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The Original Sin of Post-Cold War Western Foreign Policy
CSPI Report No. 8
General introduction to the series
On the morning of February 24, 2022, as Russian troops marched into Ukraine, the world woke up to find out that it had entered a new era. By ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin did not just destroy the lives of countless people in Ukraine and Russia, but also shattered what little was left of the hopes born at the end of the Cold War. Between 1989 and 1991, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe had disappeared almost overnight, while the Soviet Union itself had followed suit shortly afterward. Almost everywhere in the Eastern bloc, communist leaders were replaced by democrats, who organized competitive elections and launched reforms to transition to a market economy. Even before the Soviet Union disintegrated, the communist leadership had started to democratize their country and had effectively put an end to the Cold War through negotiations with the US and its allies, resulting in vast reductions of armament both nuclear and conventional. For the first time in decades, people did not have to fear a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which unless it was stopped in time could have led to a nuclear exchange and the destruction of modern civilization in both Europe and North America. The future seemed bright and people looked ahead to a new era of peace, democracy and cooperation. Unfortunately, thirty years later, we know that it wasn’t meant to be. This vision of a bright future did not unravel all of a sudden but slowly over many years and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022, which kicked off the largest war in Europe since WWII, was merely the conclusion of a long process.
Why did this happen? According to the prevailing narrative, the answer to that question is very simple. Unlike Germany or Japan, Russia never truly rejected imperialism and, though after 1991 it was temporarily weakened, it continued to aspire to dominate its neighbors. Out of naivety, and despite being told this repeatedly by Central and Eastern Europeans, the West refused to act forcefully against Moscow’s imperialist tendencies. In particular, after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the West did not give up the hope that it could reach some kind of accommodation with Moscow and refused to break off relations with it. Neither the US nor the EU took sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion. Instead, the US launched the so-called “reset” in 2009 to improve relations with Russia, which led to various political and military agreements. Meanwhile, Germany and several other Western European countries continued to build the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea in collaboration with Russia, which allowed them to secure a supply of Russian natural gas that bypassed Ukraine and therefore weakened it by reducing its leverage over Russia. Even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, in violation of several international treaties it had ratified, the West reacted weakly and only adopted limited sanctions. This emboldened Putin and, when Ukraine refused to obey his diktat by adopting a federal constitution and granting autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk (where Russia was covertly supporting the separatists against the Ukrainian armed forces), convinced him that he could get away with a full-blown invasion.
In a series of essays, I will argue that although this narrative has now become largely uncontroversial, it’s extremely simplistic and in some respects even gets things backwards. That is not to say, of course, that Russia is not imperialist and that this didn’t play a role in the sequence of events that resulted in the invasion of Ukraine. But there is a lot more to this story and, as I will argue, the deterioration of relations between the West and Russia that made the invasion possible in the first place would not have occurred if the West, not just Russia, had not made several mistakes after the end of the Cold War that needlessly aggravated Moscow. Nor does it mean that, as some people think, the US and its allies deliberately provoked Russia into invading Ukraine. Rather, bad luck and policy mistakes not only in Russia but also in the West and Ukraine conspired to create a perfect storm, which led to the events of 2014 and ultimately to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Nobody forced Russia to invade Ukraine, but historical events always have several causes and there is no such thing as a law of conservation of blame, so the fact that Russia bears the bulk of the responsibility for the war doesn’t mean that nobody else is to blame for it. As we shall see, there is an element of Greek tragedy in what happened, as nobody intended their actions to result in that outcome, but that is not to say that it was inevitable. I don’t think it was, but to understand how it could have been avoided, one has to understand how it came about.
The problem is that, in order to understand what happened and how it could perhaps have been avoided, one has to go back all the way to the end of the Cold War and carefully pore over more than thirty years of history, for without this context it’s simply impossible to understand more recent events and one is bound to misinterpret them. This makes it difficult for people who think it’s more complicated than generally understood to make their case effectively, because they have to challenge assumptions that are now deeply entrenched, and this requires launching into long historical explanations that vastly exceed most people’s attention spans. By contrast, proponents of the prevailing view have a narrative that is not only superficially compelling and consistent with people’s prejudices (since it fits the handful of facts they know or think they know about very well), but can be presented very succinctly. As historian Mariana Budjeryn wrote on a related issue, “complicated histories are unpopular, as they do not readily translate into political slogans”.Anyone who aspires to challenge this narrative has therefore his work cut out for him, but I shall nevertheless endeavor to do so and ask that you keep an open mind as I present my interpretation of the events I discuss in this work.
In order to challenge the prevailing view, it’s not enough to look at the facts
;, the historical analysis has to be informed by clear thinking about morality and foreign policy. As Paul D’Anieri wrote after identifying some normative questions one has to answer to say how the events of 2014 could have been averted:
These are normative questions whose answers depend on further assumptions about the rights of great powers, the inviolability of sovereignty and international law, the boundaries of realpolitik, and so on. How one answers those questions will determine whose claim one believes has greater weight, who should therefore have backed off, and who, in the final analysis, is guilty of not backing off and therefore to blame for the conflict. Even in February 2014, violence could have been avoided as long as each side refrained from shifting to violence. Whether that move to violence should be blamed on protesters in Kyiv, on Yanukovych, or on Russia also falls back on normative assumptions. Thus, rather than history or analysis resolving who is to blame, how one assigns blame tends to shape how one writes or reads the analysis.
Indeed, it’s not just the historical analysis embedded in the dominant narrative that is simplistic, but also the normative assumptions on which it implicitly rests. As we shall see, once those assumptions are made explicit and critically examined, many common arguments on what happened and who is to blame for it fall apart. I hope that, at the very least, I will convince even the skeptical reader that things are more complicated than they seem. Below you can find the first essay of the series in which I explain why the hopes of 1989 have not been fulfilled and instead Europe is now engulfed in the largest war on the continent since WWII.
Did the US and its allies promise the Soviet Union that there would be no NATO expansion at the end of the Cold War? This question has caused considerable controversy, as successive Russian leaders have made this claim over the past 30 years and accused the West of breaking their pledge by expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe.
As revolutions swept through Central and Eastern Europe and the Cold War drew to a close in 1989, German reunification was the most pressing issue to settle the conflict. But it required Moscow’s approval due to legal rights inherited from the end of WWII and the presence of a massive contingent of Soviet troops in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The central question was whether united Germany would be allowed to stay in NATO after reunification or whether it would have to leave the Alliance and adopt some kind of neutral status. Indeed, with the end of the Cold War, it wasn’t even clear whether NATO should continue to exist.
Most scholars have sided against Russia in arguing that no such pledge had been made during the negotiations on German reunification and more generally that the West didn’t have any obligation not to expand NATO as a result of the commitments made at the end of the Cold War.
The debate has focused on statements made by US and West German officials during preliminary talks held on the issue in February 1990. While everybody agrees that on this occasion they pledged not to expand NATO to the east if Germany was allowed to stay in the Alliance, people disagree about what they meant and what implications those exchanges had.
Critics of the Russian position argue that they were only talking about the territory of the GDR, that Gorbachev didn’t take even this limited no-expansion deal and that it was subsequently retracted anyway. Defenders of the Russian position argue that US and West German officials were talking about Central and Eastern Europe as a whole and that some kind of implicit deal ruling out NATO expansion to that area was in fact struck.
I argue that although they often overstate it, the Russians nevertheless have a strong case for a weak version of their claim, but that it’s not for the case defenders of their position typically make. Conversely, critics of the Russian position are right that US and West German officials were only talking about the GDR (with one important exception about which they misrepresent the evidence), but it’s not for the reasons they claim.
Moreover, they mistakenly conclude that Western officials didn’t make assurances that ruled out NATO expansion because, like defenders of the Russian position, they misconstrue the dynamic of the negotiations on German reunification and focus on the preliminary talks held in February 1990 at the expense of the rest of the negotiations.
I argue that Western officials never proposed a quid pro quo to their Soviet counterparts, at least not the quid pro quo that both critics and defenders of the Russian position have suggested. Gorbachev was not the naive negotiator usually portrayed, but was severely constrained by the fact that achieving his main policy goals required maintaining a cooperative stance with the West.
This led him to consent to German reunification in NATO, but he also accepted because he was assured repeatedly by Western officials that it would be followed by the creation of an inclusive post-Cold War European security order. I argue that NATO expansion, which instead created a NATO-centric security architecture that excluded Moscow, was a violation of those assurances.
The most significant aspect of this controversy, however, is not so much whether the US and its allies violated a pledge not to expand NATO made at the time, but the decision by the Bush administration to preserve NATO’s primacy in the post-Cold War era instead of pursuing a pan-European security agenda.
I conclude by reflecting on this road not taken at the end of the Cold War and argue that the Bush administration’s decision not to follow it, which I explain was made for both good and bad reasons, made the subsequent deterioration of relations between Russia and the West and a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, while by no means inevitable, much more likely.
In 1985, after the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In the years that followed, he launched a series of wide-ranging reforms that undermined the CPSU's monopoly on power, ended the Cold War and eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite widespread misconceptions, Gorbachev decided to end the Cold War not because he had no choice (while the Soviet Union was already in crisis at the time it still had the means to continue to wage the Cold War), but rather because he came to reject the ideological underpinning of the East-West confrontation. Paradoxically, he was able to succeed in ending the Cold War because he found a willing and enthusiastic partner in Ronald Reagan, who then as now was considered the arch-Cold Warrior. Reagan came to power with the conviction that something had to be done to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons, but he was critical of the détente because he thought that it had disproportionately benefited the Soviet Union, so he adopted a policy that combined firmness to force the Soviets to the negotiating table with a genuine willingness to make substantial reductions in nuclear weapons once they did. Although initially skeptical, Reagan came to trust Gorbachev after meeting him and became convinced that he was serious about reforming the Soviet Union and democratizing it, leading to a fruitful cooperation and a transformation of US-Soviet relations that ended the Cold War.
In 1987, the two leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF Treaty), which closed the Euromissile Crisis started by the Soviet Union's decision to deploy SS-20 missiles targeting Western Europe at the end of the 1970s and was the first arms reduction agreement to eliminate a whole category of weapons. They also resumed the negotiations on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START Treaty), which had begun in 1982 but had stalled after Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, although it would not be signed until 1991 under George H. Bush. Moreover, Gorbachev started to reduce the number of troops that were stationed in Warsaw Pact countries, although hundreds of thousands remained. In December 1988, he made a speech at the UN in which he rejected the use of force in foreign policy and declared that Central and Eastern Europeans should be free to decide what kind of political and economic system they wished to live under, which amounted to a rejection of the Brezhnev Doctrine and made people in the West realize that he was serious about reforms.A few months later, his intentions were put to the test when Central and Eastern European countries moved toward liberalization and started the process that would result in the collapse of socialism in the Eastern bloc. But Gorbachev stood firm and, in a speech he gave at the Council of Europe in July, repeated his pledge that the Soviet Union would not use force to stop that process.
In August 1989, a peace demonstration was held on the Austro-Hungarian border and the border was briefly opened, which set in motion a chain of reaction that resulted in the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. By the end of the year, after a series of revolutions, communist regimes had been swept away everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe and replaced by democratic political systems with competitive elections. In September, the Hungarian authorities decided to open the border with Austria, which led to the exodus of thousands of East Germans and further increased the pressure on the German Democratic Republic to open up. Mass protests erupted in East Germany and, by October, Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was forced to resign. On November 9, the spokesman of the regime gave a press conference to announce new travel regulations, but in talking to journalists he gave the impression that East Germans were now free to cross the border in Berlin. The news spread quickly and, a few hours later, a very large crowd had gathered at the Wall and demanded to cross to the West. Since no one was willing to take the responsibility to use force to disperse the crowd, the commander at one of the border crossings yielded and ordered the guards to let people through.Almost 40 years after it was erected, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the German reunification, which up until then had seemed but a distant hope, suddenly appeared inevitable.
However, it would require negotiations with the Soviet Union, which still had more than 300,000 troops on the territory of the GDR and legal rights over Germany due to the post-World War 2 arrangements under which Germany was to be administered by the victorious powers. These negotiations took place throughout 1990 and, in the years and decades that followed, have become the topic of a controversy between the West and Russia. Moscow claims that, during the negotiations, Western officials had pledged not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe to convince Gorbachev to allow Germany to remain in NATO after reunification. As we shall see, although today this argument is commonly associated with Vladimir Putin (who frequently brings up this old grievance to justify his actions), it has a long history that started well before he rose to power and did not originate with him.It's important to examine this controversy because, although ultimately I will argue that it’s not as important as many people who are sympathetic to the Russian argument believe, I think it illustrates how Russia's complaints are summarily, and sometimes even dishonestly, dismissed in the West even when they have merits. This kind of attitude goes a long way toward explaining why Moscow came to distrust the West in the decades since the end of the Cold War, even if taken in isolation this particular episode didn't matter as much as the importance it has taken in the public debate suggests. This controversy also highlights how key decisions that were made by the US and its allies at the end of the Cold War and, beyond the particular issue of NATO expansion, shaped the relations between Russia and the West in the post-Cold War era.
1 The controversy about the pledge not to expand NATO
As I just noted, the controversy about the pledge that Western officials allegedly made not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War did not originate with Putin. Russian officials have offered several different versions of that argument over the years and it’s not always easy to pin down exactly what claims they are making. A version of that argument was made in 1993 by Boris Yeltsin in a letter that he sent to Bill Clinton:
I also want to call attention to the fact that the spirit of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed in September 1990, especially its provisions that prohibit the deployment of foreign troops within the eastern lands of the Federal Republic of Germany precludes the option of expanding the NATO zone into the east.
This claim was not only vague but also pretty weak, since in particular he was just talking about the “spirit” of the treaty on Germany’s reunification, but later in the 1990s Russian officials made stronger arguments that referred more specifically to claims made by Western officials at the end of the Cold War.More recently, in the speech he made just before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin also referred to the promise that Moscow had allegedly received in 1990 and was more specific:
In 1990, when German unification was discussed, the United States promised the Soviet leadership that NATO jurisdiction or military presence will not expand one inch to the east and that the unification of Germany will not lead to the spread of NATO's military organization to the east. This is a quote.
As we shall see, the quote he seemed to have had in mind was a statement made by James Baker, who in 1990 was Secretary of State. In 2009, Dmitry Medvedev, then President of Russia, had also accused the West of having broken promises that were made at the time:
After the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, we were hoping for a higher degree of integration. But what have we received? None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration. NATO remains a military bloc whose missiles are pointed towards Russian territory. By contrast, we would like to see a new European security order.
It’s interesting to note that, in Medvedev’s version of the argument, NATO expansion was part of a more general complaint about the West’s attitude toward Russia after the end of the Cold War. In order to understand what they were talking about, it’s necessary to go back to what happened after November 8, 1989.
Three weeks after the fall of the Wall, Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), made a speech in the Bundestag where he presented a ten-point plan to reunify Germany. In this speech, he proposed in particular that, as a first step toward unification, a German confederation be created that would bring together the FRG and the GDR. But he made that proposal without consulting either Gorbachev or his Western allies, which raised concerns both in the Soviet Union and the West that he might try to act unilaterally and present them with a fait accompli. Gorbachev was particularly upset because, after the Wall fell, he’d sent a personal envoy to Kohl enjoining him to proceed with caution and promising that if he did then “anything might become possible”, so he thought that by making that speech without talking to him first Kohl had violated their agreement.As a result, he refused to discuss reunification for 2 months after that, which gave Kohl time to reassure his Western allies. They were also concerned that he’d made that announcement without consulting them and, ironically, suspected that he might have made a deal behind their back with Gorbachev. François Mitterrand, the French president, accepted reunification without enthusiasm but wanted to make sure that it would not imperil European integration and that post-WWII borders would not be questioned. Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, was opposed to reunification because she feared Germany would go bad again. While eventually she accepted that she couldn’t prevent it and aligned herself with the US position, she secretly hoped that Gorbachev would stop it. As for George Bush, the US president, he supported German reunification as long as it did not threaten NATO, which then as now was the main vehicle of US influence in Europe. In January, the Soviets reached the conclusion that reunification was inevitable, so they agreed to host US and West German officials in Moscow on February 9-10 for preliminary talks on the issue.
The controversy has focused on what US and West German officials told their Soviet counterparts during those preliminary talks in Moscow. As we shall see, they made some assurances that NATO would not expand to the east, but people disagree about what they meant by that. The Russians and people who defend their position claim that, when US and West German officials told the Soviets that if Germany could stay in NATO after reunification the Alliance would not move eastward, they were not just talking about the territory of the GDR but about Central and Eastern Europe in general. Most Western officials, on the other hand, insist that the assurances made in Moscow only pertained to the GDR. For instance, then Secretary of State Baker, who as we shall see played a crucial role in the negotiations over German reunification, repeatedly made that claim and denied that the Russian argument had any merit:
There was a discussion about whether the unified Germany would be a member of NATO, and that was the only discussion we ever had. And the Soviets signed a treaty acknowledging that the unified Germany would be a member of NATO. So I don't understand how they can have these ideas that somehow, now, we promised them there would be no extension of NATO. There was never any discussion of anything but the GDR.
This is also the view expressed by Philip Zelikow, who in 1990 was on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) dealing with those issues. In a 1995 op-ed, he claimed that “there is no evidence that in late January or early February of 1990 anyone — Mr. Genscher, James Baker or Mikhail Gorbachev — was even thinking, much less talking, about the possibility of NATO expansion even further into East-Central Europe”.Rodric Braithwaite and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, respectively UK ambassador to the Soviet Union and foreign minister of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1990, more recently expressed a similar opinion.
Until a few years ago, this position had also become a near-consensus among scholars. Its most influential defense is probably a paper by Mark Kramer published in 2009, where he argued that the idea that Western officials had pledged not to expand NATO if the Soviet Union agreed to allow reunified Germany to stay in NATO was a "myth".Angela Stent, citing that paper among other things, recently summarized that position:
What did the West promise Gorbachev at the time of German unification? This question has riled relations for more than twenty years, reinvigorated as more archival material has become available. Some Western participants in the German unification process insist that the United States promised Gorbachev that NATO would not enlarge after Germany was unified and accuse the West of reneging on commitments it made to the USSR. Many Russian officials and experts, including Mikhail Gorbachev himself, subscribe to this view. “According to the Two-Plus-Four Agreements under which Germany was unified,” he has said, “the United States, Germany, Britain and France promised us that they would not expand NATO east of Germany.” Yet a careful reading of the agreements that were signed in 1990 when a united Germany joined NATO reveals that NATO enlargement was not explicitly addressed. Gorbachev and his advisors may have with hindsight believed that promises had been made by the Americans. But the historical record shows that no explicit commitments about NATO not enlarging were made—simply because this issue was not on the table. Secretary of State James Baker had told Gorbachev in February 1990 (before Germany was unified) that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift eastward from its present position, but he was referring to NATO’s jurisdiction over the territory of the GDR, not to NATO’s possible enlargement. In other words, Baker was talking about not stationing NATO troops on the territory of the former East Germany after 1990, not about anything else.
For a long time, this view was virtually unchallenged in academic circles, but this changed a few years ago when new archival documents emerged and some scholars started to argue that, in light of that evidence, Kramer's position had to be revised.
This actually started in 2009, the same year Kramer published his paper, when Der Spiegel published a piece saying that "after speaking with many of those involved and examining previously classified British and German documents in detail, SPIEGEL has concluded that there was no doubt that the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia".But it took a few years before academics, using the documents cited by Der Spiegel and other recently declassified materials, started to push back against Kramer's view. In 2016, Joshua Shifrinson published a much noted paper in which he reopened the debate and, using recently declassified documents, argued that despite the consensus "this evidence suggests that Russian leaders are essentially correct in claiming that U.S. efforts to expand NATO since the 1990s violate the ‘spirit’ of the 1990 negotiations". Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton made a similar argument in 2017, concluding that "multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels". More recently, Marc Trachtenberg published a paper in which he defends a similar view, concluding that "the Russian allegations are by no means baseless". Previously, Mary Sarotte had somewhat nuanced Kramer’s position, arguing that contrary to what he claims the expansion of NATO not only to East Germany but also to Central and Eastern Europe was briefly discussed in 1990, though in the end Gorbachev never secured a promise that it would not happen and even made concessions on East Germany in the final agreement that undermined the principle that NATO could not expand eastward. Kristina Spohr is generally close to Kramer's position, but she nevertheless acknowledges that several Western officials "did make comments to Soviet officials that might have been interpreted as more far-reaching and thus perhaps more consequential in terms of Soviet perceptions than has so far been acknowledged".
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, those arguments had weakened the consensus in favor of Kramer's position, but since then it has become unpopular to acknowledge that some of Putin's complaints may have merits, so now people tend to talk as if the debate of the last few years had never happened and the view that Russia's position has no merits whatsoever once again goes largely unchallenged. In what follows, I argue against that view and conclude that the conclusion reached by Der Spiegel is essentially correct, while acknowledging that the case for the Russian position has nevertheless been exaggerated. In particular, I show that critics of that position are right about a crucial aspect of that debate (though for the wrong reasons), namely the scope of the assurances made in Moscow during the preliminary talks on Germany’s reunification in February 1990. With one exception, US and West German officials who participated in those preliminary talks were only talking about the territory of the GDR, but I argue that it doesn’t follow that NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe didn’t violate assurances made at the end of the Cold War because the negotiations on Germany’s reunification continued for several months after that and Western officials subsequently made broader assurances that it was very reasonable for the Russians to retrospectively consider incompatible with NATO expansion. But perhaps more importantly, this discussion will highlight a key but largely ignored fact about this controversy, which is that even if the debate has so far narrowly focused on the issue of NATO expansion, what violated the assurances made by Western officials at the end of the Cold War wasn’t so much NATO expansion per se but the gradual exclusion of Russia from the European security architecture it came to imply. In order to understand why, however, it’s necessary to go back to the controversy as it has played out in the literature and the arguments made by critics of the Russian position. In his paper on the controversy, Trachtenberg distinguishes three main arguments that critics of the Russian position have made:
First, they claim that the assurances applied only to eastern Germany, and not to Eastern Europe as a whole, and that even those assurances were superseded by arrangements worked out with the USSR later in the year. Second, they claim that the assurances in any event were not legally binding, and were thus not binding at all, because they were not embodied in any formal, signed agreement. And, third, they insist that whatever impression the Russians took away from what they had been told, western leaders had not deliberately sought to mislead them.
He goes on to argue, often that each of those arguments is flawed. In what follows, I will also examine those arguments and explain why, though on most points his position is correct and I’m in broad agreement with him, I nevertheless think Trachtenberg sometimes overstates his case or doesn’t frame his position in the right way.
1.1 The assurances made at the beginning of the Two Plus Four process
Everybody agrees that, when he saw Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, Baker told Gorbachev that "if we maintain a presence in a Germany that is a part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east".But as we have seen, most former Western officials and scholars claim that this and other similar assurances given by Western officials in the course of the negotiations about Germany's reunification only applied to the territory of the GDR. Moreover, they argue that even those assurances about East Germany were superseded by concessions made by Gorbachev later in the negotiations, as reflected by the content of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Germany or Two Plus Four Agreement by which France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States renounced the rights they held on Germany and allowed reunification between the FRG and the GDR. As Trachtenberg notes, when people claim that assurances made during the negotiations of this treaty only concerned the territory of the GDR and not the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, they actually make two distinct arguments.First, they argue that the expansion of the NATO beyond the Oder-Neisse line (which constituted the border between the GDR and Poland) was simply not an issue at the time, because at least when Baker said that nobody envisioned the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. If that were true, then it would settle the question, because if nobody was even thinking about the possibility that NATO might expand to Central and Eastern Europe at the time then Baker couldn't have been talking about this when he told Gorbachev that NATO would not move "one inch to the east". As Trachtenberg points out, the second argument is narrower in scope and says that whatever the participants had in mind at the time, the issue of NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe never came up during the negotiations and the assurances to which people who find merits in the Russian argument refer applied only to the GDR.
1.1.1 The context of the preliminary talks in Moscow between US/FRG officials and their Soviet counterparts
Starting with the first argument, as Trachtenberg and others have pointed out, it's patently false that nobody envisioned that the Warsaw Pact would disappear and that NATO might expand to former members of that organization in February 1990. On the Soviet side, Kramer claims that in February 1990, "Gorbachev was still fully confident that the USSR would continue to ‘work with its allies’ in the Warsaw Pact", but Soviet archives of a Politburo meeting on January 2, the British record of a meeting between Eduard Shevardnadze and Douglas Hurd, respectively Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union and Foreign Minister of the UK, on February 12 and a diary entry by one of Gorbachev's aides for January 21 show that, on the contrary, many people in the Soviet leadership were already predicting the end of the Warsaw Pact by then.For instance, in his meeting with Hurd, Shevardnadze is reported as saying:
If [the GDR] ceases to exist, Soviet troops will be pulled out of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Poland also will not want them. What purpose then would the Warsaw Pact have?
He said that at a time when, by everyone's account, the Soviet government had reached the conclusion that Germany's reunification was inevitable and that it would happen soon, so it's obviously not the case that nobody on the Soviet side was thinking about the end of the Warsaw Pact in February 1990. While Gorbachev himself was still talking as if he believed that at least part of it could be saved in a meeting with some of his advisors on January 26, as Trachtenberg notes, he was hardly "fully confident" that it would remain intact.
In the West, not only had intelligence services been predicting the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact since the end of 1989, but the press was openly speculating that its days were numbered by the beginning of 1990.On February 4, just a few days before Baker met with Gorbachev and gave his infamous assurance that NATO would not move "one inch eastward", The Washington Post published a piece whose title was "Warsaw Pact—Endgame: In Eastern Europe, the Military Alliance Is Dead" and in which the author reported that "many top U.S. and European officials confidently predict" that "Soviet troops will be forced to withdraw entirely from Eastern Europe within a few years" and that "Hungary and perhaps Czechoslovakia may formally withdraw from the Warsaw Pact". A bit later in the article, he even added that "the idea of an entire nation defecting from the Warsaw Pact is hardly surprising, given that the alliance has already ceased to function substantively". On January 19, The Washington Post had already reported that "Hungarian and Polish leaders said today they want all Soviet troops out of their countries in a year or two, underscoring the increasingly rapid dissolution of the Warsaw Pact as a military alliance". During a public seminar organized by a German defense magazine on February 3-4, Gerhard Stoltenberg, the Minister of Defense of the FRG, declared that "we would commit a fatal strategic mistake if, faced with the increasing disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, we negotiated in exchange that of the Atlantic Alliance". Recently declassified British and US documents, as well as interviews with former Bush administration officials, also show that by the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990, the White House was already thinking about how to increase US influence in Central and Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union retreated from the region, so obviously they expected this to happen. Thus, while nobody at the time expected that it would happen so fast, few people doubted that in the long run the Warsaw Pact would disappear or, at the very least, that it would not survive without undergoing a significant transformation that would open the door to more US and Western influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
But the fact that people expected the Warsaw Pact to disappear and more generally Soviet influence to wane in the region doesn't mean they were already planning to expand NATO. Indeed, while Bush and his advisors were already concerned with making sure to keep their options open when the negotiations over German reunification started, they did not begin to seriously consider offering Central and Eastern European countries the prospect of NATO membership until 1991 and it wasn’t until Bush’s final year in office that a consensus developed that it would have to happen eventually because it was the best way to strengthen the US position in the region and prevent a dangerous standoff between Russia and Germany did not emerge until Bush's final year in office.However, in a speech he gave in Tutzing on January 31, Genscher not only endorsed Gorbachev's idea of a pan-European security architecture, but he publicly called for NATO to "state unequivocally that whatever happens in the Warsaw Pact, there will be no expansion of NATO territory eastward, that is to say, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union". Immediately before that, he had noted that in “Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary there is a growing demand for the withdrawal of Soviet forces” and that “we cannot say for sure at present what impact this will have on the structure, and on the future, of the Warsaw Pact”, clearly implying that it might unravel. If he had just said that NATO would not expand "closer to the borders of the Soviet Union", this sentence would be ambiguous on whether he was merely referring to the territory of the GDR or more generally to Central and Eastern Europe, but the fact that he prefaced this claim by "whatever happens to the Warsaw Pact" immediately after, strongly implying that it might soon cease to exist, in addition to being more evidence that Western officials already suspected that the Soviet-led alliance would not survive at the beginning of 1990, makes it clear that he meant the latter.
