NATO, United States & Russia: Nature of Promise


Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton at the G8 meeting in Naples in 1994. (Peter Jones/Reuters)

In a recent Russian Security Council Meeting, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated their demands to roll back NATO’s eastward expansion. Lavrov said:

. . . our main concerns: stopping NATO’s eastward expansion and considering the configuration of NATO’s presence on the European continent, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe, in line with the previous Russia–NATO agreements.

Putin and his cronies are insistent that NATO is in violation of its “promise” and claim that Russian demands are justified because of the “encirclement” of NATO around Russia. Arguments along this line invoke the George H. W. Bush administration’s 1990 “promise” to keep NATO out of Eastern Europe.

To no great surprise, Mr. Putin is simplifying. In 2016, Jim Goldgeier, former dean of the School of International Service at American University, wrote an article in War on the Rocks about the nuanced evolution of U.S.–USSR conversations about NATO enlargement. As Putin continues to raise questions about NATO expansion and legitimacy, the article is well worth a read

Goldgeier starts by summarizing the 1990 conversation between Baker and Gorbachev:

In February 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discussed NATO’s future role in a unified Germany. Baker told Gorbachev that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east” and agreed with Gorbachev’s statement that “Any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable.

Yet in 1999, after the end of the Warsaw Pact, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland officially became NATO members. In 2004, they were joined by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Albania and Croatia followed suit in 2009, followed by Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. 

A broken promise? Not quite. As always, context matters.

Goldgeier goes on:

Gorbachev himself has acknowledged that their meetings were an early discussion in what became negotiations over the terms of German unification, rather than a broader conversation about NATO’s future role in Europe. Understanding the twists and turns of these negotiations is crucial to understanding today’s contested narratives.

What’s more, the Bush-era conversations came before the end of the Warsaw Pact and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Like Goldgeier points out, in the 1990 conversation, “There was no promise or even a discussion about countries like Poland and Hungary.”

During the Clinton administration, American leaders told Yeltsin that NATO enlargement could happen in the future, but their current efforts were behind the Partnership for Peace, which Russia was invited to join:

The United States would not push for enlargement at the January 1994 NATO summit, nor even “associate” member status for some countries. Rather, Washington would promote a Partnership for Peace to include all members of the former Warsaw Pact, including Russia, and it would focus on building military-to-military ties to enhance support for democratic reform throughout the region.

The Partnership for Peace never came to fruition, but it did demonstrate America’s good-faith attempt to involve Russia in the ever-evolving security landscape of Central and Eastern Europe.

Though the Partnership for Peace never came to fruition, under Clinton, the United States tried to convince Russia that “open door” NATO membership would not be a threat to Russia, but an asset in achieving peace and stability in Europe.

In 1994, Clinton told Yeltsin:

NATO expansion is not anti-Russian . . . I don’t want you to believe that I wake up every morning thinking only about how to make the Warsaw Pact countries a part of NATO—that’s not the way I look at it. What I do think about his how to use NATO expansion to advance the broader, higher goal of European security unity and integration—a goal I know you share.

In 2019, Goldgeier attributed Cold War–like tensions between the U.S. and Russia as well as Russia’s actions in Crimea to Putin’s disdain for American presence in Europe:

There are those who blame this state of affairs on the West for breaking promises, misleading Russian counterparts, and enlarging NATO, and others who find fault with Russia for being unable to work with NATO rather than against it and who are appalled by the invasion of Ukraine. I find myself in the latter camp, but believe the United States has erred throughout this period, particularly in the 1990s, in assuming it could eventually convince Russia that NATO’s persistence and enlargement were good for Russian interests by creating security and stability throughout the region. Gorbachev and Yeltsin wanted Russia to find its place in Europe, but not as a junior partner to the United States, and Putin has sought to reverse what he saw as pure humiliation.

Now Vladimir Putin is trying to sell a story of bad-faith U.S. encirclement. Russia, in his narrative, is only lashing out against lies and manipulation. One would expect such things from an autocrat like Putin. But the revisionism is being peddled by American populists as well. Earlier today, Candace Owens tweeted this:

Candace, who’s a Madison Cawthorn–brand isolationist, is taking Putin at his word.

Can’t you argue for isolationism without citing the lies of an authoritarian rogue? Our own Phil Klein made this point earlier today:

It’s also worth noting that those NATO “encroachments” have done plenty of good in stabilizing Europe and offering once-insecure nations the stability and assurance to pursue stronger economies and democratic governments. Goldgeier made this point:

NATO enlargement has provided enormous benefits to a part of Europe historically beset by insecurity owing to its location between Germany and Russia. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia have thrived since joining NATO, and their success as democratic market-oriented countries firmly entrenched in the alliance and the European Union is a major strategic achievement for all of Europe. Had they been left out of European institutions, they may well have faced the same insecurities and struggles that Ukraine and Georgia face today.





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