Russia, Ukraine | This is the myth of NATO’s broken promises to Russia

A 30-year-old myth forms a bit of the backdrop when the United States and Russia hold talks in Geneva this week. A new war in Europe is at stake.


The origin of the myth dates back to the last days of the Cold War, and the United States allegedly promised Moscow not to expand the NATO alliance eastward. President Vladimir Putin stubbornly claimed that Moscow received assurances from the United States in the 1990s that NATO would not develop in Eastern Europe. The alleged guarantee was provided by James Baker, then Bush’s senior secretary of state, while the superpowers discussed the reunification of East and West Germany.

Putin believes this alleged broken promise is the real cause of the escalating Ukrainian conflict in Europe. Moscow has set a number of conditions to prevent a possible invasion of Ukraine, including a condition that NATO must swear that Ukraine will not join the alliance.

– Is the claim that the United States has promised Moscow not to expand the NATO alliance to the east, is it myth or truth?

– There’s a lot of debate around this. It is said that James Baker (then US Secretary of State), while negotiating German reunification in 1990, made some sort of statement that NATO should not expand eastward. This was confirmed in many ways by Mikhail Gorbachev (the last leader of the Soviet Union). But this is in the context of German reunification, Russian security policy expert and senior researcher at NUPI, Jakub M. Godzimirski, told Nettavisen.

– When Putin uses this argument, he can prove it a bit with sources. But at the same time, there is little evidence to say it was a deal. What is quite clear is that no binding agreement has been made on this matter, Godzimirski said.

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– Silly argument

Baker himself has since acknowledged that the limit to NATO’s eastward expansion was the ability to speak up when he and Gorbachev negotiated German reunification in the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. But no binding treaty was ever incorporated into the final treaty between America, Russia and Europe.

“In the end, this is a ridiculous argument,” Baker said in an interview shortly after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

– It is true that I initially said in the negotiations “how”, and then Gorbachev himself supported a solution that expanded the borders to include the German Democratic Republic (East Germany / GDR), Baker said in the interview.

Russia, for its part, appears to have violated previous agreements reached in the 1990s. In 1994, Russia, Britain and the United States signed the so-called Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia pledged to “respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.” At the same time, Ukraine gave up 1,900 nuclear warheads in exchange for these guarantees from Moscow. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 was a clear violation of this treaty.

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– American historian Mary Elise Sarotte wrote an article about this promise not to expand NATO to the east. It received a lot of attention and was based on a thorough analysis of documents and minutes from conversations between these leaders. He concluded that Russia could interpret it as meaning that NATO would not expand eastward. But at the same time it can be said that these talks took place in 1990, and that the situation has changed drastically since then, says Godzimirski.

– The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact crumbled, and among these post-Soviet countries, only Russia and Belarus expressed concern about the expansion of NATO. The Baltic states, for their part, are very enthusiastic about this expansion, Godzimirski said.

Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were all accepted as members of NATO in 2004.

Unclear words

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 sparked extensive negotiations to reunite East and West Germany which had been divided after World War II.

At that time, the Bush administration (senior) was determined to incorporate a unified Germany into NATO. Other Western voices, however, were concerned with calming the Soviet Union’s concerns for their own security. On January 31, 1990, then-West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was wronged by saying that there would be no “expansion of NATO territory in the east”, wrote The New York Times.

Genscher, however, was talking about whether NATO troops should be deployed in the region that later formed East Germany, and not about whether Eastern Bloc countries should eventually be considered members of the alliance. However, these words were rejected by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Baker had similar words when he visited Moscow on February 9, just days after Genscher’s remarks.

According to the released documents, Baker Moscow provides multiple guarantees that “Nato jurisdiction or forces will not move east.”

“There will be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction over NATO forces one millimeter to the east,” Baker told Gorbachev at the time.

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In Washington, however, these words received the attention of the National Security Council, because the word “jurisdiction” could indicate that the NATO collective defense alliance would only apply to parts of Germany.

“The US National Security Council quickly contacted him (Baker’s editor’s note) and said these words could be misunderstood,” Condoleezza Rice said later in a book about James Baker.

Rice later became President Bush’s senior Soviet adviser. Baker took the signal and dropped the word “jurisdiction” in further negotiations.

– I might be going a little too far, but they changed this and he (Gorbachev’s editor’s note) knows they changed it, Baker said.

In the negotiations in the months that followed, he (Gorbachev) never again touched on the question of expanding NATO’s jurisdiction to the east. He then signed a document in which NATO actually expanded its jurisdiction, Baker said.

Baker was later said to have given assurances that Soviet military forces could remain in East Germany during the transition, and that NATO forces would not occupy East Germany until Soviet troops left.

Some important meeting

This week, Russia will participate in a series of meetings to calm the tense situation in Ukraine. On Monday, Russia held a meeting with America in Geneva. This weekend, Russia will hold meetings with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and NATO.

– Which of this week’s negotiating meetings is the most important, US-Russia, OSCE-Russia or NATO-Russia, Godzimirski?

– It depends on what perspective you have. From Russia’s point of view, the meeting with the United States is of utmost importance. They think that only “big guys” should talk to each other. Russia is most concerned with talks with the United States. In their world, the United States decides, while other countries have to deal with what the United States does, Godzimirski said.

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– On the Russian side, you can make decisions very quickly, and you are willing to take some chances. Whereas on the west side, it takes time and energy to make such a decision. Even in the United States, the president is limited by Congress with this system of checks and balances. On the Russian side, there are 5 to 10 people in Putin’s immediate circle who can make this decision without considering parliament, he said.

“The United States has made it clear that it will only negotiate bilateral issues with Russia, while issues related to the security policies of Europe, NATO and Ukraine should be discussed at another meeting,” the NUPI researcher said.

Stand far apart

On Monday afternoon, there were reports that the U.S. and Russian Undersecretaries of State were at odds on a possible expansion of NATO to the east.

– Russia is fully aware that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is not imminent – not next year, not in five years and maybe not in ten years. To be accepted as a member of NATO, one must meet a number of requirements. Ukraine is currently far from meeting these requirements. One of the requirements is that you don’t have anything unresolved with your neighbors. That’s why the Russians are doing what they are doing (escalating the conflict with Ukraine, editor’s note). “I hope Russia uses Ukraine only as a pretext to strengthen its own negotiating position with the West and so that war can be avoided,” said Godzimirski.

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