Declassified documents show how US lied to Russia about NATO in 1990s
Promises that the bloc wouldn’t expand appear to have been ignored in Washington’s quest for influence in Europe.
In April 2014, President Vladimir Putin addressed Russia's Federal Assembly in the wake of Moscow’s reabsorption of Crimea. Over the course of his speech, he laid the blame for an increase in tensions on the West, which he insisted had “lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact.” At the heart of this apparent duplicity was NATO’s expansion to the East, “as well as deployment of military infrastructure at our borders,” contrary, he said, to its promises.
Ever since, disproving the idea that Western leaders had assured Moscow the bloc wouldn’t encroach on its borders has become an obsession for think tanks and lobby groups. For example, UK policy institute Chatham House brands the suggestion that any pledge was made not to enlarge the controversial military bloc one of the key “myths and misconceptions in the debate on Russia,” while NATO’s own website likewise claims it is wholly manufactured.
Significant evidence to the contrary has long-been easily accessible, but now the National Security Archive has published a tranche of never-before-seen, highly revealing documents detailing how then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin was consistently manipulated by his US counterpart Bill Clinton on the question during the mid-1990s, while bold, false promises of a “strategic partnership” of the countries faded into nothingness.
Take for instance the transcript of a cordial July 5 1994 telephone conversation between the pair, at which time the US president was preparing to depart for Poland – which had been pushing for rapid absorption by NATO – and the Baltic states, before meeting with Yeltsin at the G7 summit in Italy.
Yeltsin urged Clinton to raise the plight of Russophones in Estonia and Latvia, because “a public statement from you that the US will not support any infringement on the rights of the Russian-speaking people” would mean these countries “will act differently.” He noted Lithuania’s quick granting of citizenship to its Russian minority had prompted Moscow to withdraw its troops from Vilnius, and the same could happen by August in Tallinn and Riga if assurances were made. Yeltsin also wished to discuss NATO expansion.
In response, Clinton swore he’d “raise the issue of the Russian minorities,” and reassured Yeltsin that while NATO might “eventually expand,” he’d set out “no timetable and no requirements.” Instead, he indicated that he’d “like us to concentrate” on Partnership for Peace, a US-led initiative seeking to “achieve a united Europe where people respect each other's borders and work together.” Yeltsin could be entirely forgiven for thinking the Partnership was Washington’s primary focus, and the military alliance an afterthought, by the conclusion of the chat.
The Russian president’s optimism about “a mutually beneficial partnership with the US on the basis of equality” is writ large in a letter he sent to Clinton in November that year. He speaks of this prospective coalition as “the central factor in world politics,” pledges to cooperate constructively with the US on issues related to Bosnia, Iraq, North Korea, and Ukraine, and eagerly awaits their meeting at the December 5 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Budapest, where “we have much to talk about … first of all, transforming European stability.”
As it was, the Hungary summit was a disaster, with Clinton’s speech at the event focusing on NATO as “the bedrock of security in Europe,” and declaring “no country outside will be allowed to veto expansion” – a clear reference to Russia. In response, Yeltsin fulminated, “it is a dangerous delusion to suppose the destinies of continents and the world … can somehow be managed from one single capital,” and adding that “[moving] the responsibilities of NATO up to Russia's borders” would be a grave error.
An internal US diplomatic cable from the next day shows lessons were quickly learned from this episode. Namely, the urgent need to keep quiet publicly about US plans for extending the military alliance, while offering bogus private assurances to Moscow any enlargement would only occur after consultation between the two countries, and that Russia was still in the running for bloc membership.
Fast-forward to May 1995, Clinton visits Moscow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Allied victory in World War II, and these lies are enthusiastically maintained in a one-on-one meeting with Yeltsin. The pair’s rapport is clearly chummy, referring to each other as friends, although serious matters are very much on the table too.
“How do you think it looks to us if one bloc continues to exist while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished? It's a new form of encirclement if the one surviving Cold War bloc expands,” the Russian president pleaded. “Many Russians have a sense of fear. What do you want to achieve with this if Russia is your partner? We need a new structure for Pan-European security, not old ones! Perhaps the solution is to postpone NATO expansion until the year 2000 so that later we can come up with some new ideas.”
Ever suave and calculating, Clinton sought to allay his fears, somewhat amazingly suggesting Moscow should view his approach to NATO “in the context of greater integration of Russia into other international institutions,” dangling the prospect of various sweeteners, including membership of the G7, if Yeltsin quietened his anti-NATO rhetoric, and kept his opinions on the bloc’s expansion to himself. Clinton knew well that such compliance was easily bought – as his Russian “friend” himself acknowledged, his position heading into the 1996 presidential runoff was “not exactly brilliant.”
Indeed, his polling stood in the single digits, and Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov was widely forecast to win via landslide. Yeltsin spoke of needing “positive reports” in the press, and to “head off even the smallest wrong moves,” proposing any discussion of NATO enlargement be kept theoretical until the year 2000, and urging the White House resident not to do anything to “rile the situation up before the elections.”
“I’ve made it clear I’ll do nothing to accelerate NATO [expansion]. I’m trying to give you now, in this conversation, the reassurance you need. But we need to be careful that neither of us appears to capitulate,” Clinton slickly pledged. “For you, that means you’re not going to embrace expansion. For me, it means no talk about slowing the process down or putting it on hold or anything like that.”
So it was that Yeltsin agreed to maintain an omerta on the military bloc, and enlist in the Partnership for Peace. Despite plans for NATO expansion already being well-laid by that point, and very much in motion, the Kremlin remained silent about developments – the president’s acquiescence was further ensured by extensive covert and overt US assistance in his election campaign, which was fundamental to transforming an initial 6% standing in the polls to an extremely comfortable victory.
Less than three years later, NATO’s engulfing of the former Soviet sphere finally began, with the incorporation of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. This push was opposed stateside by, among others, George Kennan – formerly a committed ‘cold warrior’, and key figure in the creation of the alliance.
“I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War … The Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else,” he said in May 1998, after the US Senate ratified enlargement. “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.”
With tensions between Kiev and Moscow at an all-time high, with the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership at the heart of the dangerous dispute, Kennan’s words give every appearance today of a prophet’s warning coming terrifyingly true.