Yet when he mentions that speech, Kramer paraphrases Genscher as saying that “a united Germany would be a member of NATO, but that NATO’s jurisdiction would not extend to the eastern part”, which falsely makes it sound as if he was only talking about the territory of the GDR.Nor was Genscher’s wording a mistake or something he’d let slip in the heat of the moment, for he repeated the same thing almost word for word in a speech he made in Potsdam on February 9, just one day before he met with Shevardnadze in Moscow. It’s true that just after the passage where he made that non-expansion assurance, Genscher also said explicitly that “any proposals for incorporating the part of Germany at present forming the GDR in NATO’s military structures would block intra-German rapprochement”, but it’s clear that at this point of the speech he’s moved on to a different, though related point. To be sure, it’s also possible to interpret Genscher as saying that NATO should commit not to expand to the territory of the GDR even if the Warsaw Pact collapsed (in which case one might think that Moscow would care less about what happened in the territory of the GDR), but this interpretation seems far less natural and, as we shall see shortly, there is more evidence that it’s not what Genscher meant and that he was talking about Warsaw Pact countries. Moreover, even if that interpretation were correct, it wouldn’t really help critics of the Russian position. Indeed, if the Soviet Union was so concerned about NATO that Genscher thought it was important to promise that it would not expand to the territory of the GDR even if the Warsaw Pact collapsed, then a fortiori this assurance would have applied to former Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Not only did the assurances made by Genscher extend far beyond the GDR, but officials in Washington seem to have noticed and were alarmed by it. Robert Hutchings, who in 1990 served as a special advisor to the Secretary of State, later wrote about Genscher’s speech in Tutzing that he was speaking “not about the GDR but about Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary”. It would be very surprising if Soviet officials had not also noticed. Indeed, Gorbachev discussed in some detail the range of views that had been expressed at the symposium of the Protestant Academy in Tutzing on January 31 when he met Baker in Moscow on February 9, so it’s hard to believe that he didn’t read Genscher’s speech, which was delivered at the same event. Shevardnadze also claimed to have read the speech he made in Potsdam and even to have forwarded it to Gorbachev.
Moreover, just one week before his fateful meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow, Baker went along with this idea or at least did nothing to suggest that he didn't even when the opportunity to do so came along. Indeed, after he gave that speech, Genscher decided to meet with Baker in Washington on February 2 to make sure they were on the same page and, according to a cable about the meeting sent by the State Department I discuss below, he told him there was a "need to assure the Soviets that NATO would not extend its territorial coverage to the area of the GDR nor anywhere else in Eastern Europe for that matter" and Baker apparently did not express a disagreement with that idea.Genscher then went on to repeat that point in the press conference he and Baker gave after their meeting, during which he made the following remarks as Baker was standing next to him:
We agreed that the intention does not exist to extend the NATO defense area toward the East. That applies, moreover, not just to the territory of the GDR, which we do not want to incorporate, but rather applies in general.
He could hardly have been clearer that, contrary to what critics of the Russian position claim, he was not just talking about the territory of the GDR but about Central and Eastern Europe in general. As Trachtenberg notes, the fact that he used "we" is also significant, because it means that he was speaking for both he and Baker. If Baker had wanted to express his disagreement with that proposal, he could have done so during the press conference, but he did not.
One could argue that Baker may have missed the significance of that point since at the time everyone was still focused on the issue of whether Germany would be allowed to remain in NATO after reunification in the first place, which pushed the question of the conditions under which the Soviet Union might agree to that in the background.However, a summary of their discussion sent by the State Department to the US Ambassador to the FRG at Baker's request shows that he, or at least the author of that cable, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Canada Raymond Seitz, did not miss this part of Genscher's proposal at all:
Genscher confirmed that neutrality for a united Germany is out of the question. The new Germany would remain in NATO because NATO is an essential building block to a new Europe. In stating this, Genscher reiterated the need to assure the Soviets that NATO would not extend its territorial coverage to the area of the GDR nor anywhere else in Eastern Europe for that matter. (He made this point with the press after the meeting.)
Moreover, in describing Baker's response to Genscher's proposals, the cable does not say that Baker expressed disagreement with that idea at any point during that conversation. As Sarotte explains, the reason why this cable was sent to Bonn is that Baker wanted the US Ambassador to the FRG to inform Kohl, the German Chancellor, of what had been discussed in Washington because he wasn't sure that Genscher, who didn't have a very good relationship with Kohl, would do so and he wanted to make sure that everyone both in Washington and Bonn was on the same page before the negotiations with the Soviet Union started. Vernon Walters, the US Ambassador to the FRG, did as instructed and briefed Horst Teltschik, Kohl's security advisor, the next day.Thus, not only was the State Department in Washington aware that Genscher wanted to give Moscow assurances that applied not just to the territory of the GDR but to Central and Eastern Europe in general, but so was the Chancellor's office in Bonn and as far as we can tell neither raised any objections.
Finally, to remove any lingering doubt that US officials may have missed that Genscher's proposal applied not only to the territory of the GDR but to Central and Eastern Europe in general, the State Department official transcript of his press conference with Baker makes Genscher's remarks even more explicit than they already were:
Perhaps I might add, we were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defense and the security toward the East. This holds true not only for GDR, which we have no intention of simply incorporating, but that holds true for all the other Eastern countries. We are at present witnessing dramatic developments in the whole of the Eastern area, in COCOM, and the Warsaw Pact. I think that it is part (of) that partnership in stability which we can offer to the East that we can make it quite clear that whatever happens within the Warsaw Pact, on our side there is no intention to extend our area—NATO’s area—of defense towards the East.
So people in the State Department, but probably also in the NSC, had duly noted the scope of Genscher's proposal and, if US officials did not express disagreement with it either publicly or privately, it's not because they had missed it.
At the time, US officials were not only worried that the Soviet Union might adamantly reject that a reunified Germany remain in NATO, but they also feared that Gorbachev might offer Helmut Kohl a deal he "couldn't refuse" by proposing to allow reunification in exchange for neutrality.This would effectively spell the end of NATO and, as a result, of the US military presence in Europe, something US officials were determined to prevent. Thus, it's possible that Baker didn't actually intend to give the Soviet Union assurances that went beyond the territory of the GDR, but thought it best not to raise that issue with Genscher at this time to avoid a split between the US and Germany. In fact, this is more or less what James Dobbins, then Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, told the British Ambassador in Washington after Baker’s meeting with Genscher:
Immediately after the meeting Genscher announced to a hastily assembled press conference that he and Baker were in ‘full agreement’ that reunification would not involve the extension of NATO to the east. Dobbins said that Baker had not in fact blessed Genscher’s particular formula, even though it was the best available at present. The Administration has made its position clear in December with its four principles, and was now cautious about being too specific, lest it be interpreted by the German opposition as an imperial dictat [sic] or upset the Russians before Baker’s talk with Shevardnadze.
Thus, it seems that at the time Baker wasn’t ruling out Genscher’s formula, but he may also have not been committed to it and simply remained silent for tactical reasons when Genscher publicly said he had endorsed it. However, it’s also possible that Baker was initially more aligned with Genscher’s position, that he revised his view later after other people in the Bush administration pushed for a less accommodating stance and that Dobbins was engaging in damage control after the fact with allies.This might also explain why, as we shall see, Baker remained somewhat ambiguous when he met Shevardnadze and Gorbachev in Moscow. The most important thing for US officials at the time was that Genscher had said that Germany had to stay in NATO after reunification and they wanted to make sure he would not move from this position.
In any case, it's remarkable that even though several critics of the Russian position actually quoted this passage of the press conference during which Genscher talks about the necessity to make clear that NATO would not expand to the east, they omitted the part where he makes clear that he isn't merely talking about the territory of the GDR but about Central and Eastern Europe in general. For instance, Zelikow and Rice claim that "Baker understood Genscher to say that Germany would remain in NATO, but the Soviets had to be assured that NATO's territorial coverage would not extend to the former GDR" and quote Genscher's comment that he and Baker "were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defense and security towards the East", which comes from the State Department’s transcript of the press conference, but omit the next sentence in the transcript, where Genscher clarifies that it "holds true not only for GDR, which we have no intention of simply incorporating, but that holds true for all the other Eastern countries".Spohr wrote that Genscher’s discussion with Baker “left the territories east of the GDR untouched”, but as we have seen that is simply not true.
Kramer even went further and, after quoting the exact same part of the transcript as Zelikow and Rice (without the next sentence that clarified the scope of his assurance that NATO would not expand "towards the East"), he added a gloss on that comment that completely changed the meaning of what Genscher had actually said:
At a joint press conference after their meeting, Genscher said that he and Baker "were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defense and security toward the East," meaning eastern Germany. [emphasis is mine] When asked by journalists what exactly this meant, Genscher insisted that he was not talking about "a halfway membership [for a united Germany] this way or that. What I said is there is no intention of extending the NATO area to the East."
Kramer cites a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article as the source of those quotes, but it doesn't actually contain them and they are identical to the State Department transcript, so either he checked the transcript directly or he found those quotes in another source that was quoting Genscher from the transcript.Whether he knew that Genscher had made clear that he was talking not just about the territory of the GDR but about Central and Eastern Europe in general and knowingly altered the meaning of his remarks by adding that gloss or was misled by another source that quoted Genscher partially and added that gloss in good faith, the fact is that he completely changed the meaning of Genscher's remarks in a way that makes them consistent with his view that Western officials never made any assurances that went beyond the territory of the GDR, when in fact they show that view to be false. As we shall see, adding interpolations to ambiguous statements made by Western officials pledging not to expand NATO eastward to make them sound like they support his view that assurances given about NATO expansion only ever applied to the territory of the GDR is part of Kramer's usual modus operandi, but in this case he actually did the same thing with a statement that was not ambiguous at all. As we have seen, he had already distorted Genscher’s Tutzing speech in a similar way.
On February 6, Genscher met with Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Minister, in Bonn and told him the same thing. Here is how the latter summarized what Genscher had told him in a cable he sent to Christopher Mallaby, the British Ambassador to the FRG, after their meeting:
Genscher added that when he talked about not wanting to extend NATO that applied to other states beside the GDR. The Russians must have some assurance that if, for example, the Polish Government left the Warsaw Pact one day they would not join NATO the next.
A German document summarizing the same meeting says that Genscher told Hurd something very similar, but using the example of Hungary instead of Poland:
The West could do a lot to facilitate the current developments for the SU. Of particular importance was the declaration that NATO had no intention of expanding its territory to the east. Such a declaration should not only relate to the GDR, but should be of a general nature. For example, the SU also needs security that Hungary will not become part of the western alliance in the event of a change of government.
According to Hurd's cable, Genscher also told him that "the CSCE summit, devoted to the future of Europe, would be an important vehicle for helping the Soviet Union to come to terms with the erosion of the Warsaw Pact", which again show that both the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the possibility that Moscow might worry about the expansion of NATO in that area were very much on the mind of Western officials just before the negotiations about German reunification were set to begin.
The possibility that NATO might expand to Central and Eastern European countries or at least that Western countries might expand their influence in that region as the Soviet Union retreated from it was certainly on the mind of leaders in those countries. Indeed, on February 4, The Washington Post reported that it was a "hot topic of discussion" among military leaders in the Warsaw Pact:
But the shopworn, bipolar concept of Europe no longer interests military leaders of the Eastern bloc, many of whom have been swept into power within the past two months. In their circle, the prospect of a militarily neutral Eastern Europe, or even one with a web of economic and military ties to the West, is suddenly a hot topic of discussion.
Gyula Horn, Hungary's Foreign Minister, actually talked about the possibility that his country might join "NATO's political councils" publicly on February 24.He had even raised the idea directly to Lawrence Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, in a private meeting around the same time. In the months that followed, as they realized that Gorbachev would not use force to prevent the dislocation of the Warsaw Pact, leaders of Central and Eastern European countries started to be increasingly explicit about their interest in eventually joining NATO. Kramer is right that, in his statement, Horn was not talking about joining NATO's military structures but merely about some kind of political cooperation and that he said that more than 2 weeks after Baker met Gorbachev, but The Washington Postarticle makes clear that Eastern European leaders had already talking about it privately before that. Now, if leaders of Warsaw Pact countries were talking about this even before Baker went to Moscow, it's very unlikely that Soviet officials didn't know about it. Indeed, in a January 26 meeting with his advisors I already mentioned above, Gorbachev explained that unless the Soviet Union worked with "other socialist countries" they'd be "picked up by others", by which he presumably meant NATO.
Thus, the argument that Western officials couldn't possibly have intended to give assurances about NATO expansion that applied to Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the territory of the GDR in February 1990, because nobody at the time imagined that the Warsaw Pact would collapse and that NATO might expand in the region, is undoubtedly incorrect. To be sure, in both private and public conversations in the days and weeks leading up to the beginning of the negotiations over German reunification, the focus was on the status of the territory of the GDR, but officials in both the Eastern and Western blocs definitely had in mind the unraveling of the Warsaw Pact and the possibility that Western countries might take advantage of it, including by expanding NATO even though nobody was actively planning to do so at the time. As we have seen, Genscher even gave public assurances to that effect that it wouldn't happen on several occasions, including during a press conference where he claimed to be speaking for both he and Baker, yet as Trachtenberg aptly noted neither Baker during that press conference nor the State Department later "issue a clarification pointing out that Genscher had been speaking only for himself when he had made that remark and that the U.S. government did not necessarily share his views in that regard".Which brings us to the second, narrower argument that, whatever people were thinking when the negotiations about Germany's reunification started, nothing was said during the negotiations to the effect that NATO would not expand to Central and Eastern European countries and Western officials only gave assurances about the territory of the GDR.
1.1.2 What US and West German officials told their Soviet counterparts in Moscow
Baker went to Moscow on February 9 and first met with Shevardnadze before talking to Gorbachev. He tried to convince both that it would be in the Soviet Union's interest to allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification, on the grounds that a neutral Germany would probably seek to develop an independent nuclear capability to ensure its security and might even return to the militarism of the past, which would be much less likely if it remained anchored in NATO. He told Shevardnadze that, in that case, "there would, of course, have to be iron clad guarantees that NATO's jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward" and that it "would have to be done in a manner that would satisfy Germany's neighbors to the east".This is ambiguous as to whether he just meant the territory of the GDR or Central and Eastern Europe in general, but the reference to the concerns of “Germany’s neighbors to the east” suggests he was just talking about the GDR. Indeed, if he had been referring to a possible expansion to Central and Eastern European countries, it’s hard to see why those countries would have been concerned about it, whereas it makes perfect sense if he was talking about NATO forces moving into the territory of the GDR, since in that case Czechoslovakia would have to deal with NATO’s presence not just on its western border but also on its northern one and NATO would suddenly appear on Poland’s western border. Although the Warsaw Pact was falling apart, nobody thought it would completely disappear so rapidly, so it made sense to worry about the reactions of those countries.
Baker also proposed a mechanism for the negotiations that would associate the FRG and the GDR to the four powers that still had legal rights over Germany, the so-called "Two Plus Four” mechanism, which eventually became the format under which the negotiations were conducted. Later in the conversation, he suggested that such a mechanism could be used to produce "the right kind of outcome" and went on to say that "it might be an outcome that would guarantee that there would be no NATO forces in the Eastern part of Germany" and even added that "in fact there could be an absolute ban on that". Trachtenberg argues that, since Baker had no problem mentioning the territory of the GDR explicitly in that part of the conversation, it's evidence that, when he used the more ambiguous phrase earlier by assuring Shevardnadze that NATO "would not move eastward" if Germany was allowed to remain part of the Alliance, he was talking about Central and Eastern Europe in general. However, one could argue that, on the contrary, this was a clarification of what he'd meant earlier. The truth is that, just based on what was said during that conversation according to the State Department memorandum that I have been quoting, it's impossible to tell for sure what Baker meant, but I think it’s more likely than not that he was only talking about the GDR. What Shevardnadze understood, on the other hand, is harder to determine.
After his meeting with Shevardnadze, Baker met with Gorbachev and, according to both the State Department memorandum of their conversation and the Soviet record of their meeting, made very similar points and was similarly ambiguous when he talked about not expanding NATO eastward. After explaining why he thought that it would be preferable for everyone, including the Soviet Union, that Germany remain in NATO after reunification, he gave the assurance I already quoted above that in that case the Alliance's jurisdiction would not move "one inch to the east":
We don't favorably view a neutral Germany. The FRG says that this is not a satisfactory approach. A neutral Germany in our view is not necessarily going to be a non-militaristic Germany. It could well decide that it needed its own independent nuclear capability as opposed to depending on the deterrent of the United States. All our allies and East Europeans we have spoken to have told us that they want us to maintain a presence in Europe. I am not sure whether you favor that or not. But let me say that if our allies want us to go we will be gone in a minute. Indeed, if they want us to leave we'll go and I can assure you that the sentiment of the American people is such that they will want us to leave immediately. The mechanism by which we have a US military presence in Europe is NATO. If you abolish NATO there will be no more US presence. We understand the need for assurances to the countries in the East. If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is a part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO's jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.
In this part of the conversation, Baker is trying to convince Gorbachev that it would actually be in the Soviet Union’s interest to allow Germany to stay in NATO, because otherwise US troops will have to leave the country and Germany will likely become a military power again, which the Soviet Union doesn’t want. He is arguing that German’s continued NATO membership and, relatedly, the US military presence would be a factor of stability in Europe and would therefore benefit the Soviet Union. Again, the phrase Baker used when he said that NATO would not expand is quite general, which if not for the context would be more naturally interpreted as referring to Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the GDR.
However, the fact that Baker said that immediately after saying that he understood that “countries in the east” would need assurances once again suggests that he was talking about the GDR.Indeed, if he was talking about the expansion of NATO to Central and Eastern European countries, then how would ruling out that possibility assuage the security concerns of those same countries? Trachtenberg interprets this passage as evidence that Baker’s assurance was about Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the territory of the GDR, but that doesn’t make sense since he talked about “countries” in the plural and therefore couldn’t have been referring only to the Soviet Union. It’s possible that Baker meant that, if some but not all of them joined NATO, expansion would be seen as a threat to those who stayed outside, but this interpretation seems contrived. It’s much more likely that he was referring to the fact that Central and Eastern European countries, especially Poland which at the time was still worried that after reunification Germany might seek to revise the post-WWII border, would be concerned if NATO suddenly appeared on their borders. It’s surprising that, as far I know, no critic of the Russian position has ever made that point, even though it’s a very strong argument in favor of their position that despite the ambiguous language he used Baker was only talking about the GDR.
Still trying to convince Gorbachev that it would be in the Soviet Union's interest to allow Germany to remain in NATO after reunification, he returned to that point later in the meeting:
Baker: I want to ask you a question, and you need not answer it right now. Supposing unification takes place, what would you prefer: a united Germany outside of NATO, absolutely independent and without American troops; or a united Germany keeping its connections with NATO, but with the guarantee that NATO’s jurisprudence or troops will not spread east of the present boundary?
Gorbachev: We will think everything over. We intend to discuss all these questions in depth at the leadership level. It goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.
Baker: We agree with that.
This comes from the Soviet account of their conversation, but although the State Department memorandum of that meeting is redacted after Baker asks Gorbachev this question, they are virtually identical before that. Moreover, as we shall see shortly, a letter that Baker sent Kohl immediately after the meeting that was declassified by Germany confirms Gorbachev’s reply. Again, they used phrases that were quite general, but still ambiguous in the sense that in this part of the meeting they never explicitly refer to either the territory of the GDR or Central and Eastern Europe in general, so I don't think that we can reach a determination about what they meant or understood the other to be saying just based on the content of this part of the conversation. As before, one can interpret the fact that in other parts of the conversation he specifically mentioned the GDR as evidence that ambiguous phrases about not expanding NATO eastward referred to that, but one can also argue like Trachtenberg that it shows that Baker had no problem mentioning the GDR explicitly when he wanted to make a point specifically about it. Nevertheless, as I argued above, Baker’s reference to Germany’s eastern neighbors earlier in the conversation and during his conversation with Shevardnadze suggests that he was only talking about the GDR.
Robert Gates, Deputy National Security Advisor, met with Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, the same day and also tried to convince him that it would be in the Soviet Union's interest to allow a reunified Germany to stay in NATO. In order to make that prospect more attractive to his counterpart, he also said that in that case NATO would not move eastward. Here is how a NSC memorandum of their meeting summarized this part of the conversation:
Events are moving faster than anticipated. We might see some GDR initiative after the 18 March elections. Under these circumstances, we support the Kohl-Genscher idea of a united Germany belonging to NATO but with no expansion of military presence to the GDR. This would be in the context of continuing force reductions in Europe. What did Kryuchkov think of the Kohl-Genscher proposal under which a united Germany would be associated with NATO but in which NATO troops would move no further east than they now were? It seems to us to be a sound proposal.
As Shifrinson noted, this indicates more support for this idea within the Bush administration than previously recognized.On the other hand, since in the first part of his argument Gates apparently talked about not moving NATO forces to the GDR specifically (in contrast to Baker's more ambiguous phrasing), it also suggests that US officials only had in mind a more limited assurance restricted to the territory of the GDR. However, he also refers to Genscher's proposal in the next part of his argument, which as we have seen was not limited to the GDR but applied to Central and Eastern Europe more generally. What Gates meant really depends on whether he saw that proposal as the same as the idea that NATO forces would not move into the territory of the GDR after reunification or as a more general proposal that would just entail the latter. We saw that people in the State Department had noted that Genscher's proposal applied to Central and Eastern Europe more broadly, but it's possible that people in the NSC missed that aspect of the proposal and construed it as more limited than it really was. It's important to keep in mind that governments are not unitary actors, so Gates could have meant one thing and Baker another. In fact, as I’m about to explain, there is evidence that regardless of whether they had noticed that Genscher’s proposal wasn’t limited to the GDR but applied to Central and Eastern Europe in general, people in the NSC were more narrowly focused on the former, so it’s likely that Gates was also talking about the GDR.
Before he went to Moscow, Baker had agreed that he would tell Kohl, who was supposed to meet Gorbachev the next day, what had been said during his conversation with the Soviet leader, so he sent him a letter summarizing their meeting before going back to Washington. In that letter, he used the same language that we have discussed above:
And then I put the following question to him. Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no US forces or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO's jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position.
He answered that the Soviet leadership was giving real thought to all such options, and would be discussing them soon “in a kind of seminar”. He then added: “Certainly any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” (By implication, NATO in its current zone might be acceptable.)
Again, this letter cannot adjudicate the issue of whether this assurance referred only to the territory of the GDR or more generally to Central and Eastern Europe based on this letter, because the language used by Baker remained ambiguous on this point.
In any case, when people in the NSC heard about the question Baker had put to Gorbachev during his meeting with him, they worried that, in his desire to convince the Soviet leader that it was in Moscow's interest to allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification, Baker might have preemptively made concessions on NATO's future that were not necessary to achieve the US goal of making sure that a reunified Germany would remain in NATO. So the White House drafted and Bush signed another letter to Kohl in which they warned him against making any concessions in advance of express requests by Soviet officials. In that letter, Bush declared himself in favor of a "special military status for what is now the territory of the GDR", but repudiated Baker’s formulation that NATO’s “jurisdiction” would not expand to the east after reunification.However, according to Zelikow and Rice, the problem wasn't that Baker's language was ruling out the expansion of NATO to Central and Eastern European countries but that he'd called for no extension of NATO's "jurisdiction" and people in the NSC worried that it would be difficult to reconcile that kind of language with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which commits NATO members to mutual defense in case of attack. As we shall see, Bush’s formulation is often presented as a hardening of Baker’s proposal, which is true in the sense that it removed any potential ambiguity as to the fact that NATO’s Article 5 would apply to Germany as a whole, including the territory of the GDR. However, the main issue people in the NSC had with his proposal seems to have been, not that it was overly generous, but that taken literally it made little sense, since it seemed to imply that Germany as a whole would be part of NATO yet Article 5 would only apply to some of its territory. Not only would this have been absurd from a political and strategic point of view, but it wasn’t even clear that it could work legally. In any case, after that intervention by the White House, Baker quickly stopped using that kind of language in negotiations with Soviet officials. The fact that, in his letter to Kohl, Bush talked specifically about the territory of the GDR and didn’t mention the rest of Central and Eastern Europe is yet more evidence that, despite the ambiguous language they sometimes used in Moscow, US officials were only talking about the GDR.
Thus, right before he met with Gorbachev to begin the negotiations about Germany's reunification, Kohl had received two discordant messages from the US. While Baker talked of the need to give the Soviets assurances that "NATO's jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward", Bush and the NSC wanted to be clear that NATO would shift to the east of its current position (in the sense that unified Germany as a whole and not just the territory of the FRG would be covered by the Washington Treaty), allowing only for the much smaller concession that after reunification the territory of the GDR would have a "special military status" of some kind. In other words, NATO’s treaty and in particular Article 5 would apply to the entire German territory, even if some restrictions on the Alliance’s freedom of action in the territory of the GDR could be worked out as part of the deal that would allow Germany’s reunification. As Sarotte explains, faced with the choice of which formulation to use in his meeting with Gorbachev, Kohl decided to use "the language most conducive to achieving his goal of German unity" and therefore opted for Baker's formulation.As we have seen, this formulation was itself inspired by the language used in the speech Genscher had made in Tutzing and that he'd repeated on several occasions both publicly and privately, but unlike Genscher it seems that Baker never clarified that it applied not only to the territory of the GDR but to Central and Eastern Europe in general and, as I have argued above, it’s very likely that he was only talking about the former.
The Soviet and West German accounts of what Kohl told Gorbachev differ in how specific he was, but according to both, he said that NATO could not expand to the east, instead of using Bush's formulation that NATO would cover even the territory of the GDR, which would simply have a special military status. However, according to the Soviet account of their meeting, Kohl just said that NATO should not "expand its scope of action", whereas according to the West German account he was more specific and said that it "must not extend its sphere to the territory of today’s GDR".Kramer claims that "the discrepancy is of negligible importance" since "both transcripts show that Gorbachev would have understood the comment to refer to eastern Germany". Commenting on this discrepancy, Spohr also dismisses it as unimportant, on the ground that "both texts reveal that in delineating NATO’s future boundary the chancellor was referring solely to (eastern) Germany". But that is clearly not true, since according to the Soviet but not the German account, what Kohl said was just as ambiguous on that issue as what Baker had said the day before and one cannot conclude that he was only referring to the GDR without begging the question about how to resolve that ambiguity, which is precisely what is at issue here. That being said, since Kohl had read Bush’s letter just before he met with Gorbachev and in that letter the President talked unambiguously about “what is now the territory of the GDR”, I think Kohl likely was only talking about the GDR.
Indeed, while Kohl and Gorbachev were talking, Genscher was having a meeting with Shevardnadze, which Kramer completely ignores, during which he once again gave assurances on NATO expansion that, according to the German memorandum summarizing their conversation, were anything but ambiguous:
Neutralism for Germany as a whole was wrong. We were also thinking of the feelings of our neighbors. It would be better for our neighbors if a united Germany were firmly integrated into European structures. We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east. Of course, the newly elected government of the GDR would also have a say in this. It would then have to come to an understanding with the SU. Perhaps it would then turn out that a solution was not so complicated. If Soviet troops remained in the GDR, this was not our problem. The important thing is that we talk to each other in a spirit of trust. As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this applies in general.
As you can see, after using the same ambiguous language to assure Shevardnadze that NATO would not expand "to the east", he briefly mentions the GDR to suggest that Soviet troops might be allowed to stay there depending on what the East German government decided, but then goes back to his assurance that NATO would not expand to the east to clarify that it applies "in general".
As Trachtenberg noted, this was the same language that he'd used before to make clear that his assurance that NATO would expand to the east didn't merely apply to the territory of the GDR but more generally to Central and Eastern Europe, both in public such as during his press conference with Baker on February 3 and in private such as during his meeting with Hurd on February 6.Spohr argued that, since Shevardnadze was not present at Genscher's meeting with Hurd, he couldn't possibly have known that and Genscher's language must have seemed to apply only to the GDR. However, even putting aside that it's hard to see what Genscher could have meant when he said that the non-expansion of NATO "applies in general" if not that it applied to Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just to the GDR, she only says that because she doesn't know that Genscher had also used that language publicly during his press conference with Baker on February 3. Indeed, when discussing that press conference, she cited Zelikow and Rice's book, which as we have seen omitted the crucial passage where Genscher used the same language to clarify that in ruling out the expansion of NATO eastward he didn't just mean the GDR but more generally Central and Eastern Europe. Thus, while other US and West German officials used language that, though quite general, was nevertheless ambiguous as to the precise scope of the assurance they were giving Soviet officials in Moscow, Genscher was just as clear that it didn't only apply to the territory of the GDR but to Central and Eastern Europe in general on this occasion as he'd been earlier both in public and private. In fact, on February 21, he publicly repeated this assurance yet again during a press conference. In his case at least, there can be little doubt as to what he meant, but as we have seen the same cannot be said about Baker, Gates and Kohl.
