NATO's broken promises: Time to admit West bears serious responsibility for tension in E. Europe
The question whether Western leaders promised the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand east has been debated for years. Newly declassified papers prove what many Western officials and scholars have denied: A promise was broken.
Researchers from the George Washington University-based National Security Archive have compiled 30 documents which prove Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was given “a cascade of assurances” that NATO would not march east.
High profile officials and scholars at think tanks have repeatedly denied those assurances were ever made. They have implied Russian leaders have been living in a fantasy land and that their anger at continued NATO expansion has been unjustified. As recently as last year, the former American ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul called it “a complete myth” that any such promises were made.
It is not just the newly declassified information that lends credence to Russia’s version of events. Much of the information confirming Russia’s stance has been public for years. It just has not been made widely known. There have, however, been those who looked at the evidence with an impartial eye.
German magazine Der Spiegel concluded as far back as 2009, based on its own examination of the documents and conversations with those involved, that: “...there was no doubt 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.”
To understand why this matters so much to Moscow and how it has contributed to recent tensions in Europe, it’s important to understand the historical context.
As the Cold War came to a close, the question of whether a reunited Germany would align with the West or East rose to the fore. As the self-appointed winners of the Cold War, American policymakers decided that Germany should be aligned with the United States. In presenting this idea to the Soviets, US ambassador James Baker said he could make “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” It was based on those assurances that negotiations continued: In exchange for Germany’s Western alignment, NATO would not be expanded.
Defenders of subsequent NATO enlargement have claimed that discussions of eastward expansion during German reunification negotiations in 1990 were limited only to the status of East Germany. But the GWU researchers have concluded that the talks were “not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory.”
Whether the American negotiators ever intended to stick to their word we can’t know. What we do know, is that the temptation to pull the entire Eastern bloc into the US’ own orbit very quickly proved too great. In the same year that Baker had promised “not one inch eastward” American policymakers were already quietly considering how they could bring Eastern Europe into NATO. At the same time, they were making plans to assure Moscow its security concerns would be taken into account and that any new European security structure would be inclusive of Russia.
But a common security structure which would include Russia was never truly on the cards. One can make their own assumptions as to why Washington has preferred to keep Russia on the sidelines. One reason, as I have written before, is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO found itself with its thumbs twiddling. Its raison d’etre was no more. The alliance could have disbanded then and there and begun negotiations with the Russian Federation for a new, inclusive security structure which would aim to prevent future tensions within Europe by paying attention to Russia’s security concerns. Instead, NATO opted to expand further and further — right to Russia’s own backyard. A US-led military alliance at Russia’s doorstep was a far cry from the “not one inch further” that Baker had promised. The goal, of course, was to bring as many Eastern European nations as possible under a pro-Washington umbrella — from where they would never be able to question US foreign policy, allowing Washington to control the region with ease.
This is key to understanding Vladimir Putin’s worldview. Indeed, this history forms much of the basis of his general mistrust of the West today. As such, without understanding the historical context within which NATO was expanded, it is impossible to understand the recent conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine — two deeply divided countries which have been on NATO’s future membership to-do list. Washington is a fan of drawing “red lines” around the world which others may not be permitted to cross. It defends its own interests vociferously. For Putin, NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia has been a red line.
Western leaders and officials, for the most part, have refused to take any responsibility for leaving Europe in security limbo after the Cold War ended. Instead, they have tried to place the blame entirely with Moscow, aggressively promoting the idea that modern Russia is on a mission to regain lost glory by gobbling up Eastern Europe — and that valiant NATO is the only thing in Putin’s way. But the latest research by GWU should make it clear: The West, through its broken promises and untrustworthiness at a crucial moment in history, bears significant responsibility for current European tensions and the conflicts that have arisen from them.
There were, of course, those who warned against NATO expansion — and indeed the alliance’s existence at all. Only a matter of months after NATO’s formation in 1949, US Senator Robert A. Taft — the son of President William Howard Taft — made a speech in which he predicted that the NATO alliance would eventually be “more likely to produce war than peace” in Europe.
But perhaps the most poignant and forceful warning against NATO expansion came in 1998 from the legendary diplomat George F. Kennan. Kennan, then aged 94, told the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman that NATO expansion was a “tragic mistake.”
“There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves,” he said. Kennan warned that the US was turning its back on Russia and the people who had “mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”
He continued with prophetic words: ''It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are -- but this is just wrong.''
NATO expansion, of course, continued well beyond 1999, beyond Kennan’s death in 2005 — and is still continuing today, with Montenegro the latest to join the military bloc.
The GWU report makes for interesting reading. There can no longer be any denying that many Western leaders and officials gave assurances to the Soviets that NATO would not be expanded; that there would be no threat to its security. It was in this context that Gorbachev agreed to German alignment with the West. In his apparent naivety, Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union’s own future and integration with the West and Western institutions depended on it. He still believed in the dream of the “common European home” and felt there was no reason for the end of the Cold War not to be mutually beneficial.
But Western leaders had other ideas. Russia would never be permitted into the club. There was far too much to gain from perpetuating the belief in the West that Russia remained a threat.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.