Another Perspective – Did Washington promise Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward? Why does Putin care if NATO expands?

06.03.2022 | By Yishai Gelb
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On the 27th of February, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, claiming to protect people subjected to bullying and genocide, and aiming for the "demilitarization and de-Nazification" of Ukraine. In reality, Putin wishes to install a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and eliminate the possibility that Ukraine joins NATO.

Putin’s main accusation of the West is that they are reneging on a promise to Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. Is that true? What did the West promise Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990? Did the U.S. promise that NATO would not extend eastward? The short answer is: YES. The U.S. clearly made such a promise.

Talks between the U.S. and Mikhail Gorbachev regarding NATO centered on the unification of East and West Germany. Gorbachev wanted assurances that the unification would not result in expansion of NATO’s military presence. During the negotiations, U.S. and Russian delegates agreed on the unification of Germany and agreed that: 1) NATO would not deploy into the GDR (East Germany) until all Soviet forces withdrew, and 2) there would be no increase in troops or equipment of U.S British or French forces stationed in Berlin, and 3) once Soviet troops left the GDR, German troops assigned to NATO could be deployed to the former GDR;, however, foreign troops and nuclear weapons would not be deployed there.

Many use this agreement to prove that the U.S. did not make promises regarding NATO’s expansion. However, they neglect to consider the rest of the agreement:! Declassified documents show that security assurances were made against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Secretary of State James Baker, President George Bush, and other U.S. officials back in 1990.

In the recording of a conversation between Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev from February, 1990, a key exchange takes place where Baker asks whether Gorbachev would 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 jurisdiction or troops will not spread east of the present boundary.” Thus, in this conversation, the U.S. secretary of state offered assurances three times that if Germany were allowed to unify as a member of NATO, preserving the U.S. presence in Europe, then NATO would not expand eastward. Interestingly, not once did he use the name GDR or East Germany or even mention the Soviet troops in East Germany.

The Soviet leader responds that “we will think everything over. We intend to discuss all these questions in depth at the leadership level. A broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.” Baker affirms: “We agree with that.”

The source of this conversation is from the Gorbachev Foundation Archive, Fond 1, Opis 1. It can be found in the following link: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow. (Excerpts) | National Security Archive (gwu.edu).

It is clear here that Baker agreed not to expand NATO eastwards. However, when the U.S. claims that NATO has an open-door policy to accept any new member who complies with the terms of NATO membership, they are not lying.; These are not mutually exclusive: NATO indeed has an open-door policy, and it is also true that the U.S. promised not to expand NATO to the east. 

The real question is: Why does Putin care if NATO expands? After all, NATO is a defensive alliance only, right? Wrong! 

We don't think of NATO as an aggressive force, however, this isn’t always the case. NATO has deployed several times in aggressive attacks against sovereign nations and even toppled regimes. 

In 1999, without the backing of the UN Security Council, NATO struck, launching its warplanes on Yugoslavia. NATO claimed it was acting in the name of human rights and to put an end to a humanitarian crisis.

In 2003, a U.S. coalition that included NATO members attacked Iraq which ended in the toppling of the Iraqi government.

In 2011, NATO was given a mandate by the Security Council, with the support of Russia, to protect civilians in the Libyan civil war. But critics claim that operations aiming at overthrowing the Qaddafi regime were an illegal use of force. Overstepping of the mandate may have had a negative effect on the credibility of any future granting of responsibility to protect gross human rights violations. On top of that, Putin learned his lesson and knows not to grant NATO the authority to use force against its allies ever again.

Putin is widely seen as an evil and irrational dictator. Evil may be an accurate adjective to describe Putin, but labeling him as irrational is not accurate, to say the least. A mix of aggressive realist and imperialist policy, as well as a lack of deterrence from the peacekeepers, is an adequate formula to spark violence and aggression from an authoritarian state.

The next article on the subject will cover just how the U.S foreign policy gave Putin the impression that he could invade Ukraine without overwhelming opposition.