The Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda asked me to write an article on what was said regarding NATO expansion during the negotiations concerning German unification in 1990. I submitted the following:
This is not a simple question since much was said by many political leaders and most were proposals or ideas for negotiation, not promises. But the following points seem to me the most important regarding diplomatic contacts between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990:
(1) All the discussions in 1990 regarding the expansion of NATO jurisdiction were in the context of what would happen to the territory of the GDR. There was still a Warsaw Pact. Nobody was talking about NATO and the countries of Eastern Europe. However, the language used did not always make that specific.
(2) The territory of the GDR did come under NATO jurisdiction with Soviet approval, but not totally. As a result of the two plus four negotiations, it was agreed by all parties, including the USSR, that the territory would be part of NATO but that no foreign (non-German) troops would be stationed there. Soviet diplomats who negotiated that agreement have stated since then that they never thought they had commitments regarding Eastern Europe other than the GDR.
(3) These conversations and negotiations were in the context of a general understanding Bush and Gorbachev reached in December 1989 (Malta Summit) that the USSR would not use force in Eastern Europe and the U.S. would not “take advantage” of changes there. This was not a treaty binding on future governments. (The 2+4 agreement was a binding treaty, and has been observed.) The Malta understanding was between President Bush and President Gorbachev. I am sure that if Bush had been re-elected and Gorbachev had remained as president of the USSR there would have been no NATO expansion during their terms in office. There was no way either could commit successors, and when Gorbachev was deposed and the USSR broke up, their understandings became moot. Even formal treaty agreements are subject to the “rebus sic stantibus” principle; when the Soviet Union collapsed–something the U.S. neither desired nor caused–the “circumstances” of 1989 and 1990 changed radically.
When NATO expansion occurred some years later it was not the result of some U.S. or NATO decision to press eastward or to threaten Russia. The impetus came from the East European countries, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and initially was supported vigorously only by the smaller or less populous NATO countries (e.g., Denmark, Canada). The U.S. crafted the Partnership for Peace in an effort to avoid expanding NATO’s military structure. This policy did not satisfy the East European governments, however. Because of their historical experience–does anyone today recall the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?–they insisted on full NATO membership. They had significant supporters among their diaspora in the United States and Canada and also in other West European countries which made this a domestic political issue in the United States and other Western countries.
I personally opposed the way NATO was extended to Eastern Europe, but not because there had been a binding “promise” made earlier. I thought that a greater effort should have been made to create a “Europe whole and free,” by developing a new security structure including Russia. Unfortunately, the Russian government at that time offered no concrete proposals to achieve this end. I also thought that expanding NATO would weaken it, and I believe that it has. It is not a reliable instrument of American power as many Russians appear to believe.
By agreeing to enlarge NATO to include countries that requested membership and met NATO’s criteria, Western governments were not trying to isolate Russia but to respond to the needs of the East Europeans who, following the experience of World War II and imposed Communist domination, needed a greater feeling of security for the social stability required for political and economic modernization. I was one of those who would have preferred a different mechanism, since I feared that subsequent developments could lead to the sort of estrangement that we are experiencing today. But it was not inevitable, and Russian policy since the late 1990s has also contributed to that estrangement. Russia’s actions in regard to violence in the Balkans and increasing restrictions on freedom of information and political activity in Russia itself militated against the creation of a totally united Europe with open borders.
I have described the process as one of “inconsiderate U.S. (and Western) actions met by Russian overreaction.” All parties to today’s current disputes bear some of the responsibility for the deterioration of relations.
Turning to the Russian reaction to the situation in Ukraine, I am puzzled by what seems to be a Russian conviction that the United States and its Western allies separated Ukraine from Russia. Nothing can be further from the truth. In 1991, President Bush and the leaders of the principal allied countries tried to support President Gorbachev’s efforts to preserve the Soviet Union (minus Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania which the U.S. had never recognized as part of the USSR) by negotiating a voluntary union. Bush made this very clear in a speech in Kiev delivered August 1, 1991, when he advised Ukraine and other Soviet republics to approve Gorbachev’s “union treaty” and warned against “suicidal nationalism.”
It was in fact the elected leader of the RSFSR, Boris Yeltsin, who conspired with the Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders to break up the Soviet Union into separate independent states, and also to retain the borders which had been established during the Soviet period. The successor governments all pledged to respect the territorial integrity of the others. This was as important to the Russian Federation, which includes political entities with substantial numbers of non-Russian citizens, as it does to several of the other republics. Russia later reiterated its commitment to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity in the “Budapest agreement,” whereby Ukraine agreed to turn over to Russia the nuclear weapons on its territory. That was a commitment not only to Ukraine, but to co-signers United States and Great Britain. It did not disappear with violations of the Ukrainian constitution, as some have suggested, since it was made to the Ukrainian state, not to a particular government or constitutional order.
How can Russia’s current leaders, and Russia’s wider public, act as if outsiders broke up the Soviet Union or imposed the borders that they now seem determined to change? Neither the United States nor its Western partners had anything to do with the creation of a powerless “Commonwealth of Independent States” or of the specific borders that separated these suddenly independent political entities. If Russians don’t like them, they should look to their own political history for culprits and stop trying to blame others. Also, if they look a little more objectively at history they might understand why the countries of Eastern Europe sought the protection of NATO.
As for NATO and Ukraine, I am sure that Ukraine will not, for the foreseeable future, qualify for NATO membership. But it is time to stop approaching Ukraine’s problems, which are internal, as an East-West struggle. When the dust settles from the present crisis atmosphere, Russian and European leaders should focus on creating the Europe whole and free which was a common aim when the Cold War ended. The United States should maintain a benign distance from these events and concentrate on its political and economic health at home, and on the Pacific rim and South Asia. That is where the dynamic economic developments are occurring today.