As Russia is building its military presence near the border with Ukraine and Western analysts sound the alarm about a possible invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin says his actions are a response to NATO’s enlargement.
“We said not an inch to the east – that was a NATO guarantee in 1990. So, what became of that? They fooled us. We’ve seen five waves of NATO expansion,” Putin said in his annual press conference. But has NATO ever promised Russia not to expand east?
No formal treaties
In 1990, questions about whether reunified Germany could be part of NATO were raised. West Germany had been part of the alliance since 1955.
The Soviet Union collapsed a year later, but an agreement between NATO and Russia that the military bloc would not expand to the east is a “myth”, political analysts say.
“This is a myth. To start with, there is no promise in any formal treaty document that the NATO countries made to the Soviet Union or Russia,” said Tomas Janeliūnas, a political science professor at Vilnius University (VU).
According to him, if there was a formal agreement, Putin and other Russian politicians would be able to refer to it directly when talking about NATO expansion.
In the words of Andrius Prochorenko, researcher at Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC), arguments invoking alleged agreement with NATO were made up by Putin, as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin never said anything like that.
“If we look at various historical documents, minutes of meetings, and so on, we see that the issue of NATO expansion to the east was not even mentioned,” Prochorenko told LRT.lt.
When Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary joined NATO in 1999, there was no objection from Yeltsin or Russia, the EESC researcher added.
“It was only after Lithuania and other Baltic countries joined NATO that Putin started to say that there was such an agreement and that it was a threat to Russia,” Prochorenko added.
Promises to Soviets, not Russians
Although there was no formal agreement between NATO and Russia, Putin is referring to informal conversations that are publicly available today, said John Lough, an analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House and NATO’s first representative in Moscow, who worked there in the mid-1990s.
According to him, the then US Secretary of State James Baker did mention in a conversation with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO's military jurisdiction was not expected to extend beyond Germany's eastern border.
But the US officials were talking to their Soviet, not Russian, counterparts. At the time, nobody could predict that former Soviet states would become NATO members a decade later, Lough said.
“Let us remember that in 1990, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were still in existence. So the idea that NATO would enlarge was certainly ambitious,” he told LRT.lt
“All that Baker and the Soviet counterparts were talking about was how to manage the situation in united Germany. They came up with the formula that there would be temporary deployments of German forces on the territory of former East Germany. At that time, Baker said, I think quite sincerely, that there would be no movement of NATO beyond that,” Lough added.
But a few months later, the geopolitical situation in Europe changed drastically as the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Looking back, the Russian side believes that the assurances that were given by Baker and other Western leaders to the Soviet side also applied to the Russian Federation, even though Russia now existed with borders with which it never existed before,“ the former NATO representative in Moscow said.
Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was not so hostile to NATO, and some politicians even thought that it could one day decide to join the alliance, according to Lough.
He stressed that the Partnership for Peace was devised in 1994 as a solution to what to do with the Central European countries.
“Several countries in Central Europe felt that this was NATO trying to avoid the need to enlarge. I think it shows that in the US, in particular, there was no great enthusiasm for going down this road. In the end, it was driven very largely by the Central European countries’ aspirations [to join NATO],” Lough said.
No diplomatic basis
According to the VU professor Janeliūnas, the US diplomats spoke about the non-expansion of NATO in 1990 because they wanted to convince Gorbachev to support the unification of Germany.
“No international treaty is valid forever and, in this case, there wasn't even a treaty. To say that any verbal references or attempts at reassurance should be valid now is simply naive,” he said.
“When Russia says that it has taken over the Soviet Union commitments, there was nothing to take over in terms of NATO enlargement because there were no contractual things. The takeover of verbal promises has no basis in diplomacy,” Janeliūnas added.
According to Lough, Putin is now talking about the alleged agreement between NATO and Russia because he feels that his country was cheated after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I think Putin might quite sincerely believe that Russia was deceived. […] [Russians] now feel much stronger, and they believe that now is time to re-examine those agreements and for Russia to be given the security guarantees that it craves,” he said.
NATO has never promised Russia not to expand eastwards. The supposed existence of such an agreement is based on informal conversations. In 1990, the US Secretary of State mentioned in a conversation with Gorbachev that NATO's military jurisdiction would not be extended beyond Germany's eastern border. Experts stress that this does not indicate that an agreement was reached, while the subject was never discussed afterwards. Moreover, this conversation, devoted exclusively to the unification of Germany, was between the US and the Soviet Union representatives, not those of NATO and Russia.