How far the recent deterioration relations in Russia’s relations with the West might have been prevented if NATO had not expanded is a question for historians, but it was not the only factor.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 presented the Soviet Union and NATO with two immediate problems: what was to be done with the two states into which Germany had been divided? And what was to be done with the opposing alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – that these states belonged to?
There were those, notably UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President François Mitterrand, who feared instability in Europe. They would initially have preferred Germany to remain divided and the two alliances to remain in place, though they rapidly abandoned this untenable position. US President George H W Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed for a more radical solution: a reunited Germany inside a reinvigorated Western alliance. Despite some tough negotiations, the Soviet Union was too weak to resist. Germany was formally reunited in October 1990 and became a member of NATO by default. The Warsaw Pact formally disbanded in July 1991.
What happened next has been the subject of disagreement, bad blood, and mutual recrimination between Russia and the West ever since. The Russians say they were given assurances by Western leaders in 1990-1991 that NATO would not be enlarged beyond the reunited Germany. They regard its subsequent expansion as a breach of faith.
Some Western officials and historians say that no assurances were given, or that they were given but were without significance. This is an oversimplification, and fails to appreciate why the Russians reacted as they did.
It is true that in 1991-1992 NATO had no intention of enlarging, and its statements to the Russians were accurate, as things stood at the time. Moreover, they were never framed in the form of obligations or promises, even if the Russians interpreted them that way, and were not put into writing.
But the situation changed in the mid-1990s. Faced with pressure from applicant countries, NATO found it impossible to refuse, and took first Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic, but later even more East European countries in as members. The Russians did not believe Western assurances that enlargement was not directed against them, not least because they knew perfectly well why the Eastern Europeans wanted to get into NATO in the first place. It was a dilemma that there was no way of escaping.
The Clinton administration that took over in 1993 attempted to enlarge NATO while maintaining good relations with Russia. It was a forlorn hope. The Russians were alienated and alarmed by Western military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They believed, with little justification, that the “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrghyzstan and Ukraine were fuelled not by legitimate local grievances but by the machinations of the CIA, and feared they would be next.
Did the Russians deceive themselves?
Some loose language was used by American and West German officials in the course of the so-called 2+4 negotiation (East and West Germany, plus the US, Russia, France and Britain). US Secretary of State James Baker stated on 9 February 1990: “We consider that the consultations and discussions in the framework of the 2+4 mechanism should give a guarantee that the reunification of Germany will not lead to the enlargement of NATO's military organisation to the East”. The following day, Kohl said: “We consider that NATO should not enlarge its sphere of activity”.
US officials later argued that Baker's remarks referred only to the possibility of introducing NATO forces into East Germany after reunification. As they stand, however, the remarks can be interpreted as referring to a wider expansion. In the event, Baker's point was dropped from the US negotiating position. A form of words concerning the deployment, exercising or stationing of non-German as well as German NATO forces in East Germany after reunification was agreed after some heated exchanges in the final hours of negotiations in Moscow on 13 September 1990. That treaty contained nothing to rule out the eastward expansion of NATO beyond Germany; nor were any texts subsequently negotiated that gave such assurances.
But by the end of 1990 the Eastern Europeans were already exploring the possibility of training and other limited military links with NATO members. And in his New Year address to the nation on 1 January 1991, Czech President Vaclav Havel hinted at the possibility of NATO expansion to the east when he said “We are also seeking closer cooperation with NATO, though we do not intend, for the time being, to join it”. He was echoed by other Eastern European politicians, worried that Russia might revert to its imperial traditions, or that long-suppressed territorial disputes among the Eastern Europeans themselves might resurface.
Soviet officials pricked up their ears. When Soviet Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov, asked the British prime minister in March 1991 about NATO’s plans in the region, John Major replied that he “did not himself foresee circumstances now or in the future where East European countries would become members of NATO”. Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary, told Soviet Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh on 26 March 1991 that “there are no plans in NATO to include the countries of Eastern and Central Europe in NATO in one form or another”.
