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Claims Over Broken Promises About NATO Simmer at the Heart of the Ukraine Crisis

NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe never had anything to do with security in any meaningful sense.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the continuing conflict between the United States and Russia, the central issue has always been the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from its original boundaries in Central Europe during the Cold War. Recent efforts to incorporate Ukraine into NATO have greatly aggravated Russian suspicions, contributing to Russia’s rationale for their massing of troops on Ukrainian borders.

It is true that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a repressive leader with a poor human rights record, but that is no reason for the U.S. to risk undertaking a war. On the issue of NATO expansion, Putin has a legitimate complaint. If Ukraine were to join NATO, it would establish a U.S. ally on Russia’s southern border with the potential of U.S. military bases being aimed against Russia. We must consider this counterfactual: How would the U.S. respond if Russia were planning a military alliance with Mexico or Canada? There is no way of getting around the fact that NATO’s expansion has been profoundly destabilizing.

It is important to consider the historical context of Russian grievance: It is a matter of record that in 1990, the U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that it would not expand NATO into the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe. In exchange, Gorbachev agreed not to oppose the upcoming reunification of Germany. Gorbachev fulfilled his part of the deal — Germany was reunified without Soviet objection — but then the U.S. promptly began laying plans to expand NATO. By 1999, the former communist states of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic all joined NATO, disregarding the promises made to Gorbachev. Then, NATO continued expanding into most of Eastern Europe, as well as three former Soviet states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Russian officials have repeatedly objected to what they describe as U.S.’s bad faith regarding its past promises not to expand NATO.

Some former officials contest this history. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently stated: “The idea that we somehow crossed some line with the Russians, I think, is a figment of Vladimir Putin’s imagination, just like the idea that somehow Jim Baker, all the way back in 1990, said we would never move east. What we were talking about at the time was East Germany… Nobody was even imagining Czechoslovakia or Poland or Hungary at that time.” These claims are very doubtful. The National Security Archive at George Washington University has released a large number of previously classified documents that strongly suggest that — as Russian leaders have argued — the U.S. did indeed promise not to expand NATO, and that this promise extended beyond East Germany. I will quote from the summary of the documents, written by Archive staff:

The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels. [Emphasis added.]

Clearly, present-day Russian complaints about U.S. deceptions regarding NATO’s expansion have a foundation in the historical record.

The U.S. expansion of NATO reflected an attitude of recklessness and hubris. According to former Defense Secretary William Perry, the predominant view of Russia in the Clinton administration was: “Who cares what they think? They’re a third-rate power.”

At least some senior figures were alarmed by the U.S.’s arrogance. Former CIA Director Robert Gates later criticized NATO’s eastward expansion, arguing that it was a bad move since Gorbachev was “led to believe that wouldn’t happen.”

In 1995, 20 former U.S. officials wrote an open letter stating that NATO’s planned expansion risked “convincing most Russians that the United States and the West are attempting to isolate, encircle, and subordinate them.” The letter also stated that the Russians “pose no threat to any state to the west, nor is there any evidence of an imperialistic surge among the Russian people.” Even Paul Nitze — an architect of the Cold War and a longstanding anti-Soviet hardliner — signed the letter. Then in 1997, veteran Soviet expert George F. Kennan declared, “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post-Cold War era.” U.S. policymakers were warned about the likely consequences of their actions.

Given the central importance of NATO in the current conflict, one might wonder: Why was the alliance even necessary after the end of the Cold War? During the early 1990s, no one really knew what NATO was for, and the whole alliance was becoming a bit of a joke. It was a “security” organization in search of a mission, without any real security threat. In 1992, a headline in Jane’s Defense Weekly declared, “NATO Seeks Significance in a Post-Cold War Climate.”

The real reason for preserving NATO — and ultimately expanding it — was to promote U.S. prestige and power, and also to benefit vested interests associated with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower once termed the military-industrial complex. In 1993, retired U.S. Admiral Eugene Carroll spoke with remarkable frankness about NATO’s real purpose:

Let me tell you one of the reasons you keep hearing so many contrived arguments for continuing the NATO alliance. It has been very, very good for the militaries of the countries involved…. If NATO goes away, all those jobs go away; all those lovely chateaus, and chauffeurs and railroad cars go away. It’s something that has been very enjoyable for a good many years, and the fact that there is no longer any requirement for it doesn’t mean they don’t want to keep a good thing going.

NATO’s expansion benefited the U.S. military, U.S. weapons manufacturers, and their counterparts in Western Europe. Eastern European states were eager to join what many viewed as a “prestigious” organization as a symbol that they had finally arrived on the world stage.

None of this had anything to do with security in any meaningful sense, since Russia was, for the most part, acting in accord with U.S. and Western interests. Indeed, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president at the time, was widely viewed as a pro-U.S. stooge. U.S. officials were so appreciative of Yeltsin that they intervened in Russia’s 1996 election to ensure that Yeltsin won. Time magazine even produced a caricature of Yeltsin on the cover, holding a U.S. flag, under the title “Yanks to the Rescue.” The Time subtitle read: “The Secret Story of How American Advisors Helped Yeltsin Win.” Russians have long resented this U.S. interference in their electoral processes.

In undertaking these interventions, the U.S. was laying the groundwork for future conflicts with Russia. If U.S. officials were looking for trouble and seeking to increase global insecurity, they could not have done a better job.

Given all these historical affronts, it should come as no surprise that the Russian people longed for a more authoritarian leader — like Putin — who would stand up to the increasingly distrusted U.S. Despite his authoritarian style, Putin has been inarguably popular and has dominated Russian politics since first coming to power in 2000.

U.S. officials cannot go back in time to correct past mistakes; in all probability, they will never regain Russia’s trust. However, we do have an opportunity to deescalate tensions. The key Russian demand is a firm U.S. guarantee that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO. U.S. officials should be open to this demand, as a basis for a full settlement, and should forgo their obsession with relentlessly projecting U.S. power through NATO. Surely this outcome would be better than a new Cold War with a nuclear-armed Russia, which is becoming a serious risk.

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