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

The conflict between the United States (USA) and Russia continues. The central issue has been the expansion of NATO from its original borders in Central Europe during 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.

While it is true that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a history of oppression and poor human rights records, that does not mean that the U.S. should risk waging war. Putin has a legitimate complaint about NATO expansion. 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. This counterfactual must be considered: What would the U.S. do if Russia planned a military alliance with Canada or Mexico? There is no way of getting around the fact that NATO’s expansion has been profoundly destabilizing.

It is important to remember the historical context of Russian grievance. It is known that in 1990, U.S. Secretary James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev it would not expand NATO into formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe. Gorbachev also agreed to not oppose the upcoming German reunification. 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. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary had all joined NATO. This was despite Gorbachev’s promises. NATO expanded into most of Eastern Europe and 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 NotNATO to expand

This history is being challenged by former officials. 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. A large number of documents have been released by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. 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 refer to the summary of documents written by Archive staff.

The documents show that several national leaders were considering and rescinding Central and Eastern European membership of NATO as early 1990 and continued through 1991. This shows that discussions about NATO in the context German unification negotiations in 1990 weren’t limited to East German territorial status and that the subsequentSoviet and Russian complaints about being misled regarding NATO expansion were based in written contemporaneous memcons, telcons at high 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 to NATO was a result of recklessness, hubris, and inaction. 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 Director of the CIA 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.”

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.

One might wonder, given the centrality of NATO in the current conflict. The entire alliance was a joke in the early 1990s because no one knew what NATO was. It was a “security” organization in search of a mission, without any real security threat. 1992 was the year that the headline appeared 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 a reason you keep hearing so many contrived arguments to continue the NATO alliance. It has been very, very good for the militaries of the countries involved…. All those jobs disappear if NATO is eliminated. 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.

Since Russia was acting in accordance with U.S. interests, none of this had any significance in security terms. Boris Yeltsin was at that time viewed as a pro U.S. stooge. Yeltsin was so appreciated by the U.S. that they intervened in Russia’s 1996 electionto ensure that Yeltsin won. TimeThe magazine even included a Yeltsin caricature on the cover, holding an American 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.

These interventions were a way for the U.S. to prepare for future conflicts with Russia. They could not have done better if U.S. officials had been looking for trouble and trying to increase global insecurity.

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 is a great leader. inarguably popularSince 2000, when he was first elected to power, he has dominated Russian politics.

U.S. officials cannot go back in time to correct past mistakes; in all probability, they will never regain Russia’s trust. We have the chance to deescalate tensions. The Russian demand is for a strong U.S. guarantee that Ukraine won’t be allowed to join NATO. As a basis for a complete settlement, U.S. officials must be open to this demand and should abandon their obsession with projecting U.S. strength through NATO. This outcome would be far better than a new Cold War with Russia that is nuclear-armed, which is a serious possibility.