US broke a NATO prom­ise with Rus­sia

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Joshua R Shifrin­son

MOSCOW so­lid­i­fied its hold on Crimea in April, outlaw ing the Tatar leg­is­la­ture that had op­posed Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of the re­gion since 2014. To­gether with Rus­sian mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions against NATO forces in and around the Baltic, this move seems to val­i­date the ob­ser­va­tions of Western an­a­lysts who ar­gue that un­der Vladimir Putin, an in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive Rus­sia is de­ter­mined to dom­i­nate its neigh­bours and men­ace Europe.

Lead­ers in Moscow, how­ever, tell a dif­fer­ent story. For them, Rus­sia is the ag­grieved party. They claim the United States has failed to up­hold a prom­ise that NATO would not ex­pand into Eastern Europe, a deal made dur­ing the 1990 ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the West and the Soviet Union over Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion. In this view, Rus­sia is be­ing forced to fore­stall NATO’s east­ward march as a mat­ter of self-de­fence.

The West has vig­or­ously protested that no such deal was ever struck. How­ever, hun­dreds of memos, meet­ing min­utes and tran­scripts from US ar­chives in­di­cate oth­er­wise. Al­though what the doc­u­ments re­veal isn’t enough to make Putin a saint, it sug­gests that the di­ag­no­sis of Rus­sian pre­da­tion isn’t en­tirely fair. Europe’s sta­bil­ity may de­pend just as much on the West’s will­ing­ness to re­as­sure Rus­sia about NATO’s lim­its as on de­ter­ring Moscow’s ad­ven­tur­ism.

Af­ter the Berlin Wall fell, Europe’s re­gional or­der hinged on the ques­tion of whether a re­uni­fied Ger­many would be aligned with the United States (and NATO), the Soviet Union (and the War­saw Pact) or nei­ther. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers in the George H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided in early 1990 that NATO should in­clude the re­con­sti­tuted Ger­man repub­lic.

In early Fe­bru­ary 1990, US lead­ers made the Sovi­ets an of­fer. Ac­cord­ing to tran­scripts of meet­ings in Moscow on Feb. 9, then-Sec­re­tary of State James Baker sug­gested that in ex­change for co­op­er­a­tion on Ger­many, US could make “iron-clad guar­an­tees” that NATO would not ex­pand “one inch east­ward.” Less than a week later, Soviet Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev agreed to be­gin re­u­ni­fi­ca­tion talks. No for­mal deal was struck, but from all the ev­i­dence, the quid pro quo was clear: Gor­bachev ac­ceded to Ger­many’s western align­ment and the US would limit NATO’s ex­pan­sion.

Nev­er­the­less, great pow­ers rarely tie their own hands. In in­ter­nal mem­o­ran­dums and notes, US pol­i­cy­mak­ers soon re­alised that rul­ing out NATO’s ex­pan­sion might not be in the best in­ter­ests of the United States. By late Fe­bru­ary, Bush and his ad­vis­ers had de­cided to leave the door open.

Af­ter dis­cussing the is­sue with West Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl on Fe­bru­ary 24-25, the US gave the for­mer East Ger­many “spe­cial mil­i­tary sta­tus,” lim­it­ing what NATO forces could be sta­tioned there in def­er­ence to the Soviet Union. Be­yond that, how­ever, talk of pro­scrib­ing NATO’s reach dropped out of the diplo­matic con­ver­sa­tion. In­deed, by March 1990, State Depart­ment of­fi­cials were ad­vis­ing Baker that NATO could help or­gan­ise Eastern Europe in the US or­bit; by Oc­to­ber, US pol­i­cy­mak­ers were con­tem­plat­ing whether and when (as a Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil memo put it) to “sig­nal to the new democ­ra­cies of Eastern Europe NATO’s readi­ness to con­tem­plate their fu­ture mem­ber­ship.”

At the same time, how­ever, it ap­pears the Amer­i­cans still were try­ing to con­vince the Rus­sians that their con­cerns about NATO would be re­spected. Baker pledged in Moscow on May 18, 1990, that the United States would co­op­er­ate with the Soviet Union in the “de­vel­op­ment of a new Europe.” And in June, per talk­ing points pre­pared by the NSC, Bush was telling Soviet lead­ers that the United States sought “a new, in­clu­sive Europe.”

It’s there­fore not sur­pris­ing that Rus­sia was in­censed when Poland, Hun­gary, the Czech Repub­lic, the Baltic States and oth­ers were ush­ered into NATO mem­ber­ship start­ing in the mid-1990s. Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev and Gor­bachev him­self protested through both pub­lic and pri­vate chan­nels that US lead­ers had vi­o­lated the non-ex­pan­sion ar­range­ment. As NATO be­gan look­ing even fur­ther east­ward, to Ukraine and Ge­or­gia, protests turned to out­right ag­gres­sion and sabre-rat­tling.

NATO’S widen­ing um­brella doesn’t jus­tify Putin’s bel­li­cos­ity or his in­cur­sions in Ukraine or Ge­or­gia. Still, the ev­i­dence sug­gests that Rus­sia’s protests have merit and that US pol­icy has contributed to cur­rent ten­sions in Europe. In less than two months, Western heads of state will gather in War­saw for a NATO sum­mit. Just as a pledge not to ex­pand NATO in 1990 helped end the Cold War, so too may a pledge to­day help re­sus­ci­tate the US-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ship. The writer is an in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity fel­low at Dartmouth Col­lege and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Bush School of Govern­ment, Texas A&M Univer­sity.

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