppose NATO’s eastward enlargement, but this decision was tantamount to a rejection of the “second generation” pan-European security structure proposed by Moscow that would have included Russia and pointed to an increasing shift in the balance of power on the European continent to Russia’s disadvantage (Mike Bowker And Cameron Ross, “Russia After the Cold War“, Routledge, 2000, p. 344).
Madeleine, don’t you understand we have many Kosovos in Russia? — Russischer Aussenminister Igor Ivanov zur U.S.-amerikanischen Aussenministerin Madeleine Albright im Winter 1998 zitiert in Talbott, p. 301.
On March 24, 1999, just twelve days after Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were admitted as new member states, NATO bombed targets in the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was military, culturally and religiously linked to Russia, without authorization from the UN Security Council. In addition, at its April 1999 Summit, NATO released its revised strategic concept defining that conventional NATO forces must have the capability to conduct military operations outside NATO territory (the basis of the so-called “out-of-area” operations). From the Russian perspective, NATO thus transformed itself into an offensive military security instrument of the West — a clear breach of trust after the Russians had been forced to accept NATO’s eastward expansion. It is therefore not surprising that Russia later did not believe the US/NATO missile defense shield promoted by U.S. President George W. Bush was not intended to neutralize Russia’s second strike capability.
In reaction to the bombing of targets in Serbia, violent riots took place outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Russia also withdrew its military representation from NATO headquarters, reduced its liaison staff at NATO, suspended all PfP activities and all working sessions of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. However, relations with the US also deteriorated considerably, as was evident in Clinton’s and Yeltsin’s confrontation at the OSCE Summit of Heads of State and Government in Istanbul in November 1999. In particular, the U.S. criticism of Russian military action during the Second Chechen War was perceived not only as unacceptable interference in Russia’s domestic affairs but also as a double standard. From a Russian perspective, the US justified its bombing of Serbia as part of NATO’s operation “Allied Force”, while denouncing the Russian use of bombers in Chechnya as disproportionate. With Yeltsin’s resignation at the end of 1999 and the election of Vladimir Putin on March 26, 2000, it also became clear that the reign of pro-Western reformers in Russia had come to an end and a stronger, independent, self-confident, and nationalist course would be adopted (Talbott, p. 306, 361ff, 367).
Neither the Soviet Union nor Russia ever reached a binding agreement under international law to preclude the admission of new NATO member states to Central and Eastern Europe. To the contrary, as Yeltsin rightly pointed out in 1993, based on the Helsinki Final Act of the CSCE, each state is free to determine its membership in an alliance. While this document is not an international treaty, it nevertheless committed the signatories to respect the sovereignty, the inviolability of frontiers, the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. As an internationally recognized successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia is bound by the Helsinki Final Act signed by the Soviet Union in August 1975.
However, declassified documents clearly show that Gorbachev was repeatedly verbally assured that NATO would not expand eastwards. Both in national jurisdiction and international politics, verbal promises and agreements can also acquire legal validity. Even legally non-binding agreements are regarded as essential instruments in international politics (Michael R. Gordon, “Kerry Criticizes Republican Letter to Iranian Leaders on Nuclear Talks“, The New York Times, 21.12.2017). It must also be borne in mind that such informal arrangements were of great importance during the Cold War (Shifrinson, 17f). The promises made to Gorbachev during the negotiations on German reunification must, however, also be seen in the context of that time: with the Warsaw Pact just to the east of reunited Germany’s new border along the Oder-Neisse line, the promise referred to the territory of the GDR, not to Central and Eastern Europe. This is precisely what was formally stipulated in the “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany”, no more and no less.
The situation is somewhat different in the negotiations on a new European security structure. Gorbachev was verbally assured to the end that the Western states would not act against the interests of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the “London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance” so decisive for the Soviet Union’s choices at the time was intended to launch a new European security structure. The idea was a cooperative security structure between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which would concentrate more on a political role in the future. However, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union deprived such a cooperative security structure of its foundation, and consequently, the promises to Gorbachev were never renewed to Yeltsin. To the contrary, Yeltsin was told from the beginning that NATO membership of the Central and Eastern European states would be unavoidable in the long term. Although the CSCE was upgraded to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1995 despite the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, decision-making based on the general principle of consensus (every member state has a de facto veto, but unanimity is not a prerequisite for decisions) severely limits the capacity of the OSCE to act, given that it has 57 member states. Its limited decision-making capacity was visible in 2010 when, at the last OSCE summit (after an 11-year break), it was not possible to adopt a plan to renew the OSCE in the long term and increase its capacity to act.
It would be naive to ignore the fact that with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact at the beginning of July 1991 the European security structure had changed entirely and a security vacuum was created in Central and Eastern Europe. The former European member states of the Warsaw Pact wanted to join NATO out of their security concerns. The push to join came from the former Communist countries, not NATO itself. Moreover, it was Russian President Boris Yeltsin who had set the ball rolling with his speeches in Warsaw and Prague and his support for the Helsinki Final Act of the CSCE. In retrospect, Yeltsin was critical of NATO’s eastward expansion, but this was for domestic political reasons. Interestingly enough, Putin later also made few objections to the second NATO enlargement to the east (Talbott, p. 415). The politically motivated accusation that NATO broke a promise with its eastward enlargement was only voiced later, and put forward for the first time by Putin in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 (Vladimir Putin, “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy“, 10.02.2007, Wikisource).
However, even the US and NATO have not behaved impeccably here. Following NATO’s eastward expansion, Russian confidence in the intentions of Western states was damaged by its operation “Allied Force” and the new strategic concept. This did not change even after 1999: further rounds of enlargement (e.g., plans to accept Ukraine and Georgia as NATO member states) and the advanced US missile defense shield further undermined relations with Russia. Russia had no real voice in the negotiations with either the US or NATO. Only one thing has changed: with the election of Putin in 2000, Russia set off once again on its nationalist path, full of self-confidence.