Hell Hath no Fury Like a Russian Scorned

August 27, 2023
  • Philippe Lemoine
    Cornell University
Philippe Lemoine revisits the debate about whether the West promised Russia not to expand NATO. He argues that the Russians have a good case that assurances made at the end of the Cold War ruled out NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, but that it is not the case people who defend that view usually make.
1990 Day of German Unity, Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. Source: Wiki Commons
Did the US and its allies promise the Soviets that NATO wouldn’t expand to Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War? Although their arguments have varied over the years, this is what Russian officials have consistently claimed since at least 1993, when NATO expansion was first put on the agenda publicly. Thus, while this claim is most commonly associated with Vladimir Putin (who used it to justify the invasion of Ukraine), it did not originate with him. Western officials, on the other hand, claim this view has no basis in fact.

The settlement of the Cold War and the German question

In order to understand the controversy, one has to go back to 1989. People often associate the end of the Cold War with the dislocation of the Soviet Union in 1991, but at least if we are talking about the underlying ideological conflict, it arguably ended a few years earlier after Mikhail Gorbachev rejected the imperial-revolutionary ideology that had previously underlain Soviet foreign policy and found an unlikely but enthusiastic partner in Ronald Reagan.

His successor in the White House, George H. W. Bush, was more skeptical, but when anti-communist revolutions swept through Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and, as Gorbachev had promised, Moscow didn't intervene to stop them (as the Soviet Union had done in the past), even Bush realized that he was for real.

The Cold War was drawing to an end, but to actually end it, several outstanding issues still had to be settled. At the end of 1989, the most pressing was German reunification, which increasingly seemed inevitable but raised several difficult questions. Germany's reunification required Moscow's cooperation because, as a result of WWII, the Soviet Union still had a massive contingent of troops in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and extensive legal rights over the country.

The central question was whether Germany would be able to stay in NATO after reunification or whether it would have to leave the Alliance and adopt some kind of neutral status.
Indeed, with the end of the Cold War, it was not even clear whether NATO should continue to exist.
Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German Federal Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor, 1990, the year of the German reunification. Source: Wiki Commons
Over the years, Russian officials have made various claims to the effect that, in order to secure Moscow's consent for Germany's continued NATO membership, Western officials pledged that NATO wouldn't expand eastward or made some assurances that ruled that out.

Most scholars have sided against Russia in arguing that no such pledge had been made during the negotiations on German reunification and, more generally, that the West did not have any obligation not to expand NATO as a result of the commitments made at the end of the Cold War. In a recent essay, which I will summarize here, I have argued that the Russians have a good case that NATO expansion violated assurances made at the time, but that it is not the one people typically make.

The debate has focused on statements made by the United States and West German officials during preliminary talks held in Moscow on the issue in February 1990. While everybody agrees that on that occasion U.S. and West German officials pledged not to expand NATO to the east if Germany was allowed to stay in the Alliance, people disagree about what they meant and what implications those exchanges had. Critics of the Russian position argue that Western officials were only talking about the territory of the GDR, that Gorbachev did not take even this limited no-expansion deal and that it was subsequently retracted anyway.

On the first point, they make two distinct arguments. First, they argue that the expansion of NATO beyond the borders of Germany was simply not an issue at the time, because in February 1990 nobody envisioned the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact yet. The second argument is narrower in scope and says that whatever the participants had in mind at the time, the issue of NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe never came up during the negotiations and the assurances made in Moscow applied only to the GDR.