Some people on both sides of the debate argue that context definitely shows either that Western officials were only talking about the territory of the GDR or that on the contrary they were talking about Central and Eastern Europe in general, but I think that if we are honest we have to acknowledge that, except for Genscher, it's simply impossible to tell for sure what they meant. For instance, Kramer claims that the context of the negotiations and the expressions used by the participants “leave no doubt” that Gorbachev, Shevardnadze and Baker were only talking about the expansion of NATO into the territory of the GDR.However, that is clearly false since not only was the language used objectively ambiguous, but as we have seen the context of the negotiations makes it clear that Kramer is wrong when he argues that NATO expansion to any territory other than the GDR was simply not an issue at the time. He also misrepresents the assurance made repeatedly by Genscher, both in Moscow and before that in public and private, as applying only to the GDR. Nevertheless, as I argued above, a close examination of the record of the conversations that Western officials had with their Soviet counterparts in Moscow strongly suggests that, with the exception of Genscher, they were only talking about the territory of the GDR.
It’s possible that, although other Western officials were only talking about the GDR, Soviet officials were misled by Genscher’s more far-reaching position and interpreted them as making a broader assurance since again the language they used was ambiguous, but there is evidence that it was not the case. Indeed, Valentin Falin, then Chief of the International Department within the Central Committee of the CPSU and a key advisor on German affairs, sent a note to Gorbachev in April warning him against what he saw as a hardening of the position adopted by Western officials in the negotiations. He explains that although until March they had expressed a willingness to commit to “the non-expansion of NATO's sphere of activity to the GDR” they were now trying to reduce the scope of that assurance by saying it should not apply in “crisis situations”.Moreover, in that same note, Falin also pointed out that although Genscher still talked about something closer to the Soviet idea of a pan-European structure that would replace Cold War alliances from time to time, he was isolated and few people listened to him “except for the West German Social Democrats and left-wing parties in some countries of the [European] common market”.This document shows that, by April at least, not only did the Soviets interpret Western officials as talking only about the GDR, but they also understood that Genscher could not be assumed to talk for his colleagues and that his views didn’t reflect the Western position. It’s possible that Soviet officials interpreted their Western counterparts differently in February, but there is nothing to suggest that. Thus, the evidence strongly supports the view not only that Baker, Gates and Kohl were only talking about the territory of the GDR, but that Soviet officials interpreted them as doing so at the time. While they misrepresented Genscher’s position and the context in which the preliminary talks in Moscow took place, Kramer and other scholars who argued that US and West German officials were only talking about the territory of the GDR in Moscow are right, while on this point at least Shifrinson and Trachtenberg are wrong.
1.2 From Moscow to Moscow
As I will argue shortly, the preliminary talks in Moscow between US and FRG officials and their Soviet counterparts did not result in a deal by which the Soviet Union agreed to allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification in exchange for the promise that NATO would not expand to Central and Eastern Europe, but they nevertheless had important consequences. During his conversation with Gorbachev, Kohl got him to agree that it was for the German people alone to decide about unification, without securing anything in exchange. It’s likely that Gorbachev didn’t realize the significance of that claim at the time, but Kohl did and he immediately moved to take advantage of that concession by calling a press conference during which he told everyone that Gorbachev had agreed that whether the Germans wanted to live in a unified state was a question for them to decide, making it difficult for the Soviets to walk back Gorbachev’s hastily made remark later. Before Kohl met Gorbachev, it was not clear that Moscow would allow Germany’s reunification to proceed after the elections in the GDR planned for March, but after Gorbachev’s concession and Kohl’s swift effort to publicize it that became a fait accompli. Had Gorbachev not made that concession and Kohl not ensured that Moscow could not walk it back, the Soviet Union could have obtained something in return for giving the green light to reunification, but now it would only be able to secure advantages in exchange for concessions it made, not about reunification itself, but about the conditions in which it could take place and in particular the external aspects of it.
Thus, as other Soviet officials lamented, Gorbachev had weakened his hand for the rest of the negotiations by throwing away a bargaining chip he could have used to secure more concessions from the West later.The other consequence is that, a few days later in Ottawa (where NATO and Warsaw Pact states convened for the Open Skies Conference), Shevardnadze accepted the Two Plus Four format to negotiate Germany’s reunification. This mechanism had merely been floated by Baker in Moscow, but Gorbachev had not accepted it, though he also had not rejected it. In Ottawa, Baker took advantage of the fact that the foreign ministers of all six nations concerned were present to mount a concerted effort to pressure Shevardnadze into accepting that mechanism, which the US expected to simplify the negotiations on Germany’s reunification by restricting them to the FRG and the GDR plus the four powers that held legal rights over Germany. Since Gorbachev had inadvertently given the green light for reunification without asking for anything in return, Shevardnadze was not in a good position to resist this effort, so he agreed and the Two Plus Four mechanism was adopted.The final agreement was still a long way ahead, but the outline of a deal had already started to emerge in Moscow.
1.2.1 What kind of deal was outlined during the preliminary talks in Moscow?
Everyone in the literature on this controversy agrees that Baker outlined a deal to Gorbachev in February by which the Soviet Union would agree to Germany’s continued NATO membership in return for the promise that afterward the Alliance would not expand to the east, but people disagree about whether he was only talking about the territory of the GDR or about Central and Eastern Europe in general and they also disagree on whether such a deal can be said to have been informally struck in Moscow. I will come back to this debate later, but for the moment the important point is that, on both sides of the debate, people interpret Baker as floating a quid pro quo by which the Soviet Union would have allowed Germany to stay in NATO after reunification in exchange for a restriction on further expansion. The problem is that, regardless of whether one takes Baker to have meant for that restriction to apply only to the territory of the GDR or to Central and Eastern Europe in general (I have just argued that he probably meant the former), this interpretation is flawed and I think has misled everyone in this debate about the logic of the negotiations on Germany’s reunification. Before I go over what happened during the Two Plus Four process, it’s therefore important to understand the nature of the deal outlined by Baker in Moscow, since otherwise one is bound to misinterpret what happened after that and how the final agreement was reached.
In order to understand why, it’s necessary to recall that, at the time, everyone understood that if Germany left NATO it would spell the end of a significant US military presence in Europe and, as a result, would effectively consign the Alliance to history. As we have seen, Baker even said as much during his conversation with Gorbachev in February. Moreover, unlike Baker’s talk of NATO’s “jurisdiction” not expanding to the territory of the GDR, Western officials did not drop that argument after February but on the contrary continued to make it throughout the Two Plus Four process. For instance, Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, made that point very clearly to Gorbachev during a meeting they had in June:
The American military presence in Europe is a stabilizing factor. But there is only one place where this presence is needed most: in Germany. France is not integrated into NATO's military chain of command, the Netherlands and Belgium are too small to station American troops there, Spain is too far away, and there are already enough American forces on British territory. That leaves Germany.
So how could Soviet officials have believed that, unless the Soviet Union agreed to Germany’s continued NATO membership after reunification, the Alliance might expand to Warsaw Pact states? The notion that Baker was offering Gorbachev a quid pro quo by which the West would promise not to expand NATO in exchange for allowing Germany to stay in the Alliance only makes sense if, in the event that he refused, NATO could still have expanded. But as Baker himself told Gorbachev in the same conversation, the US would be forced to leave Europe and NATO would effectively be dead if Germany couldn’t remain part of it, so it obviously couldn’t have expanded.
It’s also clear that Gorbachev understood that since, during his meeting with Kohl the day after his conversation with Baker, he complained that the argument made by US and West German officials that without Germany NATO would disappear applied equally to the Warsaw Pact:
They say: what is NATO without the FRG. But we could also ask: what is the WTO [Warsaw Treaty Organization] without the GDR? This is a serious question. There should be no divergence in military matters. They say NATO will fall apart without the FRG. But it would be the end of the WTO without the GDR, too. If we agree about the main things, it is important that we are in accord here as well.
Thus, in order to interpret Baker in the way both critics and defenders of the Russian argument do (setting aside their disagreement on whether Baker was only talking about the GDR or about Central and Eastern Europe in general, which is irrelevant to the point I’m making here), we’d have to assume that he was offering Gorbachev a completely nonsensical deal, asking him to make a concession in exchange for something that, if he refused to make the concession in question, had essentially no chance of happening. You don’t make a quid pro quo if, by refusing to give the quid, you automatically get the quo. It’s remarkable that, as far as I know, nobody has made this point before.
But if Baker and other Western officials weren’t offering a quid pro quo to their Soviet counterparts, what were they doing exactly? I think it’s clear when you read their conversations that they were trying to convince the Soviets that it was in the Soviet Union’s interest to make sure the US would stay involved in Europe, which in turn required allowing Germany to remain in NATO after reunification. In other words, Baker wasn’t so much proposing a quid pro quo as making the argument that Germany would be less dangerous to the Soviet Union inside NATO than outside of it, because keeping Germany tied to Western security structures would reduce the risk that it might go back to nationalist policies after reunification. Thus, the question he put to Gorbachev was less the outline of a quid pro quo than a way to make that clear by presenting the choice that Moscow faced, now that it was clear that Germany’s reunification was inevitable. The assurance that NATO would not expand to the east was not meant as compensation for allowing Germany to stay in the Alliance, which as we have seen would make no sense, but as a way to make this outcome even more appealing than the alternative of a Germany unconstrained by membership to the West’s security structures by promising that NATO would not take advantage of Germany’s reunification to expand its footprint in that country. More generally, as we shall see shortly, Western officials did everything they could to reassure the Soviets that allowing that to happen would not fundamentally alter the balance of power in Europe. In fact, Baker’s argument was in essence that, by allowing Germany to stay in NATO, the Soviet Union would ensure that reunification would result in as little change to the status quo as was possible under the circumstances.
I think construing Baker’s argument as a quid pro quo is more misleading than helpful, but insofar as the deal outlined by Baker to Gorbachev in Moscow can be described as a quid pro quo, what the West was promising the Soviet Union in return for allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification was not that NATO would not expand to the east, but that it would collaborate with Moscow to create an inclusive post-Cold War European order in which the Soviet Union would have a place. As we have seen, the Soviet Union could in theory have ensured that NATO would not expand simply by insisting as a condition for reunification that Germany should leave the Alliance, but in practice things were more complicated. In order to do that, Moscow would have had to play hardball in the negotiations and, although some of his advisers urged him to do so, Gorbachev was not willing to do so because achieving his main policy goals, both internal and external, required that he maintain a cooperative stance with the West.Indeed, internally he couldn’t achieve his goal of modernizing the Soviet economy without the flow of Western capital and technology, while externally his goal of building a “common European home” could not be achieved if he adopted a hard line in the negotiations on Germany’s reunification. The internal and external goals were connected, because the Soviet Union could not reform its economy without significantly cutting military expenditures, which in turn was impossible unless tensions with the West were durably reduced. Gorbachev also needed money and knew that the FRG could be induced to provide generous aid if he played nice, but while people often emphasize that point, I think it was very much a secondary issue because the truth is that, even if he’d played hardball in the negotiations, the Germans would still have paid to reunify their country and in fact they would probably have paid a lot more than what they eventually gave.But again I think it’s a mistake to construe the deal outlined in Moscow as a quid pro quo. If Gorbachev refused to play hardball in the negotiations, it’s not really because he was consciously thinking about the negotiations as a quid pro quo by which he would get the West’s cooperation with his ultimate policy goals in exchange for allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification, but more fundamentally because he thought Western-Soviet relations had moved beyond that and it didn’t fit with his conception of what they should be like going forward. As we shall see shortly, Western officials realized this and they used that fact to their advantage during the negotiations, which ultimately allowed them to settle the German question on their terms.
1.2.2 The Two Plus Four process and the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany
Bush and the NSC feared that, if Gorbachev offered Kohl to allow reunification to proceed in exchange for Germany’s withdrawal from NATO or at least from the Alliance’s integrated military command, Kohl might find it difficult to resist such a deal since it would mean taking the risk of missing a historical opportunity to reunify his country. It’s very likely that if Gorbachev had played hardball and pursued this kind of strategy, he could indeed have driven a wedge between the FRG and its allies. As we have seen, Bush had sent a letter to Kohl right before he met with Gorbachev in Moscow to repudiate Baker’s assurance that NATO’s “jurisdiction” would not expand to the territory of the GDR and advise that instead Kohl suggest to Gorbachev the idea of a special military status for that territory after reunification, but Kohl had opted for a language closer to Baker’s proposal because he deemed it more conducive to obtaining a green light for reunification from Gorbachev, so Bush’s fear was certainly justified. However, as I also argued, Gorbachev couldn’t easily pursue this kind of strategy in the negotiations on Germany’s reunification because, to achieve his main policy goals, he needed to maintain a cooperative stance with the West. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor, understood that and, to make sure that Kohl did as well and that Bonn would remain on the same page as Washington during the Two Plus Four process, they decided to invite him to Camp David at the end of February to argue that Germany’s reunification could be secured without compromising on NATO and stiffen his back so he wouldn’t be tempted to cut a deal with Gorbachev to secure reunification on Soviet terms. Kohl and his advisers were convinced, committed to stand firm on NATO membership and kept their word during the rest of the negotiations.In particular, they agreed to drop Baker’s “jurisdiction” talk about the GDR in favor of Bush’s “special military status” formula, although it took some time for the West German foreign ministry to do the same. In exchange for the promise not to compromise on NATO, Kohl received Bush’s assurance that he would have Washington’s full backing during the Two Plus Four negotiations. On March 18, his position was further strengthened by the victory of the CDU in the East German elections, which showed that he also had the support of the GDR’s population.
As we have seen, the Soviets eventually took note of those developments and, in the note he sent to Gorbachev in April, Falin not only noted this change of stance and described it as a hardening of the West’s position but also pointed out Genscher’s isolation. As we shall see, this is also how it’s described today by critics of Russia’s claim that NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe violated the assurances that were made during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, which ironically plays an important role in their argument against that position. I will discuss their argument later, but for the moment, what matters is that while in a sense the abandonment of Baker’s “jurisdiction” talk in favor of Bush’s “special military status” formula did represent a shift to a more uncompromising position, as we have seen it was arguably more of a clarification of Baker’s proposal than a hardening of it and, as I will now explain, this was followed in subsequent months by a broadening of the assurances that Baker had made in Moscow. As I argued above, insofar as Baker’s proposal can be construed as a quid pro quo, the idea was not for the Soviets to allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification in return for a pledge that the Alliance would not expand to the east, but that if they agreed to Germany’s continued membership in NATO the US and its allies would build a post-Cold War European order together with the Soviet Union that would be cooperative and accommodate Soviet concerns. Baker’s somewhat unclear assurance that, in that case, NATO would not move into the territory of the GDR was just meant to convince Soviet officials that Germany’s continued membership in NATO was not intended to fundamentally alter the European balance of power in the West’s favor, but to preserve stability on the continent by allowing the US to stay involved in Europe.
It’s true that after February, Western officials quickly moved away from Baker’s formulation of the restrictions he proposed to place on NATO’s expansion to the GDR and rephrased his proposal in a way that seemed to weaken it, but in other respects they also strengthened it. Indeed, over the next few months, they made a number of more general assurances that played the same function of convincing the Soviets that if the US and its allies insisted that NATO could not be dismantled despite the end of the Cold War and that Germany had to remain part of it, it wasn’t because they were trying to take advantage of the situation to strengthen the West’s geopolitical position in Europe, but because it was the only way to make sure that US troops would stay on the continent and that Germany would remain tied to Western political and military structures, which throughout the Two Plus Four process never ceased to be the rationale presented by the US and its allies for their position. As I argued above, although Baker’s assurance that NATO would not expand to the east referred to the territory of the GDR, the deal he outlined in February can only be understood as part of a more general understanding on the European security architecture that would emerge from the post-Cold War settlement.After the preliminary talks in Moscow, Western officials narrowed down the assurance about NATO’s future relationship with the territory of the GDR by abandoning Baker’s “jurisdiction” talk, but they also made clearer the general nature of the deal they were proposing by making a number of broad assurances that went beyond the status of this territory and concerned the post-Cold War European security order as a whole. Tom Blanton and Svetlana Savranskaya are therefore correct to argue that the assurances made by US and West German officials in February were not isolated statements but part of a “cascade of assurances” that Western officials made to the Soviets before, during and after the Two Plus Four process. Those assurances were instrumental in securing a settlement of the German question on Western terms, because they appealed to Gorbachev’s desire to end bloc thinking and start a new era of cooperation in Europe, yet were compatible with the preservation of Western political and military institutions.
Going into the Two Plus Four process, the Soviet goal was to obtain Germany’s neutrality and the dismantlement of the Cold War alliances, which eventually would be replaced by a new pan-European security architecture based on a beefed-up CSCE, which had produced the Helsinki Final Act in 1975.Gorbachev wanted to turn the CSCE, which unlike NATO and the European Economic Community (EEC) included the Soviet Union and its allies, into a permanent organization that would replace NATO and the Warsaw Pact to become the central institution of the post-Cold War European security order. Germany’s reunification could take place as soon as Bonn had recognized the Oder-Neisse border with Poland, but it would have to withdraw from NATO and the four powers would keep troops in the country and only relinquish their rights after this new pan-European structure was in place, at which point both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be dissolved. While Gorbachev had not closed the door on Baker’s proposal during the February talks in Moscow, he continued to insist on Germany’s neutrality and the replacement of Cold War alliances by this kind of pan-European security architecture for several months after that. Some political leaders in other European countries on both sides of the Cold War line, such as the French President François Mitterrand, the West German Foreign Minister Genscher and the Czechoslovak President Václav Havel, expressed interest in a framework of that sort at one point or another, but US officials had no intention of dismantling NATO and were determined to make sure that it would continue to play a major role in Europe after the end of the Cold War. As we have seen, Bush had made sure that Kohl would not compromise on this point by inviting him to Camp David in February to make the case that it would not be necessary to secure Germany’s reunification, but US officials still needed some alternative package to convince the Soviets.
Their general strategy consisted in formally decoupling the negotiations on Germany’s reunification from the broader question of the post-Cold War European security architecture, while informally making assurances on the latter to help secure a settlement of the former on Western terms. Thus, since the Soviets were anxious that a post-Cold War European security order that included the Soviet Union and didn’t leave it on the outside be created after Germany’s reunification, Western officials made repeated assurances to convince their Soviet counterparts that Moscow would not be excluded from the post-Cold War European security architecture. They insisted that, while they agreed with the goal of building a pan-European security architecture, this would take time, whereas it was no longer realistic to delay Germany’s reunification. It was important that NATO be preserved to allow the US to keep a significant military presence in Europe, so as to make sure that in the meantime Germany would remain tied to Western security structures, which in turn would ensure the stability of the continent. Eventually, the CSCE would be strengthened to create the kind of pan-European security structure that Gorbachev had talked about, but it was not realistic to create such a structure before reunification occurred and not desirable to leave Germany untethered to Western security structures while that pan-European system was being worked out. The Soviet approach to the latter problem, which as we have seen consisted in allowing the four powers to keep troops in Germany after reunification until a pan-European security architecture had been created, was rejected on the grounds that the Germans wanted the Soviet troops out. However, in order to make the continued existence of NATO as non-threatening as possible, Western officials insisted that it would become more political.In short, Western officials used informal assurances to signal as much agreement as possible with their Soviet counterparts on the ultimate goal (they were merely proposing a different path to reach the same point), so the treaty by which the four powers would relinquish their rights over Germany and allow reunification to proceed would not be tied to the broader issues posed by the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and be narrowly focused on borders, troop withdrawal and the military status of the territory of the GDR.
Those repeated assurances eventually overcame Gorbachev’s reluctance to allow Germany to stay in NATO. The first significant crack appeared during the Washington Summit held from May 30 to June 3, where Bush tricked Gorbachev into admitting that Germany had a right to choose its own alliances, by noting that the Soviet Union had formally recognized this principle by signing the Helsinki Final Act in 1975.The Soviets tried to walk it back and continued to resist NATO membership for a while after that, but the truth is that, as I explained above, Gorbachev was not prepared to adopt the kind of hardball tactics that would have been necessary to obtain Germany’s withdrawal from the Alliance. Thus, he eventually relented and accepted the principle during a meeting with Kohl in July, shortly after he was reelected General Secretary at the 28th Congress of the CPSU and NATO’s heads of state and government issued a declaration that publicly repeated some of the assurances Western officials had made during the Two Plus Four process on how the Alliance would be transformed with the end of the confrontation between the blocs. However, it was not over yet, for Gorbachev still insisted that restrictions be placed on NATO’s freedom of action in the territory of the GDR after reunification, so the last stretch of the negotiations was devoted to that question. Specifically, he wanted to bar foreign troops and nuclear weapons from being deployed over there, but while the treaty that was signed in Moscow on September 12 barred nuclear weapons from being deployed in that area it didn’t really forbid foreign troops from entering it. Indeed, while Article 5 of the treaty said that foreign troops “will not be stationed in that part of Germany or deployed there”, a written addendum that was included at the insistence of the US stipulated that Germany could decide how to interpret the word “deployed” as long as it did so “in a reasonable and responsible way taking into account the security interests of each contracting party”, which effectively allowed foreign troops to cross the Cold War line. As Bush had predicted to Kohl at Camp David in February, Germany had been reunified on Western terms, without having to jeopardize NATO’s future by taking the country out of it or accepting a French-style membership and withdrawing from the integrated military command.
Besides the assurances they made during the negotiations, which I will examine in more detail shortly, other factors allowed Western officials to secure Germany’s reunification on their terms. First, the FRG promised significant economic assistance to the Soviet Union, in the form of loans, grants and food aid. As early as May 1990, before the treaty was signed or Gorbachev had even accepted allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification, the West German government agreed to guarantee a loan to the Soviet Union extended by private banks to the tune of 5 billion DM. Kohl wrote a letter to Gorbachev to inform him of that decision in which he called it “a considerable political effort” on the part of his government and said that he assumed that Moscow would negotiate “in the same spirit” within the Two Plus Four framework to bring about “a constructive solution”.In September, to ensure the signature of the treaty, Kohl further agreed to pay 12 billion DM to finance the transfer of Soviet troops out of Germany as well as to extend a 3 billion DM loan.But as I already argued, economic assistance was not as important in securing the eventual deal as both contemporaries and historians have claimed, since Germany would almost certainly have paid much more if Gorbachev had played hardball. Another important factor in securing the eventual agreement was the fact that negotiations on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which resulted in a large reduction of conventional military forces in Europe, were conducted in parallel to the Two Plus Four process. Together with the assurance that NATO would take on a less military character and become more political in the post-Cold War environment, this contributed to reducing the Soviet perception of the threat posed by NATO, which in turn made it easier for Gorbachev to make the concessions that made a deal possible. Finally, the facts that Gorbachev’s program of reforms was approved by the 28th Congress of the CPSU in July and that he was reelected General Secretary of the Party had a similar effect, because it meant that he was less vulnerable to domestic criticisms.Indeed, NATO was already a very sensitive issue in the Soviet Union at the time and has remained so in Russia ever since, which made Gorbachev and every Russian leader after him wary of appearing weak in front of the Alliance.Thus, many factors played a role in the eventual agreement that allowed Germany to stay in NATO after reunification, but none of the other factors that contributed to that outcome diminish the importance of the assurances that Western officials made on the future of the European security architecture during the negotiations.
1.3 The case for the Russian position
As critics of the Russian position note, the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany did not say a word about NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, but was exclusively concerned with the conditions under which Germany would reunify and the four powers would relinquish the legal rights they still held as a result of the occupation at the end of WWII. They argue that, whatever Soviet officials were told in February, it was superseded by the eventual agreement, so the US and its allies did not make any commitment not to expand NATO since the treaty didn’t include any provision about that. However, it doesn’t follow that the West did not have some obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe as a result of what transpired during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, because the controversy was never about the content of the treaty but about what was said during those negotiations. Indeed, despite the fact that some people sometimes pretend otherwise, nobody is denying that the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany does not explicitly rule out NATO expansion. The debate is and always has been about whether the West made some kind of commitment during the negotiations that, while not written down in the treaty, was nevertheless incompatible with NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe against Russia’s wishes. It shouldn’t be controversial that one can’t settle this debate simply by examining the provisions of the treaty. Indeed, everybody agrees that money was part of the deal that allowed Germany to be reunified on Western terms, yet the treaty doesn’t say anything about financial assistance.I will argue that, in addition to promising the Soviets money to ensure that Germany could stay in NATO after reunification, the US and its allies made assurances during the negotiations and more broadly at the end of the Cold War that created some obligation not to expand NATO against Russia’s wishes, although reasonable people can disagree about how binding that commitment was.
Shifrinson argues that the assurances made in February were not superseded by subsequent developments and remained binding because, even if Western officials later changed their position, they had already obtained something from the Soviets in return for those assurances, namely Gorbachev’s assent to let Germany’s reunification proceed and to formally start the negotiations on the conditions under which it could take place, so they were obligated by the assurances made in Moscow.Since he also believes that the assurances made in Moscow by US and West German officials did not just concern the territory of the GDR but applied more broadly to Central and Eastern Europe, he concludes that the West had some obligation not to expand NATO against Russia’s wishes. Trachtenberg is somewhat more cautious about the scope of the assurances made in Moscow, but on the whole he agrees with Shifrinson that, in the case of Genscher and Baker at least, they applied to Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the territory of the GDR. His argument that the assurances in question were not superseded by later developments is that, if those assurances pertained to Central and Eastern Europe as a whole and not just the territory of the GDR, then since the Two Plus Four agreement only concerned the latter, the further concessions subsequently made by the Soviet Union and enshrined in that treaty could only have superseded the part of the assurances that were about the GDR and left the rest intact.
Thus, Shifrinson and Trachtenberg both argue that some kind of informal agreement was implicitly struck in Moscow when US and Western officials met with their Soviet counterparts in February, which did not cease to apply later because of what happened during the rest of the negotiations on Germany’s reunification and in particular was not superseded by the treaty signed a few months later.However, they acknowledge that it was not as binding as, for example, the informal agreement struck between Kennedy and Khrushchev by which the former agreed to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey and pledged not to invade Cuba in return for the latter withdrawing Soviet missiles from the island, because the quid pro quo was less explicit. In any case, the argument hinges in both cases on the assumption that the assurances made in February were not just about the territory of the GDR, but about Central and Eastern Europe in general. However, as I argued above, the evidence supports the view defended by Kramer and most other scholars in the literature that, with the exception of Genscher, US and West German officials were only talking about Germany in Moscow. Therefore, neither Shifrinson’s argument nor Trachtenberg’s shows that Western countries were under some obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe against Russia’s wishes, at least as a result of the assurances made in February by US and West German officials. Yet despite what critics of the Russian position claim, it doesn’t follow that no such obligation existed, only that it couldn’t have been created by those assurances.
Critics of the Russian position argue that, when he met in February with US and West German officials, Gorbachev still hoped that he could obtain Germany’s withdrawal from NATO in return for the Soviet Union’s acquiescence to reunification and therefore didn’t take the deal that Baker floated in Moscow since it allowed Germany to stay in NATO. However, because the West subsequently took a harder stance on the question of NATO’s relationship with the territory of the GDR, he eventually had to sign a less favorable agreement. Baker had already made this argument in 1997, during the debate that preceded the Senate’s decision to approve NATO expansion to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary:
''I got off the word 'jurisdiction' very quickly,'' Mr. Baker said in a telephone interview. ''I do not recall using it with the Soviets. But let's assume I did use it once or twice. We quickly walked away from it. What defeats this whole argument is that we then insisted on the G.D.R. being in NATO, thereby moving NATO eastward.''
In the scholarly literature on the controversy, it was made in a particularly clear way by Sarotte:
For a moment in February 1990, the Soviet Union could have struck a deal with the United States, but it did not. Obviously any agreement among the Americans, West Germans, and Russians would have needed alliance approval, but in the political climate of 1990 it would have been possible to secure it. Even a written press release would have helped the Soviet cause. But Gorbachev did not secure one, and the window closed. Germany united and NATO began to move eastward.
In other words, for a commitment not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe to have existed, Gorbachev should have taken the deal that was briefly floated in February, but since he didn’t and eventually signed a treaty that didn’t contain any provisions against NATO expansion to Warsaw Pact members and even authorized NATO to move across the Cold War line, no such commitment existed and therefore Western countries didn’t renege on any promise they had made when they expanded NATO a few years later.