President Mitterrand, speaking to Mikhail Gorbachev on 6 May 1991, said “Each of the [Eastern European] countries I have mentioned will seek to ensure its security by concluding separate agreements. With whom? With NATO, of course. … I am convinced that is not the right way forward for Europe”. This was, of course, a prediction, not an assurance.
A month later, NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner declared that “granting NATO membership to former Warsaw Treaty members would be a serious obstacle to reaching mutual understanding with the Soviet Union”.
By the beginning of 1991 the Russians were already making their objections to NATO enlargement abundantly clear. The Communist Party’s journal said in March that “no matter what, these [Eastern European] countries must remain free of foreign bases and armed forces … under no circumstances must a real or potential threat to the military security of the Soviet Union be permitted to arise in the East European region”. The message was repeated in numerous public statements and press articles.
Not surprisingly, the Russians also wanted to persuade themselves that the high-level assurances from Western officials were solid. Although some Western commentators have argued otherwise, the Russians have never claimed that they were given written assurances. Indeed Yevgeni Primakov, Gorbachev’s adviser in 1991 and subsequently prime minister and head of the External Intelligence Service (SVR), later argued that the Gorbachev government ought to have got Western assurances about NATO expansion in writing. Some Russians maintain that this was another example of Gorbachev’s failure to stand up for Soviet interests.
This is unrealistic. If the Russians had demanded written assurances, Western governments would have had to consider much more carefully whether they wished to bind their hands for the future, and it is highly unlikely that they would have agreed. The chances of the Russians getting written assurances were close to zero.
In 1990-1991 the world was in turmoil. Germany reunified much more rapidly than anyone expected, Communist governments were falling across Eastern Europe, there was war in Iraq, tragedy loomed in Yugoslavia, and there was violence in several of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union itself. It is perhaps not surprising that Western leaders failed to consider the issue of NATO expansion more systematically. At that time the possibility seemed remote. Though it may not be much consolation to the Russians, Western statements in 1990-1991 were not deliberately deceptive. It was true that, as Douglas Hurd said, there were no plans to enlarge NATO at that time.
But it was not long before NATO’s plans changed.
Enlargement goes ahead
The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were determined to escape their historical fate as the playthings of Russia and Germany, and continued to lobby hard for membership of NATO and the European Union as the best way to ensure security and prosperity. They were supported by sympathisers in Washington and elsewhere under the slogan “Europe whole and free”, as proclaimed by President Bush in 1989. They argued that the Eastern Europeans had every right to seek membership, and that the Russians had no right to object (the Russians, who believed that their national interests and security were affected, did not agree). President Bill Clinton accepted the arguments, backed the policy, and in 1997 Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were invited to join the Alliance. They became members two years later, and in 2004 the other former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic states followed suit.
Thereafter the US under President G W Bush, supported by the British, pressed hard for NATO to take in Ukraine and Georgia as well. At that time Ukrainian opinion was on the whole against membership, while Georgian opinion was in favour. There seems to have been no serious analysis, either by governments or NATO itself, of the central issue: if the Alliance took in these two countries, would it be able to generate the military plans, the resources, and the will to honour its commitment to defend them against aggression? The failure was irresponsible, but the movement towards membership for the two countries was in any case halted by the French and the Germans at NATO’s Bucharest summit in 2008.
As the most powerful alliance in history approached Russia’s borders, NATO and its members tried to reassure the Russians that the Alliance’s consolidation and expansion would stabilise Europe and prevent it being dominated by any one of its members (read: a united Germany). Havel called for a permanent dialogue with Moscow to ensure that the Russians “understand that NATO's eastward expansion does not threaten their interests”. NATO offered Russia a closer relationship, encapsulated in the 1997 ‘‘Founding Act”, which foresaw a common effort to build “a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security”.
The Russians were not convinced, especially when it was made clear to them that they would not have a full or equal part in the Alliance’s decisions (full membership was sometimes mooted: but both sides knew it was impossible). The Russians’ muddled proposals for an alternative European security arrangement were rejected or ignored.