The context of the February talks

On the first point, they are unambiguously wrong. Not only did both Western and Soviet officials, in public and in private, openly speculated about the end of the Warsaw Pact during that period, but
“In the lead up to the February talks in Moscow, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), repeatedly said that NATO would not expand to Central and Eastern Europe after German reunification.
For instance, in a speech that he gave in Tutzing on January 31, after saying that in “Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary there is a growing demand for the withdrawal of Soviet forces”, he called for NATO to “state unequivocally that whatever happens in the Warsaw Pact, there will be no expansion of NATO territory eastward, that is to say, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union”. As I show in my longer essay, the evidence is overwhelming that US officials understood at the time that, as then State Department official Robert Hutchings later wrote, Genscher was speaking “not about the GDR but about Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary”.
James Baker U.S. Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan and the White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush. Source: Wiki Commons
In fact, during a press conference on February 2, Genscher not only reiterated that position but even said that James Baker, US Secretary of State, was in agreement with him on this point:

“Perhaps I might add, we were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defense and the security toward the East. This holds true not only for GDR, which we have no intention of simply incorporating, but that holds true for all the other Eastern countries.”

Despite the fact that Baker was standing right next to him, he didn’t correct Genscher at any point during the press conference. However, as I argue in my essay, Baker’s silence may have been merely tactical.

Incredibly, the scholars who argued against the Russian position have quoted this press conference, but omitted the passage where Genscher made clear that he was not just talking about the GDR. Mark Kramer, whose paper “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia” is always cited by critics of the Russian position, went further than that:

At a joint press conference after their meeting, Genscher said that he and Baker “were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defense and security toward the East,” meaning eastern Germany. [emphasis is mine]

As one can see, Kramer did not just omit the passage where Genscher disambiguates his assurance, but added a gloss that completely altered the meaning of what Genscher said.

Baker was probably just talking about the GDR in Moscow

What about the second, narrower claim that critics of the Russian position make? Even if they are wrong when they say that no US and West German official was even thinking about NATO eastward expansion at the time, they could still be right that only the GDR was discussed in Moscow. Here, I think they are on stronger ground, but not for the reasons they claim.

The debate has focused on a statement Baker made during his conversation with Gorbachev:

We understand the need for assurances to the countries in the East. If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is a part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.

Not only did Baker repeat that statement later in the same conversation, but a few hours earlier he had already made a similar assurance in his meeting with Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister.

The argument made by critics of the Russian position boils down to the claim that, as Kramer put it, “the phrasing of [the assurances made in Moscow] and the context of the negotiations leave no doubt” that US and West German officials were only talking about the GDR when they told their Soviet counterparts that NATO would not expand to the east.

But as one can see,
“The language used was ambiguous on the scope of the assurance, so it is clearly not true that we can infer from the phrasing that Baker was only talking about the GDR.
As for the context of the negotiations, Kramer is referring to his claim that nobody was even thinking about NATO expansion at the time, which as we have seen is false and based on a distorted record. Kramer’s position seems to have become the orthodoxy not because his arguments were compelling, but simply because it has been repeated often enough.

But the fact that critics of the Russian position have made their case with flawed arguments does not mean they are wrong and, in the case of Baker at least, I think there are good reasons to think he was only talking about the GDR. Specifically, the fact that before making the assurances that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east” Baker said that he understood that “countries in the east” would need assurances, suggests that he was talking about the GDR.

Indeed, if Baker was talking about the expansion of NATO to Central and Eastern European countries, then how would ruling out that possibility assuage the security concerns of those same countries? The fact that he talked about “countries” in the plural seems to imply that he was not referring only to the Soviet Union.

It is possible that Baker meant that, if some but not all of Warsaw Pact states joined NATO, the expansion would be seen as a threat by those who stayed outside, but this interpretation seems contrived. It is more likely that he was referring to the fact that Central and Eastern European countries – especially Poland which at the time was still worried that a reunified Germany might seek to revise the post-WWII border – would be concerned if NATO suddenly appeared on their doorstep.
Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany at the time of reunification. Source: Wiki Commons
I argue in my essay that the same is probably true of the other U.S. and West German officials who made a similar assurance in Moscow during those talks with the exception of Genscher, who once again repeated the assurance he had previously made, which clearly applied generally and not just to the GDR. However, Genscher could not speak for NATO as a whole or even for the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, so I do not think this assurance could have created an obligation not to expand NATO on the part of the West.