This argument portrays the deal that was floated by Baker in February 1990 as a quid pro quo by which the Soviet Union agreed to let Germany stay in NATO after reunification in return for restrictions on the kind of relationship the Alliance would have with the territory of the GDR for the Alliance. While in February, so the argument goes, US and West German officials had floated the idea that the restrictions in question might go as far as preventing NATO’s “jurisdiction” from extending to it, whatever this could have meant exactly, Western officials had subsequently revised the terms of the deal by proposing only a special military status for the territory of the GDR and the Soviet Union had ultimately agreed to that. However, as I argued above, this way of interpreting the deal that was first outlined in February and that eventually led to Germany’s reunification within NATO is wrong. The restrictions on the sort of relationship that NATO could have with the territory of the GDR was not something the Soviet Union would get in return for allowing Germany to stay in NATO, which would have made no sense since they could have prevented NATO from having any relationship whatsoever with that territory simply by demanding that Germany withdraw from the Alliance, it was something that was intended to make what it was giving less onerous. What the Soviet Union was supposed to get in return, to the extent that it even makes sense to construe the deal as a quid pro quo, was a general post-Cold War settlement that would be inclusive and not leave Moscow at the door. As I noted above, Western officials made repeated assurances after February to convince their Soviet counterparts that, although the settlement of the German question could not be tied to the more general issue of the post-Cold War European security architecture for both practical and principled reasons, a pan-European system broadly consistent with Gorbachev’s ideas on that issue would eventually be created. Even before the negotiations on that issue started, when they met off the coast of Malta in 1989, Bush had already tried to reassure Gorbachev that the US was not trying to exploit the Soviet Union’s difficulties at home and in Central and Eastern Europe, a point that Baker had stressed again in Moscow when he assured Gorbachev that “the President and I have made clear that we seek no unilateral advantage in [the German unification] process”.This effort to convince Soviet officials that Germany’s reunification and more generally the post-Cold War settlement would not be to Moscow’s detriment intensified after the February talks.
On March 2, during a meeting with Anatoly Adamishin (Deputy Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union), Kastrup assured him that Bonn “did not want to derive unilateral advantages from the changes in the East” and that it “wanted to create European security structures with the [Soviet Union], its friends and with [the FRG’s] friends, which would make alliances superfluous”. He also said that “NATO should have an increasingly strong political role”, that it would be “instrumental in developing cooperative security structures that would initially act as an umbrella over the two alliances”, adding that “the alliances would eventually be absorbed into these cooperative security structures”.On April 10, during a meeting with Gorbachev, who repeated his idea of a pan-European security structure that would replace Cold War institutions, Hurd assured him that in the future NATO would have “a more political role” and that the UK “recognized the importance of doing nothing to prejudice Soviet interests and dignity”. On May 4, according to a report he wrote for Bush on the meeting he had with the Soviet Foreign Minister, Baker told Shevardnadze that the US recognized “the need to adapt NATO, politically and militarily, and to develop CSCE” to reassure Shevardnadze that “the process would not yield winners and losers”, but would produce a European security order that is “inclusive, not exclusive”. On May 18, in a meeting with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, Baker listed nine points that were supposed to illustrate how the US had taken into account the Soviet Union’s “completely legitimate concerns” in developing its policy on Germany. These included the assurances that “NATO will undergo an evolution to become more of a political organization” and that the US was making an effort to “ultimately transform the CSCE into a permanent institution that would become an important cornerstone of a new Europe”, though he argued that NATO was still needed to anchor Germany into Western institutions after reunification because creating a pan-European security structure based on the CSCE would take time and for the moment was “a wonderful dream, but just a dream”. Moreover, Baker told Gorbachev and Shevardnadze that he and Bush were “always emphasizing that [they were] not seeking unilateral advantages from the changes happening in the Soviet Union”, that US policy was “not aimed at separating Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union” and that Americans were “interested in building a stable Europe, and doing it together with you”.
On May 25, in a meeting between Mitterrand and Gorbachev, not only did the French President tell his Soviet counterpart that the CSCE should have more weight in the post-Cold War European security architecture and compare his idea of a European confederation to Gorbachev’s concept of a “common European home”, but he also told him that he was “personally in favor of gradually dismantling the military blocs”. Furthermore, he acknowledged that it was necessary to “create security conditions for you, as well as European security as a whole” and claimed that “European security [was] impossible without the USSR”.On May 31, during his meeting with Gorbachev in Washington, Bush assured him that “we have no intention, even in our thoughts, to harm the Soviet Union in any fashion”. On June 8, according to a British memorandum summarizing their conversation, Thatcher told Gorbachev that “the CSCE could provide the umbrella for [various security issues they were discussing] as well as being the forum which brought the Soviet Union fully into discussion about the future of Europe” and that given the consequences of German unification “we must find ways to give the Soviet Union confidence that its security would be assured”. On July 6, NATO members issued a declaration at the end of the London Summit, in which among other statements aimed at diffusing Soviet fears they stated their intention “to enhance the political component of our Alliance” and said that the CSCE “should become more prominent in Europe's future” before making several proposals to institutionalize it.On July 16, in a speech in front of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner also expressed his support for a larger role for the CSCE in the post-Cold War security order, denied that NATO sought a unilateral advantage from German reunification and claimed that it would not “shift the balance of power in Europe”.
To be sure, those statements were vague and didn’t specifically mention NATO expansion (I will come back to this point later), but it doesn’t mean that it was unreasonable for the Russians to deem them misleading in light of what subsequently happened. On the contrary, I think that, based on what they were told during the negotiations on German reunification and more generally at the end of the Cold War, Russian officials have every reason to feel that the West didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The assurances made during the Two Plus Four process were sufficiently vague that one could perhaps argue that each of them individually was respected, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the Russian position has no basis in fact because in diplomacy the whole is not just the sum of the parts and collectively those assurances painted a picture of a post-Cold War European security architecture that was very different from the NATO-centric order that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union. Allowing Germany to remain in NATO after reunification, Soviet officials were told repeatedly, was not the first step toward creating a post-Cold War European security order dominated by NATO. The Alliance would become a more political organization and, in due time, a pan-European security architecture would be created in which a transformed CSCE would play the central role and NATO would merely be one pillar among others under that umbrella organization. But this would not happen overnight and, in the meantime, it was critical that NATO continue to play a role in Europe and that Germany remain part of it after reunification. Otherwise, the US would be unable to keep a significant military presence in Europe, NATO would become irrelevant or even cease to exist and the US would no longer have any political influence in Europe, which in turn would destabilize the continent.Allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification would not result, the Soviets were repeatedly assured, in a shift of the balance of power on the continent. On the contrary, it was the only way to preserve the status quo after German reunification and prevent this event from having a destabilizing effect, because a united Germany that was no longer constrained by Western security structures would take steps to ensure its security such as developing nuclear weapons and might go back to the kind of nationalism that caused so much damage in the 20th century. It was in everyone’s interest, including and perhaps even especially the Soviet Union’s, that Germany be allowed to stay in NATO after reunification.
So it’s unsurprising that, when a few years later the US and its European allies built a NATO-centric European security architecture in which the CSCE played only a minor role (even though as we shall see it was turned into a permanent organization in 1995), from which Russia was largely excluded since it was not part of the Alliance and in which NATO not only remained primarily a military organization but even conducted military operations “out of area” for the first time in history without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council and against a historical Russian ally, Russian officials felt they had been misled. Indeed, not only is it not surprising that they felt that way after what they were told, but it would have been surprising if they had not felt that way. Western officials no doubt believed they had good reasons to subsequently make those decisions, and they may even be right about that (although I will argue that they are not), but this doesn’t make it any less true that, based on the assurances Soviet officials received at the end of the Cold War, the Russians had every reason to expect something very different. This argument doesn’t rest on the assumption that, when they made assurances about NATO expansion in February, US and West German officials were talking about more than the territory of the GDR. As we have seen, except for Genscher, they probably were not. Nor does it rest on the assumption that, at any point during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, Western officials explicitly promised that if the Soviet Union agreed to let Germany stay in NATO the Alliance would not be expanded to Warsaw Pact members. As we shall see shortly, some of them did assure their Soviet counterparts that it wouldn’t happen a few months later, but this doesn’t seem to have happened during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification and in particular it didn’t happen during the February preliminary talks in Moscow because, with the exception of Genscher, US and West German officials were only talking about the territory of the GDR. Nevertheless, given the assurances Soviet officials received from their Western counterparts during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification and more generally at the end of the Cold War, the Russians had every reason to see the European security architecture that was created by the West in subsequent years and in particular NATO expansion as a form of betrayal. As Shifrinson argued, insofar as the West got something of value out of those assurances (which they did since as I have argued they played a key role in convincing the Soviets to allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification and more generally to settle the Cold War in terms favorable to the West), they were to some extent binding.This is a relatively weak claim, whose import the Russians have no doubt exaggerated (especially in recent years), but that is not the same thing as saying they made up the whole thing and pretending they are is just adding insult to injury.
Indeed, it didn’t take long for the Soviets to start feeling they had been misled by those assurances, since they started to express concerns along those lines only a few months after the conclusion of the Two Plus Four process. During this period, the faction that thought Gorbachev had been too conciliatory with the West started to gain influence in the Soviet administration, which among other reasons led to the resignation of Shevardnadze in December 1990 and would eventually result in a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991.When John Major, who had replaced Thatcher as Prime Minister of the UK in November 1990, came to Moscow on 5 March 1991, Gorbachev complained to him that the assurances the Soviet Union had received during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification were already being violated:
Against the background of favorable processes in Europe, I suddenly start receiving information that certain circles intend to go on further strengthening NATO as the main security instrument in Europe. Previously they talked about changing the nature of NATO, about transformation of the existing military-political blocs into pan-European structures and security mechanisms. And now suddenly again [they are talking about] a special peace-keeping role of NATO. They are talking again about NATO as the cornerstone. This does not sound complementary to the common European home that we have started to build.
Major replied that it was a misunderstanding and that Western countries were merely trying to increase coordination between NATO and the Western European Union, but Gorbachev clearly wasn’t convinced.
According to Braithwaite, during Major’s visit, the Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov also expressed his concern that Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary wanted to join NATO, but Major assured him that “nothing of the sort will happen”.On March 26, Hurd repeated this assurance a third time when he told Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, the Soviet Foreign Minister, that “there are no plans in NATO to include the countries of Eastern and Central Europe in NATO in one form or another”. This was arguably true at the time, though as we shall see some people in the Bush administration were already thinking about it, but it would not remain true for long. Finally, on June 16, Wörner declared that “granting NATO membership to former Warsaw Treaty members would be a serious obstacle to reaching mutual understanding with the Soviet Union”. Thus, while it’s true that, except for Genscher, Western officials didn’t explicitly rule out NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, some of them did a few months later. But as I have argued, in doing so, they were just making explicit a commitment that was already implicit in the assurances made during the negotiations on German reunification, which as the concerns voiced by Soviet officials in 1991 show was clearly interpreted by them as having that implication. To be sure, those statements made by Western officials in 1991 to the effect that NATO would not be expanded to Central and Eastern Europe did not constitute a quid pro quo of the sort that is often described by defenders of the Russian position, but rather assurances that no such plan existed. Again, this was true at the time, but as we shall see later this doesn’t mean that Western officials were not somewhat disingenuous in their attempts to mollify their Soviet counterparts.
I think there are several reasons why people resist this conclusion, even when they know about the assurances Western officials made to their Soviet counterparts at the end of the Cold War. First, in part because Russian officials have used their complaint that the West violated those assurances as a justification for some of their most controversial decisions in the past 30 years, people can’t help but conflate the question of whether this complaint has merit with the question of whether it justifies Russia’s subsequent actions. However, even if as I’m arguing the Russian claim that NATO expansion violated the assurances Western officials made at the end of the Cold War is not without merit, it doesn’t follow that Russia’s subsequent actions, such as the invasion of Ukraine, were thereby justified. One can acknowledge that the Russians have good reasons to feel they have been misled while criticizing their recent policy. Another reason is that, while the debate has focused on the narrow issue of NATO expansion, the problem with the West’s post-Cold War policy for Russia was not so much NATO expansion per se but Moscow’s exclusion from the European security architecture. As I will argue later, not only was NATO expansion but one aspect of that exclusion, but if the West had adopted a different approach it may have been possible to expand NATO without excluding Russia from the post-Cold War European security architecture, even though it made that more difficult. Now, the argument I have made above is that, to the extent that the assurances made by Western officials at the end of the Cold War created some obligation not to expand NATO, this obligation stemmed from the promise contained in those assurances to create a post-Cold War European security architecture in which Moscow would have a place and that would not be dominated by NATO. Thus, by focusing the debate more narrowly on the issue of NATO expansion, both critics and defenders of the Russian position have made it harder to see the relevance of those assurances. Finally, because they interpret Baker’s February assurance that NATO would not move “one inch to the east” as a reference to Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the GDR, defenders of the Russian position and sometimes even Russian officials themselves argue that Western officials explicitly promised not to expand NATO if the Soviet Union allowed Germany to stay in NATO after reunification. Since this can be shown to be false, critics of the Russian position naturally concluded that Moscow had no case, but as I have argued the fact that Western assurances did not explicitly preclude NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe doesn’t mean that it wasn’t in tensions with those assurances. Thus, just because the obligation not to expand NATO stemmed from assurances that were less explicit than portrayed by the defenders of the Russian position, it doesn’t follow that Soviet and later Russian officials didn’t have good reasons to expect that NATO would not be expanded against their wishes based on those assurances and that as a result they didn’t have legitimate causes for complaint once the US and its allies started to take steps to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe despite Moscow’s opposition.
1.4 Other arguments made by critics of the Russian position
While they are wrong that every Western official who ever promised that NATO would not expand to the east was only talking about the territory of the GDR, since as we have seen Genscher was clearly talking about Central and Eastern Europe in general, critics of the Russian position are probably right that except for him, US and West German officials present in Moscow during the February talks were only talking about the territory of the GDR. In particular, even though out of context the language Baker used when he assured Gorbachev that if Germany was allowed to stay in NATO after reunification the Alliance would not move “one inch to the east” is more naturally interpreted as referring not just to the territory of the GDR but to Central and Eastern Europe in general, the context strongly suggests that he was in fact only talking about the former and there is evidence that it’s also how Soviet officials understood him. However, I have just argued that in spite of this fact, Western officials nevertheless made several broader assurances at the end of the Cold War that gave Soviet and later Russian officials every reason to expect that NATO would not be expanded to Central and Eastern Europe against their wishes and more generally that a very different European security architecture would emerge than the NATO-centric system the US and its allies eventually created. But in addition to arguing that US and West German officials were only talking about the territory of the GDR during the February talks in Moscow, critics of the Russian position have also made several other arguments that could also be used against the position I defended above, to which I now turn.
1.4.1 The treaty didn’t void the assurances made during the negotiations but arguably strengthened them
As we have seen, critics of the Russian position often argue that since the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany doesn’t preclude NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, the West can’t have been under any obligation not to expand NATO.This argument implicitly assumes that, for the West to have contracted some obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe as a result of the conditions in which Germany was reunified, the treaty must have contained a provision that clearly prohibited it. In turn, critics of the Russian position often justify this assumption by implying that, unless assurances are explicit and written down in a legally binding treaty, they are not binding in any way. However, although agreements that are codified in a legally binding treaty obviously have more force, the view that informal and non-written assurances have no binding force whatsoever is completely untenable. As Shifrinson and Trachtenberg have pointed out, diplomats make informal assurances all the time and, if their interlocutors couldn’t assume that they have some binding force, diplomacy would become virtually impossible. Indeed, unless people could assume that what is said in top-level meetings has some political weight, and that people who take part in such meetings can put some trust in what they tell each other, verbal exchanges could not play anything like the role they do in actual diplomatic practice. Many diplomatic breakthroughs have only become possible because of conciliatory gestures that were not codified in any formal agreement, but created the trust necessary for a political solution to emerge, whether it was codified in a treaty or not. Clearly, if people didn’t assume that such gestures constrained the states on behalf of which they were issued to some extent, this would not be possible. Moreover, there are many cases where such a formal agreement is not possible for political reasons, so political leaders rely on informal and non-written assurances. Indeed, some of the worst diplomatic crises, such as the Cuban missile crisis, were resolved through informal agreements. This argument seems to rest entirely on the obvious fallacy that, since the assurances made by Western officials during that period were not codified in a treaty and therefore were not legally binding, they had no binding force whatsoever.
As Trachtenberg argued, precisely because the treaty was narrowly focused on the direct consequences of Germany’s reunification and in particular on the special military status that the territory of the GDR was to have after reunification, assurances made during the negotiations that were not strictly limited to that question cannot have been superseded by the treaty.Since as I have argued Western officials made broad assurances that created some obligation on the part of the US and its allies not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe against Moscow’s wishes, the fact that the treaty did not explicitly prohibit this development can’t have abrogated that obligation, which remained intact. In fact, precisely because the treaty contained provisions that satisfied the Soviet condition that the territory of the GDR have a special military status (even if as we have seen it was somewhat watered down compared to their initial demand), the treaty arguably strengthened the obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, it would make absolutely no sense for the Russians to be very concerned about NATO expansion to the territory of the GDR and demand some kind of special status for it should they allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification, yet not to care about NATO expansion to Central and Eastern European countries. Thus, the fact that the West consented to such a special military status for the territory of the GDR in the treaty, even if the restrictions on NATO’s freedom of action in that territory were more limited than what Soviet officials had initially envisioned, would naturally have strengthened the Russian expectation, created by the assurances made by Western officials at the end of the Cold War, that the US and its allies would not take the much more radical step of expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe a few years later. This made it even more natural for the Russians to feel betrayed when, after being told that we understood their concerns and giving them assurances that although Germany would stay in NATO after reunification there would be restrictions on what the Alliance could do on the territory of the GDR, they woke up a few years later to find that NATO had expanded to most of their former allies and was now on their borders. It’s true that, as Sarotte points out, the added minute of the treaty they eventually signed limited the scope of those restrictions by effectively allowing foreign NATO forces to be deployed on the territory of the GDR if the German government agreed, but it also stipulated that it should only be done “in a reasonable and responsible way taking into account the security interests of each contracting party” and that in any case no such forces should not be stationed over there. This clearly indicated that the FRG, the US, France and the UK acknowledged the security concerns of the Soviet Union and recognized that crossing the Cold War line should only be done in exceptional circumstances.
Thus, while it’s true that expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe didn’t violate the letter of the treaty, it’s hard to deny that, as Yeltsin told Clinton in the letter he sent him in September 1993 and as the Russians have consistently maintained since then, it violated its spirit and more generally the spirit that had presided over the multi-pronged negotiations that ended the Cold War peacefully. One cannot seriously claim that Soviet officials insisted that Germany would only be allowed to stay in NATO after reunification on the condition that restrictions be placed on what the Alliance could do in the territory of the GDR, but that had they known at the time that it would eventually happen, they would have been fine with NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe over their objections and without any similarly binding restrictions on what it could do over there.So the fact that NATO scrupulously respected the letter of the treaty that settled Germany’s status, which nobody denies, is of no relevance to the Russian argument that it violated its spirit. This argument is not only correct but obviously so and it certainly isn’t, as some have claimed, a “rewriting of history”. As we shall see, US officials responded to the Russian protest against NATO expansion a few years later by arguing that the GDR was a special case due to the legal rights that the Soviet Union still held over Germany as a result of World War II, but that Moscow had no such rights over Central and Eastern Europe and that unlike in the case of the GDR the US and its allies were therefore under no obligation to obtain Russia’s assent to expand in that area. However, while it’s true that the need for the Soviet Union’s assent in the case of Germany’s continued membership to NATO after reunification stemmed in part — though not only — from those legal rights, Russian officials were not for the most part making a legal argument and the negotiations record for the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany shows very clearly that Western officials not only understood that the Soviets saw NATO moving to the east as a security threat but also regarded this concern as legitimate and said as much to their Soviet counterparts on multiple occasions. Thus, it’s simply not true that, during the negotiations on the treaty, Western officials tied the legitimacy of the Soviet concerns that led to the special military status of the GDR exclusively to the legal rights Moscow held over Germany as a result of World War II.
1.4.2 The fact that Soviet officials didn’t raise the issue of NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe doesn’t mean the West didn’t have some obligation not to do it
Another common argument, which is related to the point that the treaty did not contain any prohibition against NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, is that Soviet officials never raised the issue during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, which critics of the Russian position seem to think implies that nothing Western officials said during those negotiations could have created any obligation not to expand NATO. This argument implicitly rests on the assumption not only that Soviet officials never raised the issue of NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe and demanded explicit guarantees against it during the negotiations, but also that unless Soviet officials did so the West can’t possibly have said anything that created some obligation not to expand NATO. Now, while the first assumption is mostly (though not entirely) true, the second is clearly false. Let’s start with the first point. It’s true that Soviet officials did not insist on specific guarantees against NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe during the Two Plus Four process and that discussions focused on whether Germany could stay in NATO after reunification, then on what restrictions the Alliance would face in the territory of the GDR after Gorbachev accepted the principle of Germany’s continued membership to NATO, but it’s not entirely true that they never brought up the issue and expressed their concerns about it. Indeed, during his conversation with Baker in Moscow on May 18, Gorbachev complained to him that he “had information that the goal of your policies [was] to separate Eastern European countries from the Soviet Union”.He mentioned this part of his conversation with Baker during his meeting with Mitterrand a few days later, when he said to the French president that he’d told Baker that he was aware of Washington’s “favorable attitude towards the intention expressed by a number of representatives of Eastern European countries to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in order to subsequently join NATO”. However, those were pretty isolated comments, so the claim made by critics of the Russian position is mostly correct. Of course, even if they were concerned about the possibility that NATO might expand to Central and Eastern Europe (which they were), Soviet officials had good reasons not to explicitly raise the issue at the time. Indeed, one has to keep in mind that although Soviet officials realized that the Warsaw Pact would not survive in its current form, they were still hoping to save part of it. By insisting on guarantees against NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, they would have effectively admitted that it was condemned, which would have made it harder to do that.
Now, if the Soviets had just avoided raising the issue of NATO expansion because it would have made their goal of saving what they could of the Warsaw Pact harder, it would have no bearing on the argument made by critics of the Russian position, because at the end of the day it’s still true that, except for a few isolated comments, they did not mention that issue and didn’t ask for guarantees against that possibility. However, if Soviet officials didn’t feel the need to raise the issue explicitly and demand specific guarantees against NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, it’s also in part because as I have argued the assurances made by Western officials indirectly precluded that possibility. Indeed, despite what critics of the Russian position implicitly assume, the fact that Soviet officials almost never raised the issue during the negotiations and in any case didn’t insist on explicit guarantees against it doesn’t imply that Western officials can’t have said anything that created some obligation not to expand NATO against Moscow’s wishes and in fact they did. The fact that Soviet officials didn’t make such a demand doesn’t mean that, to the extent that assurances made by Western officials created some obligation not to expand NATO, the Russians wouldn’t remember them when NATO expanded anyway a few years later and wouldn’t be justified in retrospect to deem that Western countries had misled them during the negotiations on German reunification. In fact, as long as I’m right that assurances made by Western officials in 1990 created some obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe, it doesn’t even matter whether the Soviets were even thinking about that possibility in the moment. They would have been just as justified in deeming that Western countries had violated the assurances they made at the end of the Cold War even if that possibility had not even occurred to them at the time. Indeed, because people can’t think about every implication of the promises they make or receive, they often make promises that create obligations the recipients don’t think about at the time they are made, but it doesn’t release them from the obligations in question for all that. This is particularly true with vague assurances such as those made by Western officials during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, which precisely because they’re vague have many implications people typically don’t think about, although their vagueness also makes them less binding. Finally, it’s worth pointing out again here that although Soviet officials didn’t insist on explicit guarantees against NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification and only raised the issue on a few occasions, several Western officials did explicitly tell them it would not happen in 1991. Again, this wasn’t a pledge in the context of a quid pro quo, but it happened because Soviet officials expressed their concern that the West was going to expand NATO and made it clear that they thought it was incompatible with the assurances they had received a few months earlier, which Western officials did not dispute.
1.4.3 Moscow’s acceptance of the Helsinki principle didn’t void the obligation created by those assurances
Critics of the Russian position also argue that, even if the assurances made by Western officials created some obligation not to expand NATO, this obligation was superseded by the recognition by Gorbachev of the principle, enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act of the CSCE (which the Soviet Union signed in 1975), that sovereign countries are free to enter into alliances as they see fit.In May 1990, during the Washington Summit, Bush told Gorbachev that since he accepted that principle he also had to accept that if Germany wanted to stay in NATO after reunification he couldn’t object to it. At this point, to the surprise of US officials and the consternation of Gorbachev’s advisors, he reluctantly conceded the point. The Soviets immediately tried to walk it back, but soon after that Gorbachev stopped opposing Germany’s membership of NATO and started to focus on obtaining restrictions on the Alliance’s freedom of action on the territory of the GDR after reunification. This principle was once again endorsed implicitly by the Soviet Union in November 1990, when it signed the Charter of Paris just one month after the signature of the Two Plus Four Agreement. The Charter of Paris, which reaffirmed and expanded the principles stated in the Helsinki Final Act, would become a foundational document for the Organization Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which replaced the CSCE in 1995. So critics of the Russian position argue that Russia, which as the Soviet Union’s continuation state took on all its commitments, also has no grounds to object to the accession to NATO by Central and Eastern European countries a few years later. This argument, that Russia can’t object to NATO expansion because Central and Eastern European states are sovereign countries and therefore free to choose their own alliances, has become ubiquitous but it’s obviously fallacious. Indeed, while it’s true that Central and Eastern European states have a right to ask to join NATO, they don’t have a right to join NATO simply because they want to, for the simple and obvious reason that current members also have the right to refuse. Thus, if the Russians are right that Western countries were under some obligation not to expand NATO because of the assurances they had made during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification and the implicit recognition of the security concerns that NATO expansion posed to Russia contained in the Two Plus Four Agreement (which I have argued they are), it’s impossible to claim that Russia has no grounds to protest against NATO expansion simply because sovereign countries have a right to seek out alliances as they see fit, which is neither here nor there.
The key issue is therefore whether the Two Plus Four Agreement together with the assurances made during the negotiations that led to it created some obligation not to expand NATO against Russia’s opposition. If as I have argued, you think that is the case, then you cannot argue that Western countries get off the hook because of the Helsinki principle that sovereign states are free to seek whatever alliances they want. Not only does this not follow from that principle, as I have just explained, but even if that were not the case it would still not absolve them since they already adhered to that principle when they made those assurances and signed this treaty. Indeed, one can’t make assurances that will predictably and reasonably be interpreted by another party as creating some obligation toward them, only to argue later that no such obligation was created because it would be inconsistent with another commitment you had previously made. One can’t undertake commitments, even vague ones, but then ignore them on the ground that one wasn’t in a position to make them in the first place. If that is really the case, then one shouldn’t have undertaken that commitment to begin with. But again this doesn’t even matter ultimately, because as I have explained above, the Helsinki principle prevented neither Western countries from committing not to expand NATO nor Russia from opposing it. Voluntarily refraining from doing something that you might otherwise have done to ensure better relations with another state is a perfectly legitimate diplomatic practice in which statesmen engage all the time and that is just what I have argued that Western countries did by making the assurances they did and signing the treaty they did at the end of the Cold War. As we shall see, over the years, the idea that it would be illegitimate not to expand NATO because Russia was opposed to it on the ground that it would amount to giving Russia a “veto” on NATO’s policy became a common talking point. This confused argument therefore became the basis for NATO’s “open door policy”, which has since been elevated to the rank of dogma and, as I will argue later, had very unfortunate consequences. However, this is more a rhetorical device aiming at making something that, regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, is within the normal confines of diplomacy look nefarious than a real argument.
I think part of the issue here is that many people have or pretend to have an overly irenic view of international relations. In particular, since NATO is a defensive alliance, they don’t think that its expansion to Central and Eastern Europe constitutes a security threat for Russia and they think that Moscow therefore has no business trying to prevent its neighbors from joining NATO if they want to. They may concede if pressed that, as I have just argued, the so-called Helsinki principle is not inconsistent with the idea that states can provide assurances to others they won’t seek to form alliances with third parties. But they clearly assume that there can’t be any legitimate reason for a country to be concerned about the fact that its neighbors want to form or join a defensive alliance with others and that any attempt to prevent it can only be explained by imperialism. However, as I will argue later in more detail, this is simply not true. Due to the anarchical nature of international relations, i.e. the fact that the international system lacks a superior authority that can resolve disputes (unlike in the domestic sphere where the state normally has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force), there is a sense in which states can only count on themselves to ensure their security and this makes them paranoid. In particular, they often care more about capabilities than intentions, because if at the moment they are confident that other states don’t mean them harm they can never be sure that this will always be the case. Furthermore, even if a state’s neighbors have no intention of attacking it, their membership even in a defensive alliance can weaken its position in international negotiations and make accidental conflicts more likely. Thus, while it’s true that Russia’s foreign policy elites are paranoid about NATO and that Russian fears about NATO expansion are exaggerated, those fears are not entirely irrational.
