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Enlargement to the East: How NATO broke its word

by Norman Paech
The expansion eastward is still not complete, and the debate over the pros and cons will continue. One point of contention, however, should have been settled by the declassified documents. The West made a promise to Gorbachev to leave NATO in its former borders, but this promise was already broken at the end of the 1990s.
Enlargement to the East: How Nato broke its word
by Norman Paech
[This article published on Feb 3, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Osterweiterung: Wie die Nato wortbrüchig wurde]

From Wörner to Baker: numerous assurances were given to states of the ex-Soviet space. Later, no one liked to remember them

On the 70th anniversary three years ago, several heads of state and government were still missing, and the skeptical undertone in all the praise only confirmed that things were not running smoothly in the organization. Some at NATO headquarters in Brussels may therefore see the foreseeable and currently escalating conflict with Russia as an opportunity for a revival of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

For it is also a fact that the organization has never retreated from the front lines of its strategic projects. And one of these projects, which is still current, is the shifting of NATO's borders to the east, as close as possible to the borders of the Russian Federation. So anyone who talks about NATO cannot be silent about eastward expansion.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and with it the Warsaw Pact had made it necessary for NATO, whose continued existence was never officially questioned, to rethink its European security structure.

As early as 1991, even before the formal independence of the 15 Soviet Union republics, the then Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner, had assured Boris Yeltsin that the overwhelming majority of the states on the NATO Council (13 out of 16) had spoken out against an expansion of NATO and that the isolation of the USSR from the European Community should not be permitted.

A year earlier, in a speech in Brussels, he had already tried to calm concerns expressed in the Soviet Union by assuring1:

The very fact that we are prepared not to station NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany gives the Soviet Union binding security guarantees.

Developments, however, took a different course. As early as the beginning of September 1993, the U.S. State Department had developed a plan for the expansion of NATO. It envisaged starting as soon as possible with Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, with a view to including Ukraine, Belarus and also Russia in 2005.

Yeltsin was worried by these plans and he wrote a letter to Clinton as early as September 15, 1993, warning2:

Not only the opposition, but also moderate circles (in Russia) would undoubtedly perceive this as a new isolation of our country, diametrically opposed to its natural inclusion in a Euro-Atlantic space.

He also referred to the Treaty on German Reunification, which would "exclude the option of extending the NATO area to the East." At the same time, the U.S. diplomat in Russia, James Collins, warned that the issue of NATO is neuralgic for the Russians3.

They assume they will end up on the wrong side of a newly divided Europe if any decision is made quickly. Regardless of how nuanced, if NATO adopts a policy of expanding into Central and Eastern Europe without leaving a door open for Russia, it would be interpreted everywhere in Moscow as being against Russia - and Russia alone.
James Collins

But Clinton stuck to the plans and sought to make them palatable to his interlocutors from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia as a "partnership for peace" during his January 1994 trip to Prague and Moscow. He declared that the "Partnership for Peace" was a "path leading to NATO membership" and not "drawing another line dividing Europe a few hundred miles to the east. "4

That the second prediction was not correct is undisputed today and is shown by further developments. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic became members of NATO. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia followed in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, and finally Montenegro in 2017. However, Bosnia-Herzegovina and northern Macedonia are still on NATO's Membership Action Plan.

This could close this chapter of NATO's strategy. Although Ukraine is not yet on the list, its integration would mean that NATO would cross the red line formulated by President Putin.Nevertheless, there is still one accusation that is the subject of constant dispute. The accusation is that by expanding NATO to the east, the West has broken a promise made to Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the USSR, not to move its borders to the east.

Just in time for the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO, Horst Teltschik had written in his book Russisches Roulette. Vom Kalten Krieg zum Kalten Frieden (C.H. Beck, 2019) relegated this promise to the realm of legend. There had indeed been talks between Hans-Dietrich Genscher and his U.S. colleague James Baker at the beginning of 1990 that could be interpreted in this direction.

But "there was not and could not be an official promise by the West.... There was only the agreement not to station NATO forces or NATO facilities on the former territory of the GDR as long as Russian troops were still present in the GDR (...) President Mikhail Gorbachev has since confirmed several times that there were no talks in 1990 about a possible eastward expansion. "5

Teltschik, a contemporary witness and Helmut Kohl's closest foreign policy advisor at the time, is a difficult source to refute. And yet Klaus von Dohnanyi clearly contradicted him in his review of the book in Die Zeit in June of this year.6 In Moscow at the beginning of February 1990, Foreign Minister Baker had given Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze the clear assurance that there would be "no expansion of NATO beyond the then eastern borders of the GDR (...) whatsoever." Baker had also informed Helmut Kohl of this before his talks with Gorbachev.

Dohnanyi relied predominantly on a publication by Harvard professor Mary Elise Sarotte, who states in her book "1989," published in a second edition in 2014, that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had agreed with President Gorbachev in early February 1990 during his negotiations on German reunification that NATO would not seek any expansion beyond the then eastern border of the GDR. She cites a written note from Baker about the talks:

End result: Unified Ger. anchored in a changed (polit.) Nato - whose jurid. would not move eastwards.