The nature of the deal outlined in Moscow has been misinterpreted

Does it mean that NATO expansion did not violate the assurances made at the end of the Cold War? This is what critics of the Russian position claim, but they are wrong. Their mistake comes from the focus on the Moscow preliminary talks and a misinterpretation of the deal outlined there. Critics of the Russian position, as their opponents, interpret Baker as floating a quid pro quo, but they claim that it was limited to the GDR, that Gorbachev did not take it at the time and that he eventually agreed to a deal that did not even include this limited no-expansion pledge. However, I argue that this interpretation misconstrues the nature of the deal outlined in Moscow as well as the dynamic of the negotiations on German reunification, which continued for several months after the February talks in Moscow.

As everybody at the time understood, and indeed as Baker explained to Gorbachev in Moscow, unless Germany was allowed to stay in NATO after reunification, the Alliance would become irrelevant and would certainly not have expanded anywhere. Thus, Baker could not have been offering a guarantee that NATO would not expand, whether to the GDR or to Central and Eastern Europe as a whole, in return for Moscow's consent to Germany's continued membership, because if Gorbachev had refused there could have been no expansion!

Rather, Baker understood that Gorbachev could only force Germany to leave NATO by playing hardball in negotiations and that he did not want to do that, because he needed to maintain a cooperative stance with the West in order to achieve his policy goals.
So Baker tried to convince Gorbachev that allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification was in the Soviet Union's interest and, in order to make that concession seem less onerous, he made a limited and frankly very unclear no-expansion assurance.
Insofar as the deal outlined by Baker to Gorbachev in Moscow can be described as a quid pro quo, what the West was promising the Soviet Union in return for allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification was not that NATO would not expand to the east, but that it would collaborate with Moscow to create an inclusive post-Cold War European order in which the Soviet Union would have a place.

Baker’s formula derived from Genscher’s broader assurance, but by restricting its scope to the GDR, Baker did not just make it somewhat incoherent. Indeed, since by definition the territory of the GDR would be part of Germany after reunification, Baker’s formula implied that Germany would somehow be in NATO while part of it would remain beyond it and it was not clear what this could possibly mean.

The Russians have good reasons to feel they have been misled

Critics of the Russian position are right that even this limited no-expansion assurance was subsequently walked back in favor of a special military status for the territory of the GDR, but they incorrectly portray that as a wholesale abandonment of the deal outlined in February. In fact, the general deal outlined in Moscow never changed, Baker's unclear no-expansion pledge was just replaced by more general assurances that had the same function of convincing the Soviets that allowing Germany to stay in NATO would not result in their exclusion from Europe.

The gist of those assurances was that eventually a post-Cold War European security order that included Moscow would be created, but this could not happen overnight and, in the meantime, it was necessary to allow Germany to stay in NATO to keep the US in Europe and ensure stability. I argue that, on the basis of those assurances,
Russian officials had every reason to feel they had been misled when later NATO was expanded over their objections and a NATO-centric European security order was built instead of the inclusive order they were promised.
Western officials were not actively planning to violate any of the assurances they made during this process. But they kept them deliberately vague and papered over their disagreements with Moscow about the future of the European security order, so the Soviets would hear what they wanted to hear. Their main concern was to secure Germany’s continued membership in NATO, with as few restrictions as possible, after the reunification and in the pursuit of that goal they made broad assurances to mollify the Soviets without giving much thought about what problems could arise in the future as a result of how Russian officials interpreted those assurances.

It worked and, when later the Russians complained because they had interpreted them more expansively than what U.S. officials intended, but still very reasonably given what they had actually been told, they accused their Russian counterparts of making things up. With just a modicum of empathy, it is not hard to understand why the Russians were upset. Obviously, this is not enough to explain why Russia invaded Ukraine and it certainly does not justify the invasion, but it is part of the context that explains how the conditions that made this tragedy possible in the first place were created.
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