Moreover, when the shoe is on the other foot, nobody considers that states can’t have a legitimate interest in what alliances other sovereign countries enter into. As we shall see, the US in particular isn’t just concerned about what alliances its neighbors want to join, but it regularly applies various kinds of pressure on countries that are thousands of kilometers from its borders to ensure they will not enter security arrangements Washington deems harmful to its interests. The real difference between the US and Russia in that respect isn’t so much that the US respects the sovereignty of other countries whereas Russia doesn't, but that the US is strong enough to usually get its way without having to start a war or engage in histrionic behavior and Russia isn't. The fact that many people don’t recognize this reality leads them to adopt a very strong interpretation of the Helsinki principle, which as formulated in the Final Act of the CSCE and the Charter of Paris is very vague. Indeed, the former just says that states have “the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance”, while the latter just says that the signatories “fully recognize the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements”.On the strong interpretation many critics of the Russian position implicitly adopt, states are not allowed to do anything to prevent the constitution of alliances they deem harmful to their interests, but as we have seen while people may sometimes talk as if they believed that in practice no state behaves in a way that is consistent with that interpretation. The truth about the Helsinki principle is that on such a strong interpretation it can’t be a realistic basis for international relations, while on a weaker interpretation, it’s not clear exactly what constraints it places on states.
1.4.4 Western officials were not trying to mislead their Soviet counterparts when they made broad assurances at the end of the Cold War
Another common argument made by critics of the Russian position is that, regardless of what assurances Western officials made to their Soviet counterparts at the end of the Cold War exactly, they were not trying to mislead them. In other words, even if you agree with the argument I have made that Western countries had some obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe against Russia’s wishes because of those assurances, critics of the Russian position insist that Western officials made them in good faith and in particular were not planning to expand NATO at the time. However, not only is the claim that Western officials were not being disingenuous when they made broad assurances to their Soviet counterparts at the end of the Cold War not entirely true, but it has no bearing on whether those assurances created some obligation not to expand NATO which the West subsequently violated and whether the Russians are justified in blaming them for doing so. Indeed, even if Western officials had every intention to uphold the assurances they made at the end of the Cold War at the time they made it, the Russians would still have a legitimate grievance against the West if they or their successors later violated them. Now, the evidence is clear that Western officials had no definite plans to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe at the time, but that is not to say that all of them were fully honest with the Soviets. First, beyond the specific issue of NATO expansion, Western and in particular US officials were privately saying things at odds with the assurances they were making to Soviet officials about the future of the European security architecture. Moreover, while nobody had made the decision to expand NATO, some US officials were already thinking about it. Finally, not only were they already thinking about it, but as we shall see there is evidence that it affected their stance during the negotiations on German reunification. However, they were careful not to mention it to Soviet officials in the conversations they had with them during that period, because they knew that it would be anathema to them. This would have prevented the US from achieving several goals it cared deeply about, such as ensuring that Germany would stay in NATO after reunification and bringing to a successful conclusion the arms control negotiations that were taking place in parallel to the Two Plus Four process, because Moscow’s cooperation was indispensable for that.
The decision to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe was not made until 1994, during the Clinton administration, but as we shall see many officials in the Bush administration had already reached the conclusion that it would have to happen eventually by 1992 and several US officials were already thinking about it during the negotiations on German reunification.For instance, in his book on NATO expansion, US diplomat Ronald Asmus wrote:
Such nuanced diplomatic points aside [he is referring to the arguments exchanged by US and Russian officials in the mid-1990s about whether NATO expansion was consistent with the assurances made in 1990 and the Two Plus Four agreement], the reality was that no one in either Washington or Moscow was thinking about further NATO expansion in the spring and fall of 1990. Indeed, the issue had not yet been raised by the Central and East Europeans. These countries would not embrace that goal for another two years.
However, although critics of the Russian position often make a similar claim, every single part of that claim is demonstrably false. First, as we have seen, there is conclusive evidence that Soviet officials were in fact thinking about that possibility in the spring of 1990. It’s also not true that Central and Eastern Europeans hadn’t raised the issue yet at the time, even if Asmus is right that no Warsaw Pact state had formally adopted that goal yet.In fact, Asmus himself wrote that, during a conference organized by RAND in June 1990 and attended by both US and Polish officials, the Poles asked whether they could join NATO and a Polish general even asked during a panel discussion co-chaired by Asmus if US forces could be stationed in Poland. Over the summer, after NATO announced that it would open “liaison offices” in Warsaw Pact states, one of Havel’s aides also quietly asked the Americans “how NATO would respond if Czechoslovakia applied for membership”. Thus, it is unsurprising that, contrary to what Asmus claims, US officials also were thinking about NATO expansion and not ruling it out, even if again they hadn’t decided to do it yet and wouldn’t for a while.
For instance, in July 1990, Baker argued during a meeting of Bush’s foreign policy team that Washington needed to craft “a ‘half-way house’ for governments who want out of the Warsaw Pact and CEMA but can’t join NATO and EC (yet)”.Yet just one month and a half earlier, during his meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow, the same Baker was assuring the Soviet leader that although the US thought that NATO was important in the short and medium term, in the long run they would create a pan-European security architecture. Indeed, while it’s true that he had called the idea of immediately replacing the Cold War alliances by such a system “a wonderful dream, but just a dream”, he quickly realized that it was a blunder and clarified later in the conversation that he didn’t mean that a pan-European security architecture of the sort advocated by Gorbachev shouldn’t be created later and reiterated the argument that allowing Germany to stay in NATO was not a way for the US to upset the balance of power in Europe but to preserve the status quo:
And one more thing. I said that pan-European security is a dream. What I meant is that it is a dream today. We made concrete proposals on how to build its structures in order for it to become a reality. In the meantime, we consider it important for Germany to be firmly anchored in security institutions, so it is not tempted to create some kind of security structure of its own.
It’s hard to argue that Baker’s statement was not somewhat disingenuous when, around the same time, he was considering expanding NATO to Warsaw Pact states. This is especially true given that, as we shall see, in the same conversation he also ignored Gorbachev’s repeated suggestion that the Soviet Union might ask to join NATO. For US officials, who assured their Soviet interlocutors that Washington had no intention of excluding Moscow from the post-Cold War European security architecture, creating a “half-way house” for Central and Eastern European countries pending NATO membership was a serious option but there was no question of doing that for the Soviet Union.
Not only were some US officials already thinking about expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe during the Two Plus Four process, but there is evidence that it had a significant impact on the negotiations toward the end, which almost derailed the deal at the last minute. Indeed, during the last meeting on the eve of the scheduled signing ceremony in Moscow, a difficulty arose in connection to NATO’s freedom of movement in the territory of the GDR.Genscher and Shevardnadze reached a deal according to which the treaty would prohibit both the stationing and deployment of foreign troops in that territory after the departure of the Soviet troops from Germany, but the German government would have the option, at its discretion, to authorize foreign troops to cross the line temporarily as long as it was not a large number, in order to make it possible for NATO to hold exercises in that part of Germany. This deal would not be part of the treaty, but it would just be stated orally to the other foreign ministers and confirmed orally during the press conference for the signing. However, the US and even more so the UK insisted that oral assurances would not do and demanded that it be written down in the treaty (the French delegation seems to have been closer to the German position and played a role of mediator), which led the Soviets to threaten to call off the signature at the last minute. As no agreement could be found, Baker went to bed, but discussions continued between the Western delegations. Genscher was absolutely beside himself at the British for putting reunification at risk just when a deal had appeared imminent and insisted that US diplomat Robert Zoellick wake up Baker in the middle of the night so he could talk to him. They eventually came up with a solution with the help of Roland Dumas, the French Foreign Minister, in the morning. The Western allies proposed that a so-called “agreed minute” be added to the treaty stipulating that, although the deployment of foreign troops in the territory of the GDR was prohibited under the terms of the treaty, the German government would be able to determine what counted as “deployment” as long as it did so “in a reasonable and responsible way taking into account the security interests of each contracting party”. As Sarotte notes, the Western allies insisted that all parties sign under this “agreed minute” as well as under the treaty, which showed how important it was to them.
Why did the US and the UK jeopardize the deal for something that, in comparison to Germany’s reunification, seemed rather unimportant? Part of the explanation is probably that they wanted to avoid any permanent constraint that, in case of war, could have made the defense of Germany more difficult for NATO.But it’s unlikely to have been the only explanation, since even US officials acknowledged at the time that a prohibition on the deployment of foreign troops in the territory of the GDR, even if absolute, would not prevent the US from fulfilling its obligation to defend Germany. Similarly, the Western allies were very concerned about not agreeing to anything that would suggest Germany’s sovereignty was less than total and may have opposed the Soviet position for that reason, but since the Germans themselves were okay with it that is also not a very plausible explanation. According to Zoellick, another reason was that he was already thinking about the possibility that NATO might expand and wanted to make sure that NATO troops would be able to cross into Poland from Germany, though he also said that few US officials were thinking about that. Moreover, while for a long time German officials blamed the British (who they suspected of having tried to prevent reunification at the last minute because Thatcher had never been able to reconcile herself with it), Zoellick also claimed recently that, although the British had taken the lead, it was the US who had really been responsible for that position:
The night before the signing of the treaty, a difficult question appeared. It was about the possibility of stationing non-German NATO forces on the territory of East Germany, theoretically made impossible by the Treaty. Still, we needed to secure that possibility because, if Poland were eventually to join NATO in a second step, we wanted American forces to be able to cross East Germany on their way to be stationed in Poland. The Germans blamed the Brits for holding up the signature with that late-night request, whereas we were in essence responsible for that position. We finally agreed that NATO troops would not be present in East Germany until the Soviets left. And that we could cross East Germany if Poland joined. Remember that today we have battalions in the Baltics! Germans were upset because they felt the British wanted to undermine the signature. It is true that the British had the same idea as us. But as usual, they were aggressive and rash, contrary to us, whom Germans considered as more trustworthy. It was basically considered as a mere provocation. We all agreed to drop a note stating that “this question will be for the Germans to decide.” Meanwhile, an infuriated Genscher had called Dumas and Baker. … Coming back to the further enlargement of NATO, Scowcroft would later say that he did not even think of it. I can say that I certainly did. It was necessary and inevitable. But it is true that in Ukraine and Georgia, in 2007, we went too far. This is another story.
While to my knowledge Zoellick’s claim is not supported by any contemporary document, and even he doesn’t claim that the possibility of NATO expansion was not the only reason for the American position, it’s nevertheless very plausible for several reasons.First, although no contemporary document supports Zoellick’s claim, he has been making it consistently for more than 20 years. Moreover, as we have seen above, Central and Eastern Europeans had already been probing Washington about the possibility of joining NATO and internally US officials had not ruled it out. Finally, according to the British account of the end of the Two Plus Four process, during the last minute dispute that led to the addition of the “agreed minute” to the treaty Baker in particular insisted that “something in writing would be necessary about the provisions on military activity in the former GDR after Soviet troop departure” and that “oral assurances would not do”. He didn’t mention the possibility of NATO expansion and instead claimed that it was because otherwise the Senate would not ratify the treaty, but this is not very plausible and, in any case, it at least supports Zoellick’s claim that despite the German impression that London was behind the roadblock the US was actually instrumental to it.
It was not just on the possibility that NATO might be expanded to Central and Eastern Europe that US officials were, to put things mildly, less than fully transparent with the Soviets, but more generally on their thinking about the future of the European security order. While they were showering Soviet officials in assurances that, despite their insistence on the importance of not dissolving NATO, they agreed with the long-term goal of building a pan-European security architecture and only wanted Germany to stay in NATO to preserve the status quo, privately they were voicing skepticism about pan-European security and were already planning to expand the US footprint in Europe to fill the vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s retreat from Central and Eastern Europe.Their motivations were complex and will be discussed in more detail later, but they are not relevant to the question of whether US officials tried to mislead the Soviets during the negotiations on German reunification, so for now I just want to highlight the gap between what they were telling Soviet officials about the future of the European security architecture and what they were saying in private. In that respect, what Scowcroft reportedly told Jacques Attali, one of Mitterrand’s closest advisors, in March 1990 is particularly revealing:
We want to find a forum where we can talk with Europeans, to contribute to the political stability of the continent. The CSCE can be used in technical areas (such as the environment), but the USSR is a member, so it's difficult to talk about the security of democracies in it. [emphasis is mine] The best solution would be NATO, but the danger would be to make it an exclusively political body, which would remove any justification for the presence of our troops in Germany. Another option would be to extend NATO to the countries of Eastern Europe, but the danger would be to isolate the USSR. We could also use the OECD to involve Japan (a potentially very dangerous country in that it has never been and still isn't a democracy), but there are too many people. We could also think of the G7. The best thing would be to set up the "Directoire à Quatre" proposed by de Gaulle in his day.
This statement by Scowcroft is yet another piece of evidence that US officials were thinking about NATO expansion from very early on, even if at this point they still opposed it, but it also makes it clear that, despite their assurances to the Soviets that eventually the CSCE would become the main institution in a pan-European security system, they were not actually prepared to deal with important security issues in a forum where Moscow would have an equal voice. As we shall see, this attitude would persist in subsequent years as Western states increasingly made their most important security decisions within NATO and the CSCE/OSCE was gradually relegated to less important issues, which explains a lot about the degradation of Russian-Western relations since the end of the Cold War.
To be fair, though as we have seen US officials led their Soviet counterparts to believe that eventually a pan-European security architecture would be created, they occasionally let their skepticism about pan-European security come out in conversations with them. For instance, when he met Shevardnadze in April 1990, here is what Bush told him:
We are working with you and the other European countries to strengthen the CSCE. CSCE will be an important pillar in the new Europe but we should not try to make it do more than it can. Those of us who remember when Europe was not at peace do not want to return to notions of collective security that almost inevitably fail.
Nevertheless, immediately after he said that, he added that the US willingness to stay in Europe was “in the interest of a Europe whole and free and the common European home as you call it”. In doing so, he was equating his concept of a “Europe whole and free” with Gorbachev’s concept of a “common European home”, but they were very different and US officials were perfectly aware of it. For instance, in a recent testimony about the Two Plus Four process, here is how Zelikow explained why US officials opposed Gorbachev’s “common European home”:
Gorbachev thought that his vision, known as “the common European House,” would be welcomed because it was close to Mitterrand’s vision of a confederation, with the background melody of De Gaulle’s Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. Of course, we did not favor these views. Not only because obviously there was no place for the US in this “house,” but also because the common house concept avoided expressing and voicing the final win of a system against the other one. It only alleviated the military tensions.
As this passage shows, not only did US officials oppose Gorbachev’s “common European home” concept because it would have reduced the US influence in Europe, but also because they wanted the outcome of the Cold War to make clear who had won. As we shall see, this way of thinking goes a long way to explain how the Bush administration dealt with the end of the Cold War, which may have prevented a different settlement that would have made the subsequent deterioration of the relations between Russia and the West less likely.
So did Western officials try to mislead their Soviet counterparts during the negotiations on German reunification by making broad assurances they intended to violate? Not if by that you mean that, when they assured Soviet officials that eventually a pan-European security architecture would be created even if for the moment it was impossible and NATO was still necessary to ensure stability on the continent, they were already planning to expand NATO to Warsaw Pact states. This is not the case, but at the same time, some US officials were already thinking about NATO expansion and not ruling it out in the future, even though such a policy was hard to reconcile with the assurances they were making to Soviet officials about the future of the European security order. Beyond the specific issue of NATO expansion, for a number of reasons I will discuss in more detail later, US officials never truly believed in pan-European security and always intended NATO to remain the main security institution in Europe. Yet they still led the Soviets to believe that in time a transformed CSCE would play this role, as Gorbachev was proposing. It would be unfair to the Americans to say that they openly lied to the Soviets, but it’s hard to deny that their behavior involved a measure of deception. To be sure, it’s a form of deception that is common in diplomacy, but that doesn’t make it any less deceptive and knowing that is unlikely to make the Russians feel better about it. Finally, it’s worth reiterating that even if Western officials had been completely forthcoming about their intentions and had not been trying to mislead their Soviet counterparts in any way, the Russians would still have a legitimate grievance against the West insofar as, regardless of whether it was premeditated or not, Western countries ended up violating the assurances they made at the end of the Cold War.
1.4.5 Gorbachev never denied that the West had violated its obligations
It is sometimes claimed that even Gorbachev, who obviously would know how Soviet officials interpreted the statements made by Western officials in February 1990, denied that a pledge not to expand NATO had been made at the time. Indeed, back in 2014, Gorbachev told a journalist interviewing him for Russia Beyond the Headlines, a state-owned Russian media outlet that the issue of NATO expansion to Central and Eastern European countries wasn’t even discussed in February 1990 and basically endorsed Kramer’s position:
RBTH: One of the key issues that has arisen in connection with the events in Ukraine is NATO expansion into the East. Do you get the feeling that your Western partners lied to you when they were developing their future plans in Eastern Europe? Why didn’t you insist that the promises made to you – particularly U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s promise that NATO would not expand into the East – be legally encoded? I will quote Baker: “NATO will not move one inch further east.”
M.G.: The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement, mentioned in your question, was made in that context. Kohl and [German Vice Chancellor Hans-Dietrich] Genscher talked about it.
If even Gorbachev says there was no promise, so the argument goes, then surely the Russians are dissembling when they claim to have interpreted Baker’s statements as a pledge that NATO would not be expanded.
The problem is that Gorbachev said that in 2014 and, as what he says immediately after this passage makes clear, he was trying to defend himself against the accusation, which has become very common in Russia and isn’t without justification, that he had been played by the West in 1990:
Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled. The agreement on a final settlement with Germany said that no new military structures would be created in the eastern part of the country; no additional troops would be deployed; no weapons of mass destruction would be placed there. It has been observed all these years. So don’t portray Gorbachev and the then-Soviet authorities as naïve people who were wrapped around the West’s finger. If there was naïveté, it was later, when the issue arose. Russia at first did not object.
As you can see, he is talking about himself in the third person and is trying to deflect the accusation that he failed to safeguard Russia’s interests because he was naïve, in a context where this accusation had become widespread in Russia. Indeed, the interview took place immediately after the US and Europe had taken harsh sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea and the shooting of MH17 over Ukraine, so his statements have to be interpreted in light of that context.
In particular, one can’t infer from this interview that Gorbachev didn’t believe that, as I have argued above, statements made by Western officials before and during the negotiations on German reunification created some obligation not to expand NATO over Russia’s objections. In fact, not only did he not say anything in this interview that implies that he did not believe that it was the case, but he explicitly said that he did:
The decision for the U.S. and its allies to expand NATO into the east was decisively made in 1993. I called this a big mistake from the very beginning. It was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990. [emphasis is mine] With regards to Germany, they were legally enshrined and are being observed.
In this passage, Gorbachev clearly distinguishes between the assurances that were made by Western officials about Germany, which were put in writing in the treaty and were subsequently observed, from the assurances that were made about other topics, which were implicit and subsequently violated. Since he also claimed that NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe was never discussed during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, his argument must be that it didn’t have to be discussed explicitly for the assurances made at the time to create some obligation not to do it, which is precisely the argument I have made above.
1.5 Many Western officials also interpreted, both at the time and later, the assurances made at the end of the Cold War as ruling out NATO expansion
I have argued that, in light of the assurances made by Western leaders during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, Russian officials were justified in having the expectation that NATO would not expand to the east against their wishes, but there is also evidence that some Western officials at the time similarly interpreted those assurances as ruling out that possibility. Indeed, Shifrinson recently discovered in the British archives notes from a meeting that took place on 7 March 1991 between high-level officials of the US, France, the UK and Germany about security in Central and Eastern Europe showing that even some Western officials thought the Soviet Union had been promised that NATO would not expand in the area.The document starts by noting that there is "general agreement that membership of NATO" would be unacceptable. Of course, this could have been unrelated to any promise Western officials felt they had made to the Soviet Union, but Jürgen Chrobog, Political Director of the German Foreign Office, is noted to have said that "we had made it clear during the 2+4 negotiations that we would not extend NATO beyond the Elbe" and that "we could not therefore offer membership of NATO to Poland and the others". Another document recently discovered in the German archives by Klaus Wiegrefe, which summarizes the same meeting, talks about "the understanding already expressed in the 2 + 4 process that the withdrawal of Soviet troops must not be used by the West for its own advantage". This is somewhat less specific, but on the other hand this remark is attributed to both Chrobog and Raymond Seitz, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Canada. Thus, according to German diplomatic archives, at least one top-level US official also felt at the time that during the negotiations on Germany's reunification a commitment had been made not to take advantage of the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Central and Eastern Europe and that this precluded the expansion of NATO in that area. Yet today Western officials insist that claims to that effect by Russian officials are nothing but a figment of their imagination.
Nor is the March 7 meeting the only evidence that some Western officials continued to regard themselves bound by assurances they'd given to the Soviets in 1990 even after the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Germany was signed. Wiegrefe also found in German diplomatic archives that Genscher, Chrobog's boss at the German Foreign Office, had also told other Western officials they couldn't expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe because of the commitments they'd made during the negotiations about Germany's reunification on three other occasions in 1991. He made that point to US officials on March 1, to his Greek counterpart on April 18 and finally to his French and Spanish counterparts on October 11. Thus, Genscher explicitly ruled out NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe before, during and after the negotiations on Germany's reunification. This is inconsistent with the view defended by critics of the Russian position, who not only argue that no Western official ever mentioned NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe before the negotiations on Germany's reunification started and that any assurances given during those negotiations concerned only the territory of the GDR, but that in any case even those more limited — according to them — assurances were later superseded by the final settlement eventually reached. Indeed, if this were true, then how could Western officials have still felt bound by assurances given in 1990 not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe several months after the signature of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Germany? One could argue that, since many Western officials still opposed NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe in 1991 (in part because they feared it might cause a backlash in the Soviet Union), some of them fabricated a promise not to expand it that was allegedly made during the negotiations on Germany's reunification, but this seems far-fetched, especially since everyone they talked to apparently agreed that NATO shouldn't be expanded. It would mean that some Western officials just happened to come up with the same lie — according to critics of the Russian position — back then as Russian officials today in order to convince people who in most cases also didn't want to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe anyway. It's much more likely that, even after the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Germany had been signed, they really felt that expanding NATO would violate assurances that had been made during the negotiations of that agreement.
This interpretation is also supported by statements that Western officials involved in the negotiations about Germany’s reunification made later. William Burns, who in 1990 was deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department and therefore well positioned to know what had transpired during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, wrote in his recently published memoirs:
With President Bush’s support, Baker sold the [Two Plus Four negotiations format that associated the FRG and the GDR to the US, France, the Soviet Union and the UK] to German chancellor Helmut Kohl and foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in early February, agreeing to use Two Plus Four negotiations to press for rapid German unification and full NATO membership, while reassuring the Soviets that NATO would not be extended any farther to the east, and would be transformed to reflect the end of the Cold War and potential partnership with the Soviet Union.
In meetings a few days later with Shevardnadze and Gorbachev in Moscow, Baker won their initial support, and began the effort to ease their resistance to membership of a unified Germany in NATO. Baker maintained that Soviet interests would be more secure with a united Germany wrapped up in NATO, rather than a Germany untied to NATO and perhaps eventually with its own nuclear weapons. He also said that there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or forces “one inch to the east” of the borders of a reunified Germany. The Russians took him at his word and would feel betrayed by NATO enlargement in the years that followed, even though the pledge was never formalized and was made before the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was an episode that would be relitigated for many years to come.
In this passage, Burns talks about “the borders of reunified Germany” when he mentions the pledge not to expand NATO eastward, which is inconsistent with the view that it only applied to the territory of the GDR. In case that was not clear enough, later in his memoirs, he also writes that “Yeltsin and the Russian elite assumed, with considerable justification [emphasis is mine], that Jim Baker’s assurances during the negotiation of German reunification in 1990—that NATO would not extend its reach ‘one inch’ farther east—would continue to apply after the breakup of the Soviet Union”.
Of course, Burns’s understanding may not reflect the thinking of the rest of the Bush administration and indeed we have seen that other Western officials who played a role at the time disagree, but he is hardly alone among the participants in the diplomatic activity that took place at the end of the Cold War in thinking that Western officials had, if not outright pledged that NATO would not be expanded, at least led the Soviets to believe that it would not happen. For instance, here is what Robert Gates said when, after the first round of NATO expansion was carried out, he was asked what he thought Bush would have done if he had been reelected in 1992:
That would have been a tough fight within the administration. I’m not sure where people would have come down, but I think that the Bush administration would have, at the end of the day, kept our focus on our priorities, which in my view are, if you don’t get it right with Russia and China, none of the rest matters. And at a time of a special humiliation and difficulty for Russia, pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward, when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen [emphasis is mine], at least in no time soon, I think probably has not only aggravated the relationship between the United States and Russia but made it much more difficult to do constructive business with them. I think between that and the bombing of Belgrade we have really antagonized the Russians in a major way and I think those are two things that the Bush administration would not have done, when all is said and done.
He makes a weaker claim than Burns, one that is more in line with the view I defended above, but they both think that the Russians have good reasons to be upset by the decision to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe given what they were told at the end of the Cold War.
Seitz is another high-ranking member of the Bush administration who is on the record saying that, although US officials never gave the Soviets any explicit guarantee that NATO would not expand to Central and Eastern Europe, Russia’s feeling of betrayal is justified:
At the time, there was never an explicit guarantee that NATO would not expand eastward. But the Russians felt later that there was an implicit commitment by the West, even if it was never part of any written agreement. The decision to expand NATO was taken later, by the Clinton administration. The idea was to stabilize eastern Europe. That was a very good argument in terms of expanding the EU. But I thought that it was not a good argument for expanding NATO. All the liberated Eastern countries definitely wanted NATO membership, but the Soviets did not believe we would agree. They had the impression that we would not take advantage of their weakened position. But at the end, we did, and it's understandable that they feel double-crossed.
Dobbins, who in 1990 was Seitz’s deputy, also testified recently that he thought the Russian complaint was justified:
The 2+4 was signed, and with it started the ambiguity on Eastern Europe in NATO, in a context of the USSR falling apart. … It would be untrue to say that at that time there was a written doctrine on the enlargement of NATO. I personally opposed it in 1990. Again, at that moment, there was no intention of moving on very quickly. It became an issue only with the Clinton administration. I think that the “you betrayed us” of the Russians is a valid objection. There is no doubt that Genscher and Baker said that the West had no intention to enlarge. But Gorbachev did not ask for it in writing. The Warsaw Pact was operating, troops were in the barracks. The Soviets never imagined that things would change so fast. It was just unimaginable! It was their fault for not taking the assurances and formalizing the deal.
Seitz’s view is very similar to mine, whereas Dobbins makes a stronger claim, but again they both validate the Russian position in some way.
Nor are former Bush administration officials the only Western officials who think the Russian position has merit. Elbe, who in 1990 was the head of the West German delegation during the Two Plus Four process, passed away in 2022, but a few years before that, he had endorsed the Russian position in the strongest possible terms:
Under Clinton, the enlargement of NATO started. Having been a negotiator in the 2+4 process in 1990, I can say that there was no mis-understanding that the USA had given a stringent verbal commitment to the Soviet Union on February 8, 1990 that, “NATO should never expand by one inch to the East.” Secretary of State Jim Baker had discussed the issue with Gorbachev. In a letter that Baker wrote on the day he left Moscow, he informed Chancellor Kohl of his discussions, in particular on the deal of integrating united Germany into NATO. The clarity of the American position was instrumental in triggering the decision by Gorbachev a day later that the Soviet Union would not oppose reunification of Germany.
Mallaby, who at the time was the British Ambassador to Moscow (like Elbe he died in 2022), also said in 2020 that several Western officials pledged not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe:
I think there was a mistake by three Western countries. Baker, for the United States, and Kohl, for the Federal Republic, as well as John Major, for the UK, told the Soviet Union informally that NATO would not be extended further east than the eastern frontier of the united Germany. Later NATO was extended further east and the Soviets were understandably furious. I confess that I am glad about this extension of NATO because it gave those new members of NATO security in the face of Putin's subsequent policies.
Here it seems that Mallaby is not just referring to the February 1990 talks in Moscow, but also to Major’s visit in March 1991, when he did assure the Soviet Minister of Defense who complained that NATO was thinking about inviting Warsaw Pact states to join that “nothing of the sort will happen”.
I don’t quote those Western officials because I necessarily think what they say is true. In fact, many of them argue that Baker explicitly promised Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t be expanded to Central and Eastern Europe, but as we have seen, critics of the Russian position are right that he was only talking about the territory of the GDR. However, the fact that many Western officials who were directly involved in the negotiations on German reunification at the highest level, both immediately after the end of the Cold War and more recently, interpreted the assurances made at the time as ruling out NATO expansion to Warsaw Pact states is still relevant to the controversy about whether the Russian complaint has merit. First, although many incorrectly claim that Baker’s infamous February assurance was about Central and Eastern Europe in general (as opposed to the territory of the GDR), some make a weaker claim that is very similar to the view I have defended above. In other words, they don’t claim that Western officials explicitly promised not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe, but that they nevertheless made broad assurances that implicitly were hard to reconcile with such a policy, so it wasn’t unreasonable for the Russians to feel they had been misled when it happened. Moreover, if even some Western officials who played a role in the negotiations with the Soviet Union at the time feel that NATO expansion violated the assurances made at the end of the Cold War, it seems hard to argue that it’s unreasonable for the Russians to feel the same thing.Indeed, the argument I have made is that Western officials mollified the Soviets by showering them in assurances that, although individually vague enough for Western officials to be able to claim — probably in good faith — that NATO expansion did not violate them, collectively were such as to create expectations that were clearly incompatible with it. Again, this doesn’t mean that Western officials deliberately tried to mislead the Soviets in that way (although we have seen that US officials were less than entirely forthcoming about their intentions), but it doesn’t make it any less true that it was justified for the Russians to deem those assurances misleading in retrospect.