Gorbachev had replied at the time, "Most certainly any expansion of NATO beyond its present area would be unacceptable." Today, Dohnanyi considers this historic course of U.S.-Soviet talks to be indisputable.

However, this in turn challenged Telchik's opposition, who in the July 11, 2019 Time sticks to his "legend of the broken promise" and now elaborates on his own role. Baker had informed Kohl in a letter before his conversation with Gorbachev. This letter had been announced to him, Teltschik, personally by Baker and had been handed over when Kohl arrived at the Moscow airport on February 10.

The letter proved that the conversation between Baker with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had been exclusively about the process of possible unification and the future status of a unified Germany:

Baker had asked Gorbachev whether he would prefer a united Germany outside NATO, independent and without U.S. troops, with assurances that NATO's jurisdiction would not change one inch eastward from its present position. Gorbachev had replied that "any expansion of NATO territory would be unacceptable."

One might take this as confirmation of Dohnanyi's version. However, Teltschik still considers it an overinterpretation of the letter and Baker's memo:

"Honesty" demands that I clearly contradict Ms. Sarotte and Mr. von Dohnanyi, both of whom I hold in high regard, in this case.

The only odd thing is that both opponents overlooked the documents that the National Security Archive published on December 12, 2017, under the title Nato Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard.7 They all testify that Baker's famous "not one inch eastwards" at the February 9, 1990, meeting with Gorbachev was an assurance not to push the expansion of Nato's scope beyond the limits then in place.

But not only that, all relevant heads of state and government, from Bush to Kohl, Mitterrand and Thatcher were of the same conviction. Already at the Malta summit in December 1989, Bush had assured Gorbachev that the United States would not take advantage of the revolutions in Eastern Europe to hurt Soviet interests.

He repeated this position at the Washington summit on May 31, 1990, that by unifying Germany, the United States was not even thinking of harming the Soviet Union in any way. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was more explicit in his famous speech in Tutzing on January 31, 1990, when he said that NATO should rule out "an expansion of its territory to the east, i.e., closer to the Soviet borders. "8

This "Tutzing formula" then formed the basis for Kohl's subsequent talks with Gorbachev in Moscow on February 10, when he received agreement in principle to unify and remain in NATO as long as NATO did not expand eastward.

Baker also referred to this formula in his conversation with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on 9. February, and explained his "not an inch eastward" formula three times in his conversation the same day with Gorbachev: the U.S. had understood "that it was important not only for the Soviet Union but equally for the European states to have guarantees that if the U.S. moved positions into Germany under NATO, not an inch of NATO military jurisdiction would be extended eastward. "9

At a renewed meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow on May 18, 1990, he again assured10:

Before I say a few words on the German matter, I would like to emphasize once again that our policy is not to separate Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union. This was our policy at one time. But today we are interested in building a stable Europe and doing it with you.
James Baker

France's François Mitterrand also stressed during his talks with Gorbachev in Moscow on May 25 that while he personally favored dismantling the military blocs, the West needed to create a secure environment for the Soviet Union as well as for Europe as a whole. After the Washington summit in late May, Margret Thatcher met Gorbachev in London on June 8, 1990. She, too, spoke of supporting Gorbachev and transforming NATO into a more political and less militarily threatening alliance11:

We must find ways to give the Soviet Union confidence that its security was assured.... The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) could be an umbrella for all this, as could the forum that brought the Soviet Union fully into the discussion about the future in Europe.
Margret Thatcher

The CSCE also played a role in the telephone conversation of July 17, 1990, in which Bush put to Gorbachev, among others, the idea of an expanded and stronger CSCE with new institutions in which the USSR could participate and be a part of the new Europe. However, there were other currents within the U.S. government. For example, the Department of Defense believed that the door should be left open for the membership of Eastern European states in NATO. For the State Department, however, NATO enlargement was not on the agenda.

Two years later, however, the Defense Department had apparently prevailed with its view. Since then, the discussion about Nato's eastward expansion, and especially the criticism of it, has not abated. In 1997, former Secretary of State Robert McNamara and more than 40 high-ranking politicians wrote an open letter to President Bill Clinton, calling possible eastward expansion a "mistake of historic proportions."

And George F. Kennan, diplomat and leading Cold War strategist, warned in the New York Times that expanding NATO to Russia's borders would be the most disastrous post-Cold War mistake in American policy.

He mainly warned that such a decision could fuel nationalist, anti-Western and militarist tendencies in Russia and would have a harmful impact on the development of democracy. In any case, NATO's push has again drawn a line through Europe and deepened the confrontation between NATO's West and Russia.

The expansion eastward is still not complete, and the debate over the pros and cons will continue. One point of contention, however, should have been settled by the declassified documents. They allow no other conclusion than that the West made a promise to Gorbachev to leave NATO in its former borders, but that this promise was already broken at the end of the 1990s. (Norman Paech)

Eastern enlargement: How NATO broke its word
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