President Clinton described the situation as follows: “What the Russians get out of this great deal we’re offering them is a chance to sit in the same room with NATO and join us whenever we all agree to something, but they don’t have any ability to stop us from doing something that they don’t agree with. They can register their disapproval by walking out of the room. And for their second big benefit, they get our promise that we’re not going to put our military stuff into their former allies who are now going to be our allies, unless we happen to wake up one morning and decide to change our mind.”
War in the Balkans
In 1999 the US and its allies launched a war against Serbia, intended to defend the Muslim populations of Kosovo against ethnic cleansing and massacre by the Serbs. Russian liberals as well as Russian nationalists were shocked and angered to an extent which has barely been appreciated in the West. Sixty-five percent of them saw NATO as the aggressor in a ruthless campaign against a small sovereign nation. They rejected the “humanitarian” justification for the war and the subsequent detachment of Kosovo, which they believed was illegal because it had not been sanctioned by the United Nations and infringed long-established principles of national sovereignty and the inviolability of frontiers. Indeed, some legal advisers in the British and French foreign ministries also had doubts about the legality of the campaign.
Some Russian genuinely feared, however implausibly, that they would be next on the list of NATO’s victims. All this fuelled the nationalism that was to become a dominant characteristic of Russian policy in the twenty-first century.
Regardless of what assurances were given, some in the West believe that it was a major error of policy to alienate Moscow by enlarging NATO without providing for a wider European security arrangement that included Russia. One US scholar, Michael Mandelbaum, goes so far as to argue that “The expansion of NATO over their objections taught Russians two lessons that it was not remotely in the American interest for them to learn: that American promises were not to be trusted; and that the West would take advantage of a weak and accommodating Russia”.
This is an oversimplification. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to hope, but no certainty, that a new and more democratic Russia could cooperate peacefully with Western institutions, even if it could not be fully integrated into them. The Eastern Europeans were bound to be concerned that, if these hopes were dashed, they would be left to deal with the consequences on their own. It was almost inevitable that NATO should move into the security vacuum that had opened up, even though its actions were tainted by triumphalism and sloppy diplomacy.
It was also inevitable that the Russians would reject the claim that the West was the best judge of their interests. Successive Russian governments were determined that the country should regain its sovereign freedom to act as it saw fit, and that it should once again be respected, if not loved, as a major international player. The restoration of the tattered and dysfunctional armed forces that had survived the collapse the Soviet Union was, as they saw it, a necessary part of the process.
But however infuriated they were by NATO expansion and the Alliance’s wars in the Balkans, it did not follow that the Russians were bound to launch their own military actions in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine. There were other, less violent, ways of dealing with what they regarded as Georgian provocations, the distant possibility that their base in Sevastopol in Crimea might pass to NATO if Ukraine became a member, and the disadvantages under which the Russian-speakers in Ukraine were allegedly labouring.
How far the recent deterioration relations in Russia’s relations with the West might have been slowed or prevented if NATO had not expanded is a question for historians. But it certainly was not the only factor.
 Source: FCO archives; and Russian archives, quoted by Yevgeni Primakov, Gody v Bolshoi Politike, Moscow 1999, pages 231-246. I was present at the meetings between John Major and Douglas Hurd and Soviet officials.
 Manfred Woerner, interview with TASS on 16 June 1991
 Quoted in James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: US Policy toward Russia after the Cold War, Washington 2003, pp. 204-205
 Mandelbaum Michael, Mission Failure, America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, Oxford 2016, Electronic edition, location 1389
 These matters have been discussed, among others, by Mark Kramer, NATO, Russia, and East European Security, article in Kate Martin and Uri Ra'anan,.eds. Russia: A Return to Imperialism? New York, 1995; Mary Sarotte, A Broken Promise? What the West Really Told Moscow About NATO Expansion, article in Foreign Affairs, New York, September/October 2014.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.