1.6 Hell hath no fury like a Russian scorned
So what should we make of this controversy that has been plaguing the relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War? As usual, the answer is complicated, but some things are pretty clear. First, despite what is often claimed or suggested (including sometimes by Russian officials), Baker was almost certainly talking only about the territory of the GDR when he infamously told Gorbachev that if the Soviet Union consented to let Germany stay in NATO after reunification, the Alliance’s “jurisdiction” would not move “one inch to the east”, whatever this could have meant exactly. It’s understandable that people think he was talking about Central and Eastern Europe, because this interpretation of the words he used is very natural, but a close reading of the conversation as a whole makes it very unlikely that he actually was.Genscher on the other hand, who repeatedly made a similar assurance at the beginning of 1990, was clearly talking about Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the territory of the GDR, contrary to what critics of the Russian position allege. As we have seen, at some point even Baker was ambiguous on this point, though his ambiguity may have been calculated. In any case, Genscher’s early statements on the issue were informed by his views on what a post-Cold War European security architecture should look like, which though close to Gorbachev’s “common European home” concept were not shared by the FRG’s allies and in particular the US or even by the more Atlantist Kohl. As a result, his position was quickly marginalized among Western officials and he eventually had to fall behind the Bush-Kohl position, a fact that as we have seen the Soviets did not fail to notice. Thus, critics of the Russian position are still correct that no obligation to not expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe arose from the statements made by Western officials in February, but as they like to point out the negotiations on Germany’s reunification didn’t stop in February.
During the Two Plus Four process, Western officials hardened their position on the GDR by abandoning Baker’s “jurisdiction” talk (whose precise meaning had never been clear anyway) in favor of Bush’s “special military status” formula, but they also made a number of broader assurances on what the post-Cold War European security order would eventually look like. As I have argued, the assurance that NATO would not expand to the east had never been meant as compensation for allowing Germany to stay in the Alliance, but as a way to make this outcome even more appealing than the alternative of a Germany unconstrained by membership to the West’s security structures by promising that NATO would not take advantage of Germany’s reunification to expand its footprint. The broader assurances made after February were similarly meant to make the prospect of a reunified Germany in NATO more appealing by promising that although it couldn’t happen overnight eventually a pan-European security system would be created. Those broad assurances, I have argued, were clearly in tension with NATO expansion and created some obligation that it would not happen against Russia’s wishes. Indeed, as we have seen, this was explicitly confirmed by Major to Soviet officials in 1991 during a visit in Moscow and contemporary documentary evidence shows that at least some Western officials agreed this was implied by the assurances made in 1990. Western and in particular US officials were not actively planning to violate any of the assurances they made during this process, but they kept them deliberately vague and papered over their disagreements with Moscow about the future of the European security order, so the Soviets would hear what they wanted to hear. Their main concern was the immediate goal of securing Germany’s continued membership of NATO, with as few restrictions as possible, after the reunification and in the pursuit of that goal they made broad assurances to mollify the Soviets without giving much thought about what problems could arise in the future as a result of how they interpreted those assurances. It worked and, when later the Russians complained because they had interpreted them more expansively than what US officials intended, but still very reasonably given what they had actually been told, they accused them of making things up. It’s not hard, provided that one is capable of a modicum of empathy, to understand why the Russians are upset.
There are in principle three different things people could mean when they say that Western officials pledged to the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand at the end of the Cold War:
A. they signed a legally binding treaty that ruled out NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe;
B. they made a verbal pledge not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe in exchange for allowing Germany to stay in NATO after reunification;
C. they gave other, more vague verbal assurances that it would nevertheless have been natural for the Russians to interpret as ruling out NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe.
Everybody in that debate agrees that A is false, even if critics of the Russian position sometimes make it sound as if Moscow were making that claim, but the debate has been focusing on B, while C has mostly been ignored even though unlike B it’s very well supported and still vindicates the Russian position to a large extent. Indeed, in light of the assurances Soviet officials received at the end of the Cold War, the Russians have very good reasons to regard NATO expansion and more generally their exclusion from the post-Cold War European security architecture as a betrayal, even if they sometimes overstate their case by suggesting that something like B is true.
One could acknowledge that, as I have argued, the assurances made by Western officials at the end of the Cold War created some obligation for the West not to expand NATO against Russia’s wishes, but insist that it’s Russia’s fault if NATO was expanded anyway and more generally if the sort of pan-European security architecture that Soviet officials were assured would eventually be created never materialized. On this view, to the extent that assurances made at the end of the Cold War create some obligation not to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe against Russia’s wishes, this obligation was defeasible and depended on Russia’s behavior, but after 1991 Moscow acted in a way that made it impossible to create the kind of pan-European security system that Western officials promised would emerge in due time during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification. I don’t think anyone has actually proposed this line of thinking, which is not surprising since critics of the Russian position deny that any obligation not to expand NATO resulted from the assurances made at the end of the Cold War, but it’s a logically possible position and as we shall see many people in the 1990s did argue that Russia’s actions made NATO expansion necessary. It’s certainly true that, if only because it wasn’t part of a legally binding treaty, the obligation not to expand NATO and to include Moscow in the post-Cold War European security order could not have been unconditional and that creating the kind of pan-European security architecture promised at the end of the Cold War required Moscow’s cooperation. Thus, in principle it could be that although NATO was expanded to Central and Eastern Europe and Moscow was de facto excluded from the post-Cold War European security architecture, it was Russia’s fault and the West can’t be blamed for not fulfilling the assurances made at the end of the Cold War. However, while it’s true that Russia has a share of the responsibility for the degradation of the relations with the West in subsequent years, I will argue that the bulk of it falls on the US and its allies. The truth is that US officials in particular were never able to shake the deep suspicion of Russia inherited from the Cold War, which effectively made it impossible to find a place for Russia in the post-Cold War European security order.
People generally assume, more or less implicitly, that whether the West violated some kind of obligation it had contracted at the end of the Cold War by expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe is independent from the question of whether NATO expansion was a good policy, but I don’t think that is quite true.Indeed, since that obligation was not codified by a treaty or even in a non-legally binding written document but resulted from broad verbal assurances, there is no objective fact of the matter about how strong it was exactly and therefore I don’t think those issues can be so neatly distinguished. I think that everyone should agree that some obligation not to expand NATO was created by those assurances, and that wasn’t as strong as it would have been if Baker had made a clear and explicit quid pro quo with Gorbachev (in the way Khrushchev agreed with Kennedy to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey), but that beyond that there is plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree about how strong it was. Since there is no objective fact of the matter about how binding that obligation was, it’s natural and legitimate that how bad one thinks the fact that NATO was expanded to Central and Eastern Europe in spite of those assurances was depends in part on one’s view about whether it was a good idea to expand NATO. One can argue that although the assurances in question created some obligation not to expand NATO, this obligation was outweighed by other considerations, but that is not the same thing as denying that some obligation not to do it existed. Unfortunately, because participants in the debate have focused on B while mostly ignoring C, this is what critics of the Russian position have done. Meanwhile, people sympathetic to that position have implausibly tried to argue that B was true instead of focusing their efforts on defending C, which is on much firmer grounds. To be fair, Russian officials are partly to blame for this situation, because as we have seen in their desire to cast NATO expansion as illegitimate they have encouraged the confusion between B and C by throwing the kitchen sink at their opponents. However, this is not a reason to ignore C and deny that, after what they were told at the end of the Cold War, Russian officials had legitimate reasons to feel they had been misled when the process to expand NATO to Central and Eastern Europe was launched and a NATO-centric European security order started to take shape.
Indeed, what most people miss in this debate is that it’s not so much NATO expansion per se that Russia resents as much as its exclusion from the post-Cold War European security order. NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe was merely the main concrete manifestation of this exclusion. Western officials could have acknowledged that, in light of the assurances they had made at the end of the Cold War, they understood that Russia felt betrayed, but argued that circumstances had changed in ways that were impossible to foresee at the time and could only be dealt by expanding NATO. As I will argue when I discuss how the decision to expand NATO was made, I don’t think there is a good case to be made for this view, but at least by presenting that argument Western officials would have acknowledged that NATO expansion was in tension with the assurances made at the end of the Cold War, even if ultimately they thought that other considerations trumped the obligation that resulted from those assurances. Instead, they just denied that any such tension existed and replied to Russia’s complaints by making irrelevant points such as the observation that the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany did not contain any provision that precluded NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe (which the Russians never claimed) or the claim that Central and Eastern European states have a right to seek admission into NATO (which is beside the point), thereby adding insult to injury. The truth is that when those assurances were made the Soviet Union was still perceived as a force to be reckoned with and the West needed Moscow’s cooperation to solve a number of issues it cared a great deal about. This was no longer true a few years later as people came to realize how weak Russia was, so Western officials ignored the assurances they had previously made or at least interpreted them in the way that suited them best, which is often how things go in international relations. As unfair as it was, the Russians would have been better served to accept all of this and focus on building a stronger economy, but they didn’t and more recently the West has, or rather should have, learned that ignoring Russia’s wounded pride was not as costless as it once seemed, because even in this weakened state it can still make a mess.
2 The road not taken at the end of the Cold War
I have spent a lot of time on the controversy about the assurances that were made during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, not only because it has become a focal point in the dispute between Russia and the West in subsequent years (especially since the invasion of Ukraine), but also because a deep-dive into that controversy was the occasion to identify some important facts about the end of the Cold War that are crucial to understand what happened later. In particular, this discussion showed that if US officials were so insistent that Germany had to stay in NATO after reunification, it’s because they knew that if Germany left NATO the US would no longer be able to keep a significant military presence in Europe, which in turn is directly related to what I call the “original sin” of the West’s post-Cold War policy toward Russia. Indeed, this “original sin” is not the fact that the US and its allies made broad assurances at the end of the Cold War that, as I have argued, it later violated by expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe a few years later. The “original sin” is the decision to solidify NATO at the end of the Cold War, rather than create a new European security architecture that would have included Russia. This decision put the world on the path that led to the events of 2014 and eventually the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. While it did not make this trajectory inevitable, as we shall see there were numerous occasions after that when it could have been avoided if Russia, Ukraine and the West had made other decisions, it made the degradation of relations between the West and Russia, as well as a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, much more likely. In this section, I will explain why that is the case, but also why the US and its allies nevertheless made the fateful decision to enshrine NATO’s primacy instead of trying to create a truly inclusive European security order to replace the Cold War alliances as the conflict that structured international relations for 40 years came to an end.
2.1 NATO’s primacy and the logic of exclusion
NATO was created in 1949, at the beginning of the Cold War, to protect Western Europe against a possible attack by the Soviet Union. By committing the US to defend Western European countries if they were attacked, it represented a major break in US foreign policy, which so far had avoided this kind of commitment in Europe and had been strongly influenced by isolationism. The logic behind the decision to create NATO, from the US point of view, was to avoid another costly intervention in Europe by deterring the Soviet Union from attacking Western Europe, which US officials thought would inevitably force Washington to enter the war.However, this commitment did not initially translate into a large build-up of US troops on the continent, which didn’t happen until North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, prompting fear that the Soviet Union might attempt a takeover of Western Europe. The Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 as a counterweight to NATO and in order to ensure the “stability” of the Eastern bloc. Since NATO had been created to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War, it would prima facie have been logical to dissolve it at the end of the Cold War and create a new European security architecture that would have included the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern European countries, but this did not happen. For reasons I will discuss shortly, although some Western officials briefly explored the possibility of creating a pan-European security system along the lines proposed by Gorbachev, Western countries in general and the US in particular refused to countenance the dissolution of NATO and were determined to ensure that it would continue to be the main forum where they would discuss hard security issues. Before I explain what led them to make this choice, I want to explain why it made the exclusion of Russia from the European security architecture, the subsequent deterioration of relations between Russia and the West and a conflict between Russia and Ukraine more likely.
The logic that made this kind of outcome more likely is pretty straightforward. As long as NATO continued to exist but no pan-European security organization was created, Central and Eastern European countries would find themselves in a security vacuum and, having recently shaken off the Soviet yoke, would inevitably be pulled toward NATO and try to join the Alliance to obtain security guarantees against the possibility that Russia might recover and try to subjugate them again. As Sarotte noted, declassified materials show that US officials understood that point and privately made it as early as the summer of 1990, when Central and Eastern Europeans started to probe Washington more forcefully about the possibility of joining NATO:
Havel’s security advisor asked (as the NSC expert on Eastern Europe, Robert Hutchings, reported to Scowcroft on August 16, 1990), “how NATO would respond if Czechoslovakia applied for membership.” Hutchings understood why they were asking. If the “East Europeans want out of the Warsaw Pact but cannot join NATO,” he asked, “where do they find their security in the Europe of the future?” Genscher and Mitterrand had previously tried to answer that question by proposing that some kind of pan-European entity replace both military pacts, but the American preference for NATO had prevailed.
Unless Russia also joined NATO, it would find itself completely excluded from the European security architecture, as important security issues would be discussed and decisions made in NATO, where it doesn’t have a vote. In turn, this would cause a bad reaction in Russia as NATO moved closer to its borders and it found itself increasingly isolated, until finally a point was reached where the US and its allies would no longer be willing to risk a conflict with Russia by expanding NATO further, leaving some countries in the former Eastern bloc facing an aggravated Russia on their own.
The only way to prevent that would have been for Russia to join NATO, but for both objective and subjective reasons, it was unlikely to ever happen. First, although it was not as large as the Soviet Union, Russia was still a gigantic country that spanned the whole Eurasian landmass with very large armed forces. So in the event that it joined NATO, not only would the Alliance suddenly find itself committed to a vast geographic area going far beyond the Euro-Atlantic zone, but it would also have to make a very difficult and costly effort to modernize the Russian armed forces and make them interoperable with NATO forces. Russia would also have had to carry out enough democratic reforms to qualify for membership, though how much was enough would ultimately have been a political decision, so this criterion was only partly objective. In addition to such objective factors, there were also subjective factors that made Russia’s membership in NATO unlikely. Indeed, despite the end of the Cold War, people in the West remained suspicious of Russia and feared that if Moscow joined the Alliance it would turn into an ineffective collective security system because Russia’s interests were insufficiently aligned with the West’s.This suspicion would only increase as Central and Eastern European countries, with their deep-seated fear of Russia, started to join the Alliance. Baker himself emphasized the importance of that factor a decade later when he argued that NATO should invite Russia to join the Alliance:
If Russia wishes to join NATO and at some point in the future satisfies all of the criteria for membership, what is the problem? The problem is, of course, that many participants in this process impose one more condition for membership that Russia can never satisfy—namely, that the candidate not be Russia. To some extent, this sentiment reflects historical bias. NATO was formed to resist the threat of Soviet aggression against the West. Russia essentially controlled the Soviet Union. QED. Why admit to the alliance the very adversary against whom the alliance was formed?
Subjective factors were equally present on the Russian side, where the legacy of the Cold War also loomed large and NATO was still perceived as an anti-Russia organization, making it politically difficult for any Russian government to apply for membership. That is not to say that it was impossible for Russia to join NATO, as we shall see it was seriously considered both in Russia and in the West for a while, but it would have required to overcome those obstacles and that was unlikely to happen.
As long as it did not happen and NATO moved toward Russia’s borders while Moscow was left on the outside, it was bound to perceive this process with increased suspicion, until eventually things came to a head and caused a clash. On the other hand, once NATO expansion had started, it was always going to be difficult to stop the process because this would have amounted to redrawing a line in Europe and implicitly admitting that Russia had a veto over NATO expansion. No Western leader was likely to explicitly close the door to further expansion because, only a few years after the end of the Cold War, the idea that Russia should have a say on Western policy was clearly going to be a political nonstarter, especially in the US. Clinton explained this logic very clearly to Yeltsin in 1997, when the Russian President tried to convince him that, if NATO expansion was to continue, they should at least make a “gentlemen’s agreement” that former Soviet republics would not be invited to join:
"Good," said Clinton. "But I want you to imagine something else. If we were to agree that no members of the former Soviet Union could enter NATO, that would be a bad thing for our attempt to build a new NATO. It would also be a bad thing for your attempt to build a new Russia. I am not naïve. I understand you have an interest in who gets into NATO and when. We need to make sure that all these are subjects that we can consult about as we move forward. 'Consult' means making sure that we're aware of your concerns, and that you understand our decisions and our positions and our thinking. But consider what a terrible message it would send if we were to make the kind of supposedly secret deal you're suggesting. First, there are no secrets in this world. Second, the message would be, 'We're still organized against Russia-but there's a line across which we won't go.' In other words, instead of creating a new NATO that helps move toward an integrated, undivided Europe, we'd have a larger NATO that's just sitting there waiting for Russia to do something bad.
"Here's why what you are proposing is bad for Russia. Russia would be saying, 'We've still got an empire, but it just can't reach as far west as it used to when we had the Warsaw Pact.' Second, it would create exactly the fear among the Baltics and others that you're trying to allay and that you're denying is justified.
"I've been repeating that I'd leave open the possibility of Russia in NATO and in any event of having a steadily improving partnership between NATO and Russia. I think we'll have to continue to work this issue, but we should concentrate on practical matters. However, under no circumstances should we send a signal out of this meeting that it's the same old European politics of the cold war and we're just moving the lines around a bit."
Thus, while initially there was little appetite for NATO expansion in the West, once it started the idea that it should continue indefinitely became a dogma, which predictably further aroused Russian suspicions. Indeed, no matter how often US officials insisted that NATO expansion wasn’t directed against Russia, that NATO had rejected the logic of blocs and that even Moscow could join eventually, the Russians were not buying it and as we shall see they had excellent reasons not to. While Clinton himself was mostly sincere, for most people in the West and Central and Eastern Europe, creating a “a larger NATO that's just sitting there waiting for Russia to do something bad” was precisely the point.
Therefore, from the moment the West decided to keep NATO in place instead of creating a pan-European security architecture to replace the Cold War alliances, the expansion of NATO, the exclusion of Russia and the deterioration of relations with the West had already become likely. It was clear that, with the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact (which had been imposed by force in the first place and could not survive once Gorbachev had made the decision not to use force to keep the Soviet Union’s satellites in line), Central and Eastern European countries would find themselves in a security vacuum and NATO would become a magnet for them. This would eventually result in the exclusion of Russia from the European security architecture unless it could also join NATO, which though not impossible was unlikely for both objective and subjective reasons. Again, that is not to say that this outcome was inevitable, but the tracks that led to it had been laid and it would have taken unusually competent statesmanship to avoid it. This was entirely predictable and, indeed, it was predicted by several people at the time. In particular, it’s in part because he foresaw that development that Mitterrand proposed his project of a European confederation at the end of 1989, which by including the Soviet Union could have prevented Moscow’s exclusion from the post-Cold War European political order.This project initially attracted support in both the West and the East, but it eventually failed and never came to anything, in part because it was shot down by the US for reasons to be discussed shortly.
Another person who foresaw this outcome, perhaps more clearly than anyone else, was Gorbachev himself. In May 1990, after trying and failing to convince Baker that Germany should be neutral after reunification, he told him this:
Let us continue this conversation in Washington. And if none of my arguments convince you, then I’ll suggest to the President and announce publicly that we want to join NATO too. After all, you say that NATO is not directed against us, that it is just a security structure that is adapting to the new reality. So we will propose to join NATO.
He added immediately after that it was not “a purely hypothetical question” or “some absurdity” and came back to the issue later in the conversation by saying that “our potential membership in NATO is not such a wild fantasy”, but Baker ignored him and changed the subject in both cases. While at the beginning of the year, Gorbachev still harbored some hope that part of the Warsaw Pact could be preserved, by then he knew that it was condemned and understood that if NATO was not dissolved, it would result in Moscow’s isolation unless it could also join. As Baker later acknowledged, in a paper where he argued that Russia should be invited to join NATO (precisely to avoid the kind of process I’m arguing was made likely by the decision not to create a pan-European security architecture at the end of the Cold War), Gorbachev “was more serious than we gave him credit for at the time” and was “looking several moves ahead”.A very similar scene happened in March 1991 during Major’s visit to Moscow. As we have seen, during that visit, Gorbachev complained that, despite the assurances the Soviet Union had received during the negotiations on German reunification, NATO was taking steps to expand to Central and Eastern Europe. Major assured him that nothing of the sort would happen, but Gorbachev was not convinced, and he said that in that case the Soviet Union would apply for membership in NATO, to which Major just replied that he should apply to the EEC instead and then changed the subject. Gorbachev understood that, despite the West’s protests to the contrary, the Soviet Union was still perceived as a threat. He also understood that, in time, this would result in Moscow’s isolation and threaten Europe’s stability.
2.2 Anatomy of a decision
I have argued that keeping NATO in place as the main European security institution, instead of creating a pan-European security architecture, was a mistake, but it’s important to understand why that decision was made. While the US did not make that decision alone, as the leader of NATO, it was by far the main player. As we have seen, in February 1990, Bush essentially made a deal with Kohl. The US would support German reunification and, in exchange, Bonn would resist the temptation to secure Moscow’s assent to it by giving up NATO membership. Thatcher did not like German reunification, but she understood that she could not prevent it and wanted to preserve NATO, while France was interested in pan-European security but knew that it couldn’t impose such a solution once the US, the UK and Germany had agreed to maintain NATO’s primacy and therefore had no choice but to join the bandwagon. The motivations of US officials in adopting this position were complex and should not be caricatured or judged without taking into account what people knew at the time. Although I’m critical of the Bush administration’s decision to maintain NATO’s supremacy after the end of the Cold War instead of supporting the creation of a pan-European security architecture that would have included Moscow as well the Central and Eastern European countries, I think it had by far the best foreign policy team of any US administration since then and that it made that decision in large part based on solid reasoning that deserves to be fairly characterized. In short, US officials in Bush’s foreign policy team were no fools, so it’s important to understand why they adopted that position despite the drawbacks I have identified. Of course, that is not to say their policy cannot be criticized and again I think ultimately it was a bad policy, but to criticize it one has to understand not just the outcome but also the decision-making process in context.
First, Bush was a very cautious man and so were his main foreign policy advisers, which played a major role in how the US managed the end of the Cold War. In general, this caution was perhaps his greatest virtue, but unfortunately in this case it proved to be a liability and led to a suboptimal outcome. However, once you take into account the context in which the decision to maintain NATO’s supremacy was made, it becomes harder to blame Bush for making not only that decision but other controversial choices he made at the time. By 1988, Reagan was fully convinced that Gorbachev was serious about reform and was actively collaborating with him to bring about the end of the Cold War and assist in the transformation of the Soviet Union, but his Vice-President was not. When Bush became President in 1989, he immediately ordered a pause in US-Soviet relations, because he and Scowcroft did not believe that Gorbachev was sincerely interested in reforms. They suspected that he was just a smarter kind of Soviet leader who was just pretending to be a democrat to further traditional Soviet aims and were afraid that Reagan had been too hasty in beginning a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.They did not become convinced that Gorbachev was the real deal until several months later, when as promised a year earlier, he did not use force to stop the revolutions that were overthrowing communist regimes everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Some people argue that, had Bush trusted Gorbachev and collaborated with him from the outset instead of ordering the pause, perestroika might have succeeded, but I find that rather dubious. However, that is not to say that the pause ordered by Bush at the beginning of his administration did not have serious consequences, if only because as a result the US and the Soviet Union lost precious time to move forward on arms-control agreements. By the time Bush was ready to resume the negotiations, Gorbachev was less capable of delivering, so it’s plausible that had Bush never ordered the pause more ambitious arms-control agreements would have been signed. But more importantly, Bush did not abandon his cautious approach toward the processes then underway in the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, it simply took a different form and had far-reaching consequences on subsequent relations between Russia and the West.
Indeed, even after he became convinced that Gorbachev was a genuine reformer and that he really wanted to end the Cold War, Bush still kept him at arm’s length compared to Reagan and was much less willing than his predecessor to entertain a complete transformation of the nature of the relationship with the Soviet Union. That’s because he and his foreign policy team made a distinction between Gorbachev and the Soviet Union and they continued to regard the latter as a geopolitical adversary of the US. In their view, the Soviet Union had been weakened and for the moment was cooperating with the US, but it could nevertheless be counted on to eventually revert to a more hostile position. In particular, Bush and his advisers thought it was likely that, sooner or later, Gorbachev would be overthrown and that hardliners would take his place. Their strategy was therefore to lock in as many advantages as they could until the window of opportunity opened by Gorbachev closed and the Soviet Union reverted to a more adversarial position.The decision not to undermine NATO’s effectiveness by embarking on a very uncertain process to create a pan-European security architecture that would include Moscow was in part a hedge against that scenario. While it can and, in my opinion, should be criticized as lacking vision at a critical moment history, this is easier to say now with the benefit of hindsight and one must acknowledge that it was not crazy at the time. In any case, since Gorbachev was delivering on several key US goals, such as the reunification of Germany, the CFE Treaty and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe, the Bush administration endeavored to prop up Gorbachev as much as possible to reduce the probability that he would be overthrown or at least get more time to extract more irreversible advantages from him before he was replaced. In particular, this meant supporting the center against the republics (with the exception of the Baltics whose annexation by the Soviet Union had never recognized), many of which had already started to agitate for their independence by the end of 1989. Thus, despite a widespread belief to the contrary, the US policy at the time was not to encourage the dissolution of the Soviet Union but on the contrary to support the center against the republics.
The most famous illustration of that policy is the speech Bush made in Kiev on his way back from Moscow on August 1, 1991, in which he clearly took side for Gorbachev and the center against Ukrainian nationalism:
Freedom cannot survive if we let despots flourish or permit seemingly minor restrictions to multiply until they form chains, until they form shackles. … Yet freedom is not the same as independence. America will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred. We will support those who want to build democracy.
Three weeks later, there was a coup attempt in Moscow against Gorbachev, which quickly failed but undermined his authority and made the disintegration of the Soviet Union inevitable. This was precisely the kind of thing that US officials feared would happen, and what had motivated the policy of supporting the center against the republics to avoid undermining Gorbachev in the first place, but since the coup failed that policy has been described as inept and short-sighted by most commentators ever since. In particular, after the coup had failed The New York Times columnist William Safire sarcastically dubbed Bush’s speech the “Chicken Kiev speech” for his failure to espouse the cause of Ukrainian nationalism against the center, a moniker that stuck to this day. But this was easy to say after the coup had failed and it had become clear that Gorbachev and the Union would not survive for long. Bush on the other hand did not have the benefit of hindsight and, while one could perhaps criticize his exact choice of words, I think his policy was the prudent thing to do under the circumstances. It’s not just that Gorbachev was delivering on US long-standing objectives, it’s also that US officials were rightly afraid that the disintegration of the Soviet Union could lead to widespread violence. This had already begun to happen in Yugoslavia, but the prospect of a civil war in the Soviet Union was far scarier, if only because a huge number of nuclear weapons were disseminated across the country. The fear of such a scenario, which Baker famously described as “Yugoslavia with nukes”, was another important factor in Washington’s policy toward the Soviet Union during that period.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration support for the center against the republics remained purely tactical and the US continued to regard the Soviet Union as a geopolitical adversary, which had been weakened and was temporarily collaborating with the US because of Gorbachev, but would eventually reverse to a more hostile stance. Bush and other US officials made that view of the Soviet Union very clear in discussions with allies at the time:
At a meeting with the German delegation in London [during the Summit of the G7 in 1991], Bush disliked French agnosticism about NATO’s future mission. “Let’s be sure we don’t reopen things,” he said. “As long as Soviet missiles are aimed at the United States, I know who the enemy is.”
This attitude was recently summarized by Jacques Blot, then a high-level French official directly involved in the negotiations on German reunification in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in connection with the failure of Mitterrand’s European confederation project:
On December 12 in Berlin, James Baker had sketched out another vision, that of an Atlanticist Europe, with a reformed and perhaps more political NATO as its linchpin. A reunified Germany would naturally find its place in it. This conception was an extension of the logic of the blocs. Negotiations with the USSR led to appeasement and a reduction in forces and arsenals, but the aim was to organize a balance that would maintain the counterweight of the American superpower against what remained the imposing and indisputable Soviet military power. Of course, during this period, President Bush, like the French President, was concerned not to do anything that might destabilize Gorbachev, but American diplomacy never ceased to push its advantage against a country that was always seen as an adversary to be weakened and its influence reduced, and not, as had been the case with Germany after the war, treated as a partner to be helped to recover.
As Sarotte argued, despite what is often claimed (especially by former US officials), the evidence doesn’t support the view that “integration of the Soviets into new or existing institutions was dominant” in US policy at the end of the Cold War but rather that “the goal was to get the Soviets out”.
As Vladislav Zubok put it, despite being urged by some people to base US policy on a more ambitious vision, Bush “continued to pursue the short-term vision of locking in the Cold War gains”.This attitude sometimes bewildered US allies, who found it short-sighted and tone-deaf, but the US was the undisputed leader of the Alliance and, as this example from July 1991 illustrates, they had no choice but to follow:
At the opening session of the G-7, which took place in Gorbachev’s absence, Bush shared the advice he had received from the scholars gathered at Kennebunkport. He also raised other points against the “Grand Bargain”: the Soviet state continued to spend a lot of money on its military needs, including modernization of strategic missiles, and Gorbachev was still unwilling to set the Baltic republics free. The US President also pitched the priority of helping the Eastern European states, rather than the Soviet Union. Some Western leaders in London felt embarrassed. The American team was finding every possible reason not to help Gorbachev. The Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, made a moving speech. In 1985, he said, then Vice-President Bush had attended Chernenko’s funeral in Moscow. What would Bush have done then if, meeting him after the funeral, Gorbachev had said: I will free Eastern Europe, I will dismantle the Warsaw Pact, a united Germany will join NATO, a UN force will start a war against Iraq, the USSR will sign the CFE and START agreements, there will be elections and democracy, I will develop personal ties with America, and economic ties with the West will grow. “If Gorbachev had said these things in 1985,” Mulroney concluded, “I would have hurried in with a check.” Andreotti reminded the group of what Reagan had said in 1985: “I don’t know if Gorbachev will succeed, but none of us should have on our conscience the responsibility of not helping.” Yet nobody at the G-7 wanted to question American leadership. And nobody wanted to hold out the money bag.
But adopting the kind of ambitious vision that many people urged him to embrace simply wasn’t consistent with Bush’s character. While Reagan was a visionary, his successor was first and foremost a pragmatist, who was risk averse and preferred certain but limited advantages to uncertain but more desirable outcomes. Again, this was generally a virtue, but in this case it proved to be a major flaw and we are still paying the price today.
However, Bush’s risk aversion was not the only reason why he did not support the creation of a pan-European security architecture that would have included Moscow and instead did everything he could to ensure NATO’s continued primacy in the post-Cold War era, he also had ulterior geopolitical motives. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of historians and the declassification of many documents from the US archives, we now have a very good idea of how US officials were thinking at the time and what sort of considerations guided their decision-making about strategy. Analysis of these documents shows that, in addition to the fear that Gorbachev would be overthrown by hardliners and that Moscow would revert to a more adversarial position vis-à-vis the US, officials in the Bush administration were also guided by the goal of sustaining and even reinforcing US supremacy in Europe in the post-Cold War era.In order to understand why that goal was the highest priority for the US in 1989-1991, and why this led Washington to do everything it could to ensure that nothing would threaten NATO’s primacy on European security, it’s crucial to understand the relationship between US power and its role as a European power. The European alliance is a major power multiplier for the US because, while individually the economic, political and military power of each European states is negligible relative to that of the US, collectively it’s formidable and the ability of the US to harness it greatly enhances its ability to further its goals. For instance, Washington’s ability to impose a cost to adversaries like China by denying them access to certain technologies through export controls — regardless of whether such a policy is a good idea — relies on cooperation with economically advanced allies in Europe, because in the long-run unilateral export controls will only harm US companies by reducing their market shares while US adversaries will be able to source the products and services they need from European companies. Similarly, while the US has by far the most powerful military in the world, the support of European countries still enhances the ability of the US to conduct military interventions abroad — again regardless of whether such interventions are a good idea — not only because they can provide troops but also and perhaps mainly because conducting these kinds of operations at the head of a large coalition rather than unilaterally is perceived as more legitimate both domestically and internationally.
But NATO is a major channel through which the US is able to exert political influence in Europe, because as long as European states depend on the US for their defense, they can’t easily ignore requests to cooperate with US policy. Of course, it’s not the only reason why they often agree to cooperate with the US (the community of values between the US and Europe, for instance, also plays a role), but it’s a major and arguably the main factor. As recently declassified materials show, this is partly why during that period US officials in the Bush administration were determined to ensure that new security arrangements emerging from the settlement of the Cold War would not threaten NATO’s primacy on security in Europe, because they otherwise would have undermined one of Washington’s main levers of influence on the continent and thereby also its ability to harness European power to further its interests, or at least what it perceived as such. Just as Gorbachev foresaw that NATO’s continued primacy would eventually result in Moscow’s exclusion from the European security architecture, US officials predicted that unless it could be preserved in the post-Cold War era, the US would, if not be excluded from Europe altogether, at least lose some of the influence it had on the continent and with it the ability to use the European alliance as a power multiplier. Moreover, influence over Europe was not just a way for the US to harness European power to further its foreign policy goals, but also important to ensure that European states would not endanger US-led economic globalization. Indeed, as they felt more secure and less reliant on the US security umbrella with the end of the Cold War and became more able to coordinate with the progress of European integration, there was a risk that Europeans would become more reluctant to collaborate with the US to build such a globalized economic order and might even be tempted to endanger it by turning toward protectionism, which US officials believed would harm not only the US but also Europe and the rest of the world.
As this last point makes clear, US officials did not see their desire to cement US dominance over Europe in the post-Cold War era as a kind of end in itself, but saw the US as a benevolent hegemon and thought that Washington’s continued influence over Europe would be good for everyone, including for Europeans. In their view, it wasn’t just that by preserving the US ability to influence decision-making in Europe they would be protecting US economic interests, but also that Europeans had to be protected from themselves, lest without the benevolent guiding hand of the US they should drift left and reject the neoliberal economic order Washington promoted at the time. Similarly, in the domain of security, US officials saw the preservation of NATO’s primacy not just as a way for the US to continue to be able to harness European power to further its foreign policy goals, but also to preserve stability in Europe and preempt the need for another costly military US intervention in Europe because in the absence of a US military presence the continent slid back into old habits:
Against this background, the White House also understood that U.S. policy towards Western, Central, and Eastern Europe was tightly linked together. “Our future as a European power will depend in large measure on how well we grasp these new opportunities,” the NSC wrote to the President at the beginning of 1990. Germany was quickly filling the European power vacuum in Central Europe. Soon, the only powers with “real influence” in the region were going to be Germany and the Soviet Union, the NSC argued. On the one hand, this was “not the architecture of a stable European security order,” American officials believed, as such a framework invited a return to the “cyclical pattern of Russo-German conflict and condominium that bedeviled Europe from 1870 to 1945.” On the other hand, U.S. engagement would help shape German reunification, manage “an eastward drift” in Germany’s policy, and strengthen the “future position” of the United States within European security and economic affairs. Thus, the NSC resolved that the United States had to remain engaged in Central Europe “between Germany and Russia.”
While I have no doubt that US officials sincerely viewed things in that way, I don’t think this should completely absolve them of the charge of imperialism, because throughout history imperialists have always come up with good reasons and self-serving beliefs to justify their domination but it doesn’t mean that the will to power was not part of what motivated them. What this shows is rather that the motivations of US officials were complex and combined altruistic motives with more imperialist inclinations.
Indeed, the desire to preserve NATO’s primacy in Europe didn’t just lead the Bush administration to shoot down pan-European alternatives such as Mitterrand’s European confederation project or Gorbachev’s “common European home” concept, but also to start thinking about NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe as a way to prevent the emergence of a common European defense policy within the EU that would make it strategically independent from the US, which is harder to explain in non-imperialist terms. Up until recently, the consensus was that NATO expansion had never even been seriously considered by the Bush administration, which had been content to establish loose partnerships between NATO and Central and Eastern European countries. It was thought that the US only started to think seriously about NATO expansion under the Clinton administration and that the decision to expand it wasn’t made until 1994.However, as I have already noted above, US officials in the Bush administration had already started to consider NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe as early as 1990, during the negotiations on German reunification. In fact, recent work has shown that, by the end of Bush’s presidency, a consensus had emerged in the administration that NATO would have to be expanded, although the decision to do so had not formally been made yet and the timeline remained unclear. It’s very clear, based on declassified materials, that the desire to keep Europe dependent on the US and preserve Washington’s ability to influence decision-making in Europe played a key role in the thinking of US officials at the time:
Over the subsequent months, Washington planners assessed that Central Europe’s yearning for American involvement offered both challenges to and unique opportunities for cementing U.S. influence in Europe—influence that was deemed necessary for achieving broader U.S. political and economic goals. In terms of challenges, the Central Europeans’ fears—rekindled by recent instability and American hesitancy—ranked high. U.S. analysts concluded if the U.S. government blocked NATO expansion, the “new democracies” would lose interest in a transatlantic bond and seek entrance into Western European security structures. Nobody in the region believed seeking such shelter was “ideal.” In America’s absence, there was “little military teeth” in European frameworks. And yet, within a decade, the Europeans, led by Paris, would merge security and economic institutions, with the Community thus becoming the “de facto keeper of European peace.” As a consequence, NATO would be marginalized. Washington would retain “indirect and implied” security responsibilities due to the linkage between the Alliance and Western European security structures. Equally, the U.S. government would have “little to say” about European decision-making.
With the end of the Cold War and the dislocation of the Soviet empire, the US was now the only superpower and intended to keep things that way, which required keeping allies dependent on the US and preventing the emergence of alternative power centers. It also had no intention of undertaking security responsibilities in Europe without any way to influence European decision-making. As we shall see, by the mid-2000s this goal had been reached in the case of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), whose potential for disrupting American leadership over Europe was effectively neutralized by ensuring that it would be tightly linked to NATO and would not compete with it.
Another factor that cannot be neglected in the decision to preserve NATO’s primacy and reject pan-European security, though it would be wrong to say it was the only one, is the triumphalism that prevailed in the West in general and in the US in particular at the end of the Cold War. In the eyes of Bush and his foreign policy team, the US had won the Cold War and the Soviet Union had lost it, so the post-Cold War settlement had to reflect this fact. This was already clear when he met Kohl at Camp David in February 1990:
Having said that, the Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany's relationship with NATO. What worries me is talk that Germany must not stay in NATO. To hell with that. We prevailed and they didn't. We can't let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.
To be fair, because he wanted to protect Gorbachev against domestic attacks, Bush was careful not to put this triumphalism on display in public. But after Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, he let his true feelings be known publicly in his 1992 State of the Union address:
Even as President, with the most fascinating possible vantage point, there were times when I was so busy managing progress and helping to lead change that I didn't always show the joy that was in my heart. But the biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: By the grace of God, America won the Cold War. [emphasis is mine]
I mean to speak this evening of the changes that can take place in our country, now that we can stop making the sacrifices we had to make when we had an avowed enemy that was a superpower. Now we can look homeward even more and move to set right what needs to be set right.
I will speak of those things. But let me tell you something I've been thinking these past few months. It's a kind of rollcall of honor. For the Cold War didn't end; it was won. [emphasis is mine] And I think of those who won it, in places like Korea and Vietnam. And some of them didn't come back. Back then they were heroes, but this year they were victors.
Such feelings were understandable under the circumstances, especially for someone of Bush’s generation, but it would be naïve to imagine that they didn’t have some impact on the decisions that were made at the time about the post-Cold War settlement and in particular about how Moscow would be treated. As we have seen, Zelikow recently admitted as much, saying that in addition to the fact that pan-European security arrangements such as Gorbachev’s “common European home” and Mitterrand’s European confederation had no place for the US, the Bush administration rejected them because they “avoided expressing and voicing the final win of a system against the other one”.
The problem is that the Russians had, and still do, a very different interpretation of how the Cold War ended. In their view, they didn’t lose the Cold War, but just stopped fighting it because they came to reject what Vladislav Zubok has called the “imperial-revolutionary” ideological foundation of Soviet foreign policy.There is a sense in which both the American and the Russian interpretations are correct. On the one hand, it’s true that the communist ideology championed by Moscow during the Cold War was defeated because a centrally planned economy just isn’t efficient, so the Soviet Union could only sustain the competition with the US by allocating a huge share of its GDP to the military, thereby keeping consumption low and being forced to resort to coercion to quell discontent. On the other hand, as Zubok showed in more recent work, the Soviet Union was not forced to stop fighting the Cold War. This couldn’t have lasted forever, because any political-economic system so at odds with human nature would eventually have collapsed, but it probably could have sustained the competition with the US for a while by continuing to allocate a large share of its GDP to the military at the expense of the well-being of its citizens while resorting to violence to keep them in check. This didn’t happen because Gorbachev wanted to improve living standards in the Soviet Union, which required that military expenditure be diminished radically, and in turn this was impossible without reducing tensions with the West, but in the process he came to reject the whole ideological edifice on which the Soviet Union was built and in particular to regard Soviet foreign policy as immoral. While his reforms ended up destroying the Soviet Union, which he had not intended, the fact that the Cold War ended when and how it did was very much the result of a choice on his part. Again, both interpretations are correct, but they focus on different aspects of the end of the Cold War.
This difference of interpretation regarding how the Cold War ended goes some way toward explaining the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West in subsequent years. Indeed, from the Russian point of view, not only did they freely choose to stop fighting the Cold War after rejecting the communist ideology and not because they were literally forced to so (in the way Germany or Japan were by total military defeat in WWII), but they collaborated with the US and its allies in settling that conflict in a way that was favorable to Western interests in part because they were promised that Moscow would have a place in the post-Cold War European security architecture. As we have seen, this view is the main reason why they felt they had been misled by the West, with more than a little justification, after NATO started to expand to Central and Eastern Europe and Russia was gradually excluded from the European security order. For the West in general and the US in particular, on the other hand, Russia was seen first and foremost as the loser of the Cold War and anything done by the West to accommodate it was essentially supererogatory. That is not to say that one should caricature the way in which the West treated Russia after the end of the Cold War and the dislocation of the Soviet Union, it’s not as if the US and its allies didn’t try to accommodate Moscow’s sensitivities to some extent, but as we shall see they did so mostly with trinkets that could not make up for the fact that, despite what they had been led to believe at the end of the Cold War, it was still treated as a potential adversary and increasingly excluded from the European security architecture. This point was made very clearly by none other than Baker a decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union:
One sad lesson of the twentieth century is that refusing to form alliances with defeated adversaries is more dangerous than forming such alliances. The Treaty of Versailles solved the "German problem" in exactly the wrong way— by sealing the defeat with territorial and economic retribution. This resolution certainly demoralized Germany in the immediate aftermath of war, but the resulting grievances fueled something unimaginably worse and more dangerous. One hesitates to stretch historical analogies too far, but little imagination is required to see something similar happening in Russia. The end of the Cold War was certainly not settled by anything like Versailles, but from Russia's perspective, the results have been much the same—a humiliating loss of territory, prestige, and power. Russia's economic and political problems have stemmed largely from Russia's own failure to implement the necessary reforms to encourage the creation of a market economy, but it would not be difficult—indeed, it has not been difficult—for Russian demagogues to blame the West for the troubles ordinary Russian men and women have experienced during the past decade. Couple all these developments with the expansion of NATO up to Russia's doorstep and the use of NATO as an offensive (as opposed to defensive) alliance to bomb Russian allies, and you have a recipe for disaster. By continuing to treat Russia like a potential adversary, we may encourage it to become our enemy, the very thing we fear. The best way to find an enemy is to look for one, and I worry that that is what we are doing when we try to isolate Russia. The same principle would apply, of course, if we were to embark on a policy to try to isolate China.
Sadly, his warning was not heeded, and today anyone who says the same thing would immediately be accused of being a Putin apologist or some such nonsense. But as I have argued in this section, this was to some extent predictable at the end of the Cold War, when Baker and the rest of the Bush administration’s foreign policy team made the decision to ensure NATO’s continued primacy in the post-Cold War era and shot down pan-European security alternatives. This made the subsequent trajectory of the relations between Russia, the West and Ukraine, which ultimately led to the Russo-Ukrainian war, much more likely.However, it wasn’t inevitable, and for the worst to happen, many other mistakes had to be made on both sides. In the rest of this work, I will explain what they are and why I think they could have been avoided, even if the choices made at the end of the Cold War made that more difficult.
Mariana Budjeryn, “Was Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament a Blunder?,” World Affairs 179, no. 2 (September 2016): 10, https://doi.org/10.1177/0043820016673777.
Paul D’Anieri, Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Civil War, 1st ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 264.
See Robert Service, The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991 (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015) for a recent account of the end of the Cold War. See also Jack Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (New York: Random House, 2005) for an insider account by the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, who emphasizes the importance of Reagan's personal relationship with Gorbachev. There is a debate about when exactly the Cold War ended, which I think depends on how you define the Cold War exactly, but it’s not relevant to the issues I discuss in this work.
Thomas Blanton, “The Logic of 1989: The Soviet Peaceful Withdrawal from Eastern Europe,” in Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989, ed. Blanton Savranskaya, Svetlana Thomas, Zubok, Vladislav, National Security Archive Cold War Readers (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010), 11–13. The Brezhnev Doctrine was a Soviet foreign policy stating that a threat to socialist rule in any country of the Soviet bloc was a threat to all of them and that as a result the Soviet Union and the other members of the Warsaw Pact were justified in intervening to prevent it. It had been articulated by Leonid Brezhnev, then General Secretary of the CPSU, in 1968 after the Soviet Union and its allies invaded Czechoslovakia to reverse the liberalizing reforms of Alexander Dubček.
James M. Markham, "Gorbachev Spurns the Use of Force in Eastern Europe", The New York Times, July 7, 1989.
Mary Sarotte, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (New York: Basic Books, 2015).
According to John Guy, a British diplomat who later became Consul General in Saint Petersburg, Putin complained to him in 1995 that Western countries had broken their pledge not to expand NATO. At the time, he was still working for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg and had nothing to do with Russia’s foreign policy, so although this complaint didn’t originate with him there is little doubt that he is sincere when he raises it. On this anecdote, see Philip Short, Putin (London: The Bodley Head, 2022), 239–40.
“Retranslation of Yeltsin Letter on NATO Expansion” (National Security Archive, September 14, 1993), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16376-document-04-retranslation-yeltsin-letter and Mary Sarotte, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 251–52.
See Yevgeny Primakov, Russian Crossroads: Toward the New Millennium (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 129–30 for a list of statements made by Western officials at the time which Russian officials later deemed incompatible with NATO expansion.
“Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” February 21, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67828.
Georg Mascolo, Christian Neef, and Matthias Schepp, “SPIEGEL Interview with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: ‘Oil and Gas Is Our Drug,’” Der Spiegel, September 11, 2009.
Andrei Grachev, Gorbachev’s Gamble: Soviet Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 146–47 and “The Logic of 1989: The Soviet Peaceful Withdrawal from Eastern Europe,” 36–37. As Grachev recounts, Kohl’s idea of a German confederation was actually inspired by Gorbachev’s personal envoy who, unbeknownst to him, had been tasked by Valentin Falin, the Chief of the International Department within the Central Committee of the CPSU and a former ambassador to Bonn, to suggest to Kohl that such a solution had been discussed in the Politburo and might be regarded as acceptable by Moscow. Falin understood that reunification was inevitable, but he was afraid that Gorbachev had no German policy, so he thought that, instead of simply reacting to events without being able to control them, Moscow should make a proposal to get ahead of the process and channel it into a direction consistent with Soviet interests. However, he did not have direct access to Gorbachev at the time, so he wanted to use this backchannel to reach Gorbachev through Kohl. But his stratagem backfired since, unaware that Kohl thought the idea of a German confederation had been approved by him, Gorbachev saw Kohl’s proposal as a breach of trust and refused to discuss it and meet with him until February.
“James Baker’s Interview,” Amanpour (CNN, November 9, 2009), https://transcripts.cnn.com/show/ampr/date/2009-11-09/segment/01. See also Michael Gordon, “The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding,” The New York Times, May 25, 1997.
Philip Zelikow, “NATO Expansion Wasn’t Ruled Out,” International Herald Tribune, August 10, 1995.
Rodric Braithwaite, “The West’s Assurances to Soviet Ministers on Eastward Expansion of Nato,” The Guardian, May 26, 2015 and Witness Seminar: Berlin in the Cold War, 1948-1990 - German Unification, 1989-1990 (London: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, 2009), 118. As we shall see, Genscher used to have a different view on this issue, as recently unearthed documents from 1991 show, while Braithwaite seems to have recently changed his mind to some extent in view of some of those documents.
Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” The Washington Quarterly 32, no. 2 (April 2009): 39–61, https://doi.org/10.1080/01636600902773248. Even Richard Sakwa, who is generally sympathetic to Russia's positions, repeated that view in Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 44–45.
Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, rev. ed. (Princeton/N.J: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), 37.
Uwe Klußmann, Matthias Schepp, and Klaus Wiegrefe, “Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?,” Der Spiegel, November 26, 2009.
Joshua Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion,” International Security 40, no. 4 (April 2016): 11, https://doi.org/10.1162/ISEC_a_00236. Kramer replied in Mark Kramer and Joshua Shifrinson, “NATO Enlargement—Was There a Promise?,” International Security 42, no. 1 (July 2017): 186–92, https://doi.org/10.1162/ISEC_c_00287.
Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard,” National Security Archive, 2017, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early. See Hannes Adomeit, “NATO’s Eastward Enlargement: What Western Leaders Said,” BAKS - Security Policy Working Paper, no. 3 (2018), https://www.baks.bund.de/sites/baks010/files/working_paper_2018_03.pdf for a brief reply.
Marc Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990: New Light on an Old Problem?,” International Security 45, no. 3 (January 2021): 162–203, https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00395.
Mary Sarotte, “Not One Inch Eastward? Bush, Baker, Kohl, Genscher, Gorbachev, and the Origin of Russian Resentment toward NATO Enlargement in February 1990,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 119–40, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2009.00835.x, Mary Sarotte, “A Broken Promise? What the West Really Told Moscow About NATO Expansion,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (October 2014): 90–97, Mary Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, rev. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 219–229 and Sarotte, Not One Inch, chaps. 2 and 3. Kramer had an exchange with her about her Foreign Affairs article in Mark Kramer and Mary Sarotte, “Letters to the Editor: No Such Promise,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 6 (December 2014): 208–9. As Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 183–84 pointed out, Sarotte’s view about the merits of the Russian position seems to vary subtly across her publications. It’s not always clear how it differs from Kramer’s position exactly, and I think the difference between them is mostly rhetorical, as they seem to agree on every substantive issue. I think that, from a psychological point of view, Sarotte is more sympathetic to the Russian position, which colors her rhetoric and gives the impression that her view is further away from Kramer’s than it actually is.
Kristina Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting? The ‘NATO Enlargement Question’ in the Triangular Bonn-Washington-Moscow Diplomacy of 1990–1991,” Journal of Cold War Studies 14, no. 4 (October 2012): 48–49, https://doi.org/10.1162/JCWS_a_00275.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 165–66.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow” (National Security Archive, February 9, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16116-document-05-memorandum-conversation-between.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 166–67.
Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 45 and Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 169.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 168 where Trachtenberg notes that Gorbachev said at this meeting that “Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary … cannot run away far”, but acknowledged that Poland was a different story and would probably leave.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 169–71.
R. Jeffrey Smith, “Warsaw Pact—Endgame: In Eastern Europe, the Military Alliance Is Dead,” The Washington Post, February 4, 1990.
Glenn Frankel, “East Europeans Seek Full Pullout of Soviet Troops,” The Washington Post, January 19, 1990.
Claire Tréan, “Les Modalités de La Réunification de l’Allemagne Détermineront l’avenir de l’OTAN,” Le Monde, February 7, 1990. He was replying to leaders of the SPD who had argued that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact should eventually be replaced by a transformed Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). As we shall see, not only was this proposal supported by several political leaders in Germany at the time and would soon be endorsed by Gorbachev and other Soviet officials, but it would become the official policy of the Russian government in the 1990
's and continued to inspire Russian diplomacy as late as 2009 when Medvedev proposed his European Security Treaty.
Liviu Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe: From Cautious Encouragement to Cracking Open NATO’s Door,” in Open Door: NATO and Euro-Atlantic Security After the Cold War, ed. Daniel Hamilton and Kristina Spohr (Washington, D.C.: Foreign Policy Institute, 2019), 71–92 and Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 34–40.
Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe”.
Lawrence Freedman, ed., “Speech by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, at a Conference of the Tutzing Protestant Academy,” in Europe Transformed: Documents on the End of the Cold War (London: Tri-Service Press, 1990), 440–41. Sarotte, Not One Inch, 48 also notes that Genscher had already articulated this vision of the post-Cold War security architecture in private to both NATO officials and party colleagues before that speech in December 1989 and January 1990.
Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 47. Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 13–16 quotes Genscher’s speech directly, yet also paraphrases him in a way that implies he was only talking about the GDR. To be fair, she admits that “if we take the most far-reaching view” Genscher’s words could be interpreted as ruling out NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, but as I just argued the truth is that it’s very hard to interpret them in any other way.
Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 30–31. In this passage, Spohr incorrectly claims that Genscher had made his speech in Potsdam three days before he met with Shevardnadze in Moscow, but he actually made it on February 9. Kramer for his part, who as we have seen distorted the scope of the assurance Genscher made in his Tutzing speech, doesn’t even mention the Potsdam speech.
Freedman, “Speech by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, at a Conference of the Tutzing Protestant Academy,” 441.
Robert Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of U.S. Policy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997), 111. Spohr cites this passage when she claims that Genscher’s words could be interpreted in that way “if we take the most far-reaching view”, but Hutchings wasn’t merely saying that it was possible to read Genscher’s speech in that way, he clearly thought there was no other way to interpret it and, as I just argued, he was right about that.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow”.
Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 30.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 175.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 176.
Indeed, in the articles that were published about Genscher's meeting with Baker at the time, not only was this very much the focus, but Genscher's assurance that NATO would not expand to Central and Eastern Europe was generally omitted and only his proposal that the territory of the GDR might have some kind of special status within NATO was mentioned. See for instance Al Kamen and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Baker Carrying Crowded Agenda to Moscow Talks,” The Washington Post, February 4, 1990 and Thomas Friedman, “Baker and West German Envoy Discuss Reunification Issues,” The New York Times, February 3, 1990. Interestingly, the authors of The Washington Post article note that Baker "did not specifically endorse Genscher's proposal" (which they incorrectly described as merely applying to the territory of the GDR), while in The New York Times Friedman explained that "while not endorsing the Genscher proposal", which he also described as applying only to the territory of the GDR, "Administration officials acknowledge that the idea would take into account the security concerns of both the Soviets and Germany's other neighbors".
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 175. As I noted above, it also seems that, even before Genscher met Baker in Washington, people in the State Department had noted that Genscher’s assurances were not limited to the GDR, at least judging from what Hutchings wrote later (cf. footnote 39).
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 50.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 175–76.
The fact that at least some US officials understood the scope of the assurance made by Genscher in Tutzing is not surprising. Indeed, as Frank Elbe, then Political Director in the FRG’s Foreign Ministry, recently explained, he went to Washington after the Tutzing speech to explain it to Robert Zoellick and Richard Haass, respectively Counselor to the Department and Special Assistant to the President. See Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Frank Elbe, Directeur de Cabinet de Hans-Dietrich Genscher (28 Mai 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 164 on this episode. As we shall see, in this book, Elbe also makes it clear that he thought the assurances made at the time applied to Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the territory of the GDR.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 44 and 54.
This might also explain why, as we shall see, Baker remained ambiguous when he met Shevardnadze and Gorbachev in Moscow.
“Sir A. Acland (Washington) to Mr. Hurd — No. 295 Telegraphic [PREM: Internal Situation in East Germany],” in Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series III, Volume VII: German Unification 1989-90, by Patrick Salmon, Keith Hamilton, and Stephen Twigge, Whitehall Histories (London New York: Routledge, 2010), 255.
Indeed, this interpretation is supported by a recent testimony of Zelikow (Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Philip Zelikow, Conseiller Au NSC (15 Avril 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 119), in which he said: “Genscher had seemingly convinced Baker that the question of NATO in new Germany should be, in effect, suspended until there was a decision about whether the old alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, would continue to exist at all.” See also Dufourcq, “Frank Elbe, Directeur de Cabinet de Hans-Dietrich Genscher (28 Mai 2020),” 165 where the atmosphere of the meeting between Genscher and Baker in Washington is described as “very relaxed”.
Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 176.
Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 18.
Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 47.
In that case, it can't be Zelikow and Rice's book though, because they don't quote some of the comments by Genscher that Kramer reports in his paper.
Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 22, fn. 79 also noted that scholars in the literature had misrepresented what Genscher said during this joint press conference with Baker. In a longer version of his paper, which can be found online (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/trachtenberg/cv/1990.pdf), Trachtenberg noted in footnote 60 that Genscher’s remark during his February 2 joint press conference with Baker that unambiguously ruled out NATO expansion to Warsaw Pact states had been overlooked by Zelikow and Rice and that Kramer’s gloss was misleading, but he told me that he had omitted that footnote from the published version because he was trying “to be relatively positive and not dwell on how other scholars who have dealt with the issue have messed up”. However, this point is important since, as we shall see, it led other scholars to make flawed inferences.
“Mr. Hurd to Sir C. Mallaby (Bonn). Telegraphic N. 85: Secretary of State’s Call on Herr Genscher: German Unification” (National Security Archive, February 6, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16113-document-02-mr-hurd-sir-c-mallaby-bonn.
Horst Möller et al., eds., “Gespräch Des Bundesministers Genscher Mit Dem Britischen Außenminister Hurd in Bonn, 6. Februar 1990,” in Die Einheit: Das Auswärtige Amt, Das DDR-Aussenministerium Und Der Zwei-plus-Vier-Prozess, V & R Academic (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 50–51.
Smith, “Warsaw Pact—Endgame: In Eastern Europe, the Military Alliance Is Dead”.
Celestine Bohlen, “Budapest Broaching a Role in NATO,” The New York Times, February 24, 1990.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 68. 68. Thus, when Eagleburger told The New York Times that Horn "had not raised the issue of taking part in NATO in their meetings" (cf. footnote 60), he was presumably lying because he didn't want to alarm the Soviets by making it look as if the US was maneuvering to replace them in Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, US officials were thinking about how they could take advantage of the Soviet Union's retreat in the area to expand the US influence over there, even if they were not yet seriously thinking about expanding NATO's Article 5 to Warsaw Pact members at the time. As we shall see, throughout the negotiations on Germany's reunification, Western officials sought to mollify Gorbachev by repeatedly giving him assurances to the effect that they wouldn't take advantage of the situation, which was pretty disingenuous since they clearly intended to do so, especially the US, even if they were not sure exactly how yet.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 168.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 176–77.
“Memorandum of Conversation between James Baker and Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow” (National Security Archive, February 9, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16115-document-04-memorandum-conversation-between.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow”. This is from the US account of the conversation, but the Soviet account is virtually identical on this point.
The Soviet record of the conversation has Baker say that his government understands that assurances that NATO would not expand to the east were important not just for the Soviet Union but also “for other European countries”, which in that context could only have referred to Warsaw Pact members, so my argument in this paragraph is supported by both the US and Soviet records of the conversation. See “Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow (Excerpts)” (National Security Archive, February 9, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16117-document-06-record-conversation-between.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 179.
Indeed, the Polish government initially sought to preserve a Soviet military presence on its territory as a guarantee against that possibility, a policy it only abandoned after the German authorities publicly confirmed the GDR-Polish border as permanent in June and the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany” legally enshrined the Oder-Neisse line in September. See Sarotte, Not One Inch, 93 and Joanna Gorska, Dealing With a Juggernaut: Analyzing Poland’s Policy Towards Russia, 1989-2009 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 37–44 on this point. It should also be noted that, back in February, Bush had expressed to Kohl his concern that Poland might seek to keep Soviet troops on its territory because it was afraid that Germany might try to reclaim some of the territory it had lost in 1945 and encouraged him to publicly recognize the Oder-Neisse line (Sarotte, Not One Inch, 72), so US officials were in fact concerned about the effects that reunification might have on Poland.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow”.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Robert Gates and Vladimir Kryuchkov in Moscow” (National Security Archive, February 9, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16118-document-07-memorandum-conversation-between.
Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 24.
“Letter from James Baker to Helmut Kohl” (National Security Archive, February 10, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16119-document-08-letter-james-baker-helmut-kohl.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 56–57. As Sarotte notes on p. 54, the formulation used by the White House had first been proposed by Manfred Wörner, a former West German politician who at the time was NATO's Secretary General, in a public speech in a speech in Hamburg on February 8. See also p. 53 where Sarotte points out that Joachim von Arnim, a West German diplomat in Moscow, also thought it was a mistake to make concessions preemptively on NATO. He was convinced that Germany could buy unity with money, which the Soviet Union desperately needed at the time, instead of by making concessions on NATO. He was so upset that he actually went behind Genscher's back to Teltschik, Kohl’s main adviser on foreign policy, to explain that he thought Kohl should put a stop to this. Teltschik apparently thanked him for his advice and shared it with Kohl.
Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed, 184.
Zelikow and Rice point out that Baker read Bush's letter to Kohl shortly after his meeting with Gorbachev and claim that, although the draft didn't call attention to the change of language, he immediately grasped its significance and therefore explained his position in terms more similar to Bush's formulation. However, according to notes taken by one of Shevardnadze's aides, he talked about the necessity not to expand NATO's "jurisdiction" to the east again a few days later at the Conference on Open Skies in Ottawa, so it seems that it took a bit more time than they make it sound for the different parts of the US administration to start singing the same tune. See “Teimuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze Notes from Conference on Open Skies, Ottawa, Canada” (National Security Archive, February 12, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16121-document-10-01-teimuraz-stepanov-mamaladze-notes.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 57.
Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 50.
Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 27.
Andreas Hilger, ed., “Aufzeichnung Des Dg 21, Höynck, Vom 11.Februar 1990 Über Das Gespräch von Bundesaußenminister Genscher Mit Dem Sowjetischen Außenminister Ševardnadze Am 10.Februar 1990 in Moskau [Auszug],” in Diplomatie Für Die Deutsche Einheit: Dokumente Des Auswärtigen Amts Zu Den Deutsch-Sowjetischen Beziehungen 1989/90, Schriftenreihe Der Vierteljahrshefte Für Zeitgeschichte 103 (München: Oldenbourg, 2011), 102.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 180–81.
Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 30–31.
Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 18, fn. 51. She did know about Genscher’s speech in Potsdam and even noted that Shevardnadze claimed to have read it and forwarded it to Gorbachev, but since as we have seen she incorrectly interpreted the assurances made in Tutzing as pertaining only to the GDR and Genscher’s words in Potsdam were virtually identical, she probably though mistakenly thought that Shevardnadze couldn’t have known he had in mind something more general without being privy to the content of his conversation with Hurd. On the other hand, she points out that notes taken by Shevardnadze’s aide about this meeting “give no indication that Shevardnadze attached any special significance to Genscher’s phrasing” (Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 31, fn. 92), which is interesting but doesn’t mean that Soviet officials didn’t notice the scope of the assurances he made.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 68.
Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 48. Throughout his paper, Kramer adds interpolations such as “to the GDR” to quotations of the memoranda of the conversations that took place in Moscow when the participants talk about NATO expansion, which disambiguates expressions that are ambiguous in the documents he quotes and gives a misleading impression that reinforces his conclusion. As we have seen, in the case of Genscher’s remarks during his February 2 joint press conference with Baker, Kramer even added an interpolation that didn’t merely disambiguate them but actually changed their meaning entirely.
Aleksandr Galkin and Anatolii Cherniaev, eds., “Zapiska V.M. Falina M.S. Gorbachevu - 18 Aprelia 1990 Goda,” in Mikhail Gorbachev i Germanskii Vopros: Sbornik Dokumentov 1986–1991 (Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2006), 402. As we have seen, this is the position that Bush had urged Kohl to take in the letter he sent to Kohl just before he met with Gorbachev in Moscow, because he was afraid that he would use Baker’s formulation.
Galkin and Cherniaev, “Zapiska V.M. Falina M.S. Gorbachevu - 18 Aprelia 1990 Goda,” 402. Curiously, while this note has been cited before in the literature on the non-expansion pledge controversy (e. g. Sarotte, Not One Inch, 85, fn. 46), as far as I know no critic of the Russian position has used it to support their argument.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 57–62.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 62–66.
Aleksandr Galkin and Anatolii Cherniaev, eds., “Iz Besedy M.S. Gorbacheva s M. Tetcher - 8 Iiunia 1990 Goda,” in Mikhail Gorbachev i Germanskii Vopros: Sbornik Dokumentov 1986–1991 (Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2006), 478.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl” (National Security Archive, February 10, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16120-document-09-memorandum-conversation-between. Another example can be found in the note sent to Gorbachev by Falin in April, which I already cited (Galkin and Cherniaev, “Zapiska V.M. Falina M.S. Gorbachevu - 18 Aprelia 1990 Goda,” 402), where he wrote that at the Bermuda summit a few days earlier Bush and Thatcher had described “German participation in NATO ... as a condition for the preservation of the Atlantic Alliance”. Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 533 also explains that Bush feared that if Germany left NATO, “the alliance's fate would be sealed, and the American military presence in Europe with it”.
See Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Martin Ney, Conseiller Juridique de La Délégation Allemande (28 Avril et 5 Mai 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 255 for a similar analysis by the legal advisor of the West German delegation during the Two Plus Four process.
Horst Teltschik, Kohl’s main adviser on foreign policy, admitted as much in 2010. See Matthias von Hellfeld, “A Reunified Germany,” Deutsche Welle, September 30, 2010, https://www.dw.com/en/kohl-adviser-unveils-details-on-fine-points-of-reunification-talks/a-6042106.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 67–75.
At a meeting of the Western political directors on February 28 in preparation for the first meeting of the Two Plus Four negotiations, Dieter Kastrup, the West German political director, still used the Genscher-Baker formula to summarize Bonn’s position and, when the other Western political directors asked him whether it meant that NATO’s Article 5 would not apply to the territory of the GDR, he replied that he couldn’t say at that point. See Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Compte Rendu de La Réunion Des Quatre Directeurs Politiques Occidentaux Le 28 Février 1990,” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 419–20 for the relevant passage in the French minutes of that meeting.
As Sarotte, Not One Inch, 82–83 notes, after this victory, Kohl “felt that his hand was strong enough” to send Genscher, his coalition partner, a “cease-and-desist” letter in which he demanded that he stop publicly calling NATO’s future into question by continuing to promote the kind of pan-European system that he had proposed in his Tutzing speech, which Kohl knew was making the Americans nervous. See Möller et al., “Gespräch Des Bundesministers Genscher Mit Dem Britischen Außenminister Hurd in Bonn, 6. Februar 1990” for the text of the letter.
Thus, I think Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 178–81 is right to insist that Baker was talking about “the general issue of security in Europe” and not just “the relatively narrow issue of the future military status of what was now East German territory”, but I think he is wrong to conclude that it shows that his assurance about non-expansion referred to the “Warsaw Pact area as a whole”.
Savranskaya and Blanton, “NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard”.
The Helsinki Final Act was a document signed by 35 countries, including the Soviet Union and the US, in which they declared their commitment to principles of international cooperation and human rights. While not a treaty and therefore largely toothless, it was used by dissidents in the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern bloc to demand more freedom.
Bertrand Dufourcq, “2+4 Ou La Négociation Atypique,” Politique Étrangère 65, no. 2 (2000): 473, https://doi.org/10.3406/polit.2000.4952.
Another important factor that contributed to reduce the Soviet perception of the threat posed by NATO was the fact that the negotiations on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which resulted in a large reduction of conventional military forces in Europe, were conducted in parallel to the Two Plus Four process.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 85–91.
“Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance,” July 6, 1990, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_23693.htm. Bonn also agreed to provide financial assistance to Moscow during that meeting, which no doubt helped convince Gorbachev to let Germany stay in NATO after reunification, but as I already noted this can’t have been as instrumental as most scholars claim since the Germans would almost certainly have paid a lot more to secure the reunification of their country even if the Soviets had insisted on neutrality.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 92–106.
Horst Möller et al., eds., “Schreiben Des Bundeskanzlers Kohl an Bundesminister Genscher, 23. März 1990,” in Die Einheit: Das Auswärtige Amt, Das DDR-Aussenministerium Und Der Zwei-plus-Vier-Prozess, V & R Academic (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), 380–81.
See Randall Newnham, “The Price of German Unity: The Role of Economic Aid in the German-Soviet Negotiations,” German Studies Review22, no. 3 (October 1999): 421, https://doi.org/10.2307/1432268 for a breakdown of the economic assistance promised by the FRG to secure reunification. As Newnham explains, in addition to the grants and loans I mentioned, Germany also offered significant economic assistance to the Soviet Union in more indirect ways.
Indeed, during Gorbachev’s July 15 meeting with Kohl in Moscow (the day before they traveled to Stavropol where he finally agreed to let Germany stay in NATO after reunification), he talked about the significance of the Congress at some length. See Hanns Jürgen Küsters, Daniel Hofmann, and Germany, eds., “Gespräch Des Bundeskanzlers Kohl Mit Präsident Gorbatschow Moskau, 15. Juli 1990,” in Deutsche Einheit: Sonderedition Aus Den Akten Des Bundeskanzleramtes 1989/90 (München: R. Oldenbourg, 1998) for the German notes on that meeting.
This concern was evident in Stavropol when Kohl and Gorbachev reached the outline of a deal that would allow Germany to stay in NATO after reunification. Indeed, while Gorbachev agreed to let Germany stay in NATO, he insisted that the treaty does not mention the Alliance by name. See Hanns Jürgen Küsters, Daniel Hofmann, and Germany, eds., “Gespräch Des Bundeskanzlers Kohl Mit Präsident Gorbatschow Im Erweiterten Kreis Archys/Bezirk Stawropol, 16. Juli 1990,” in Deutsche Einheit: Sonderedition Aus Den Akten Des Bundeskanzleramtes 1989/90(München: R. Oldenbourg, 1998) for the German notes on that meeting.
As I already explained, I think the role of money in the eventual agreement has been wildly exaggerated because the Germans would have paid even if Moscow had imposed much harsher conditions for reunification, but this is irrelevant to the point I’m making here.
Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 25.
Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 181.
In fact, they argue that the broader assurances that were subsequently made by Western officials during the Two Plus Four process made that informal agreement even more binding, which as I will argue shortly brings them closer to the truth.
This is not entirely true, because as I will argue shortly even restrictions placed on NATO’s freedom of action in the territory of the GDR arguably created some obligation not to expand the Alliance further to the east, but if that were the only basis for this obligation it would be very limited.
This qualification is important because, as I will argue shortly, Trachtenberg’s argument still applies to the assurances that were made by Western after February, even if he focuses on the statements made by US and West German officials during the preliminary talks in Moscow.
Gordon, “The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding”. He repeated that argument more recently when Sarotte interviewed him (cf. Sarotte, Not One Inch, 104, fn. 164). As we have seen above, he’d also made the same point in 2009, when he was interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on CNN.
Sarotte, “Not One Inch Eastward?,” 140.
Other scholars have made the same argument, though usually not as clearly as Sarotte. See for instance Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 28, James Goldgeier, Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 15 and Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 51.
Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, eds., Gorbachev and Bush: The Last Superpower Summits, National Security Archive Cold War Readers (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2020), chap. 6 and “Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow”.
Horst Möller et al., eds., “Gespräch Des Leiters Der Politischen Abteilung, Kastrup, Mit Dem Sowjetischen Stellvertretenden Außenminister Adamischin in Genf, 2. März 1990,” in Die Einheit: Das Auswärtige Amt, Das DDR-Aussenministerium Und Der Zwei-plus-Vier-Prozess, V & R Academic (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).
“Sir R. Braithwaite (Moscow). Telegraphic N. 667: ‘Secretary of State’s Meeting with President Gorbachev.’” (National Security Archive, April 11, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16129-document-15-sir-r-braithwaite-moscow-telegraphic.
“James A. Baker III, Memorandum for the President, ‘My Meeting with Shevardnadze.’” (National Security Archive, May 4, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16131-document-17-james-baker-iii-memorandum.
“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker (with Delegations) in Moscow” (National Security Archive, May 18, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16132-document-18-record-conversation-between.
Aleksandr Galkin and Anatolii Cherniaev, eds., “Iz Besedy M.S. Gorbacheva s F. Mitteranom Odin Na Odin - 25 Maia 1990 Goda,” in Mikhail Gorbachev i Germanskii Vopros: Sbornik Dokumentov 1986–1991 (Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2006), 454–65.
“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush. White House, Washington D.C.” (National Security Archive, May 31, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16135-document-21-record-conversation-between.
“Letter from Mr. Powell (N. 10) to Mr. Wall: Thatcher-Gorbachev Memorandum of Conversation” (National Security Archive, June 8, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16136-document-22-letter-mr-powell-n-10-mr.
“Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance”.
Manfred Wörner, “A Common Europe - Partners in Stability (Speech by Secretary General, Manfred Wörner to Members of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR),” July 16, 1990, https://www.nato.int/docu/speech/1990/s900716a_e.htm.
It probably made things worse that, as we shall see, American officials used that exact same argument a few years later to explain to the Russians why NATO had to be expanded to Central and Eastern Europe, giving the impression that Western officials were constantly moving the goalposts.
As we have seen, Shifrinson made this argument with respect to the assurances made by US and West German officials during the preliminary talks in Moscow, which he believes — probably mistakenly except in the case of Genscher — applied to Central and Eastern Europe as a whole and not just the territory of the GDR, but it applies equally well to subsequent assurances.
When he announced his resignation, Shevardnadze presented it as a warning against the impending dictatorship which he claimed the Soviet Union was heading to (Vladislav Zubok, Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 176–77), but in reality more personal considerations also played a role. See also Primakov, Russian Crossroads, 51 on this last point. However, it seems clear that even outside of the government Shevardnadze came to share the view of his former colleagues that Western countries were reneging on the assurances they had made during the negotiations on Germany’s reunification, since in July 1991 he warned against excluding the Soviet Union from the process of European integration and criticized the attempt to strengthen NATO’s position in Europe. See “Shevardnadze: USSR Left Out of 'Integration'”, Wiener Zeitung, June 14, 1991, p. 3, translated into English and published in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Reports, West Europe, June 14, p. 4.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Sobranie Sochinenii, vol. 24 (Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2014), 346.
Thus it is not quite true, as Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 52 claims, that in the immediate aftermath of the Two Plus Four process “there was no talk about broken Western promises”. It’s true that it wasn’t until 1993, when Yeltsin sent the letter to Clinton already mentioned above in which he laid out Moscow’s arguments against NATO expansion, that Russian officials made a link between NATO expansion specifically and the Two Plus Four process, but Gorbachev had already signaled that he was starting to feel he’d been misled only a few months after that process concluded.
“Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite Diary, 05 March 1991” (National Security Archive, March 5, 1991), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16142-document-28-ambassador-rodric-braithwaite-diary.
Rodric Braithwaite, “NATO Enlargement: Assurances and Misunderstandings,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 7, 2016, https://ecfr.eu/article/commentary_nato_enlargement_assurances_and_misunderstandings/.
“Interview with Manfred Wörner,” TASS, June 16, 1991, cited in Braithwaite, “NATO Enlargement: Assurances and Misunderstandings”.
As we shall see, this was the main argument of US officials when they started to moot NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe in public, which prompted Moscow to bring up the assurances made during the negotiations of the treaty to oppose it.
Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 17–18 and Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 183–86.
Trachtenberg made this argument in connection with the assurances that were made by US and West German officials in Moscow during the February talks, which he mistakenly thought were about Central and Eastern Europe in general and not just the territory of the GDR, but it applies equally well to the broader assurances that were subsequently made during the negotiations.
As we shall see, when it invited Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to join in 1997, the Alliance did make a statement to the effect that it had no plan to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new members and thereafter refrained for many years from stationing foreign NATO troops over there, but it explicitly reserved the right to revise this stance if the security environment changed and, unlike the provisions of the treaty that settled Germany’s status in 1990, these weaker commitments were not part of an international treaty and therefore weren’t similarly binding.
Kristina Spohr and Kaarel Piirimäe, “With or without Russia? The Boris, Bill and Helmut Bromance and the Harsh Realities of Securing Europe in the Post-Wall World, 1990-1994,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 33, no. 1 (January 2, 2022): 177, https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2022.2041816.
For instance, as we have seen above, Baker described the Soviet concerns about the implications of Germany’s reunification for their country’s security as “completely legitimate” during his May conversation with Gorbachev in Moscow.
“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker (with Delegations) in Moscow”. Gorbachev may have been referring to the note Falin sent him on April 18 (Galkin and Cherniaev, “Zapiska V.M. Falina M.S. Gorbachevu - 18 Aprelia 1990 Goda”), in which he wrote: “The essential point of Western tactics is the intensive cultivation not only of members of the NATO bloc, but also of our Warsaw Pact allies. The goal is clear to the naked eye — to isolate the USSR, to leave it alone both in “six” [the Two Plus Four process] and at the meeting of “35” [the CSCE meeting planned at the end of the year]”.
Galkin and Cherniaev, “Iz Besedy M.S. Gorbacheva s F. Mitteranom Odin Na Odin - 25 Maia 1990 Goda”.
That Soviet officials were concerned about the possibility that NATO might expand to Central and Eastern Europe behind the scenes is clear from the note that Falin sent to Gorbachev in April (Galkin and Cherniaev, “Zapiska V.M. Falina M.S. Gorbachevu - 18 Aprelia 1990 Goda”), where he wrote: “The work aimed not only to prepare the ground for NATO's plans for Germany and the WTO [Warsaw Treaty Organization], but also to change the situation without prior arrangement and to reduce the ability of the USSR to counteract it is going on at full speed. Signals to this are the statement of the newly elected People's Chamber of the GDR in favor of German participation in NATO and earlier similar statements by the Poles, Hungarians and Czechoslovaks.” On the contrary, in a note Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s main foreign policy advisor, sent to him on May 5 (Aleksandr Galkin and Anatolii Cherniaev, eds., “Iz Dokladnoi Zapiski A.S. Cherniaeva M.S. Gorbachevu - 4 Maia 1990 Goda,” in Mikhail Gorbachev i Germanskii Vopros: Sbornik Dokumentov 1986–1991 (Moskva: Ves’ Mir, 2006), 424–25), he argued on the contrary that it didn’t matter if Poland eventually joined NATO because the security of the Soviet Union would be determined by the nuclear balance anyway. However, this was clearly a minority position among Soviet officials, even if Gorbachev was eventually convinced to adopt Chernyaev’s recommendation and consent to Germany’s continued membership in NATO after reunification because, as I explained above, the only alternative, articulated by Falin in his April 18 note, was to play hardball with the West and this was incompatible with Gorbachev’s domestic and external goals. See also Sarotte, Not One Inch, 83–85 on the debate behind the scenes between Falin and Chernyaev.
Setting the Record Straight on NATO Enlargement - Interview with Robert Zoellick, U.S. Lead Negotiator in 2+4 Talks on German Reunification (Wilson Center, 2022), https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/setting-record-straight-nato-enlargement-interview-robert-zoellick-us-lead-negotiator-24 and Spohr, “Precluded or Precedent-Setting?,” 52.
Baker (“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker (with Delegations) in Moscow”) and Mitterrand (Galkin and Cherniaev, “Iz Besedy M.S. Gorbacheva s F. Mitteranom Odin Na Odin - 25 Maia 1990 Goda”) had already made the same argument when they met separately with Gorbachev earlier that month. See also Frédéric Bozo, Mitterrand, La Fin de La Guerre Froide et l’unification Allemande: De Yalta à Maastricht (Paris: Jacob, 2005), 264–66, which argues that his meeting with Mitterrand was instrumental in convincing Gorbachev that he would have to accept that Germany would remain in NATO after reunification.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 89–90.
“Charter of Paris for a New Europe,” November 21, 1990, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/0/6/39516.pdf and “Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe Final Act,” August 1, 1975, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/5/c/39501.pdf.
“Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe Final Act” and “Charter of Paris for a New Europe”.
On the evolution of the Bush administration on NATO expansion, see Joshua Shifrinson, “Eastbound and down: The United States, NATO Enlargement, and Suppressing the Soviet and Western European Alternatives, 1990–1992,” Journal of Strategic Studies 43, no. 6–7 (November 9, 2020): 816–46, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2020.1737931 and Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe”.
Ronald Asmus, Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself For a New Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 6.
See for instance Gorska, Dealing With a Juggernaut for the evolution of Poland’s policy on that issue.
Asmus, Opening NATO’s Door, 13. In the report he co-wrote about this conference, Asmus wrote that “in the view of US participants, proposals for the stationing of U.S. troops in Poland were out of the question” and that “explicit Western security guarantees to Poland directed against the USSR would be unlikely (Ronald D. Asmus, Thomas S. Szayna, and Barbara Kliszewski, Polish National Security Thinking in a Changing Europe: A Conference Report (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1991), 33), but in his book on NATO expansion he also wrote that “a number of the American participants got into a heated argument over the issue of possible Polish membership in NATO”, so evidently the issue was not as uncontroversial as he claimed earlier.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 98.
Shifrinson, “Eastbound and Down,” 9.
“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker (with Delegations) in Moscow”.
This episode has been abundantly discussed in the literature, but see in particular Sarotte, Not One Inch, 102–4, Dufourcq, “2+4 Ou La Négociation Atypique,” 480 and Bozo, Mitterrand, La Fin de La Guerre Froide et l’unification Allemande, 289–90. The account of the last stretch of the Two Plus Four process (“Letter from Mr Weston to Sir C. Mallaby (Bonn),” in Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series III, Volume VII: German Unification 1989-90, by Patrick Salmon, Keith Hamilton, and Stephen Twigge, Whitehall Histories (London: Routledge, 2010), 466–71) is also precious.
A cable sent by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British Ambassador in Moscow for the British delegation (“FCO to Sir R. Braithwaite (Moscow),” in Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series III, Volume VII: German Unification 1989-90, by Patrick Salmon, Keith Hamilton, and Stephen Twigge, Whitehall Histories (London: Routledge, 2010), 464–65) explicitly raised that issue by asking “what would happen in times of tension/crisis/war?” and concluded that although “we would hope never to need to deploy extra forces into the ex-GDR … Germany/the Alliance should be free to do so”.
See the hearing of Major General Sewall, then Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, in front of the Senate Committee on Armed Forces in preparation for the debate on the treaty’s ratification (U.S. Congress, Implications of Treaty on Final German Settlement for NATO Strategy and U.S. Military Presence in Europe: Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session, October 4, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991), 17), where he explains that the prohibition on the deployment of troops would not prevent the US from defending Germany even before the Soviet troops had left the country, when the “agreed minute” did not apply yet and that prohibition was therefore absolute.
In the account of the end of the negotiations he wrote a few days later, John Weston, the British Political Director, explained that the Americans, the British and the French thought that what the Germans had agreed with the Soviet “would further limit German sovereignty beyond Stavropol” (“Letter from Mr Weston to Sir C. Mallaby (Bonn)”), but the Germans disagreed and said it was consistent with the agreement reached in Stavropol by Kohl and Gorbachev. As we shall see, US officials have the habit of taking it upon themselves to defend the sovereignty of other countries (at least when Russia is involved), so I wouldn’t totally discount this explanation.
Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Bob Zoellick, Conseiller Auprès de James Baker (14 Avril 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 114. See Goldgeier, Not Whether But When, 16 for the claim that “few of [Zoellick’s] colleagues were thinking in such a long term”. John Weston, the British Political Director, explained in the account of the end of the negotiations he wrote a few days after the signature of the treaty (“Letter from Mr Weston to Sir C. Mallaby (Bonn)”) that the German delegation was “in a highly excitable state” and that Elbe in particular, his West German counterpart, “was venting all kinds of nonsense about how close ‘some people’ had come ‘to screwing it up’”. As recently as 2020, Elbe still resented the British for the role they played in this episode, which he described as “unbelievable” and explained by the fear that with German reunification the UK would suffer a loss of status. See Dufourcq, “Frank Elbe, Directeur de Cabinet de Hans-Dietrich Genscher (28 Mai 2020),” 165–68 for his account of this episode.
The British account of the end of the negotiations (“Letter from Mr Weston to Sir C. Mallaby (Bonn)”) does say that “the thrust of UK/US/French objections was that the Alliance should not bind itself by treaty with the Soviet Union in a way which would indefinitely foreclose options extending far beyond the foreseeable circumstances”, which Sarotte, Not One Inch, 102 interprets as a reference to the possibility of NATO expansion, may have instead referred to the possibility that tensions between the West and the East might eventually resume and indeed I deem that interpretation more likely to be correct.
Patrick Salmon, Keith Hamilton, and Stephen Twigge, Documents on British Policy Overseas, Series III, Volume VII: German Unification 1989-90, Whitehall Histories (London: Routledge, 2010), 469.
In a recent testimony, Weston confirmed Zoellick’s claim about the role of the US in that episode (Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “John Weston, Directeur Politique Du Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2 Juillet 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 307), though he also claimed that “the question of NATO enlargement to Poland was not in the collective mindset then”. As we have seen, this is not true regardless of whether Zoellick’s claim about the role this consideration played in the dispute that led to the addition of the “agreed minute” to the treaty, but this doesn’t mean that Weston doesn’t really believe it. Judging from contemporary British documents, my own view is that even if Zoellick’s claim is true, he never told the British that Washington had adopted that position in part because some US officials were already thinking about NATO expansion.
See Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 34–40 and Trachtenberg, “The United States and the NATO Non-Extension Assurances of 1990,” 193–200 for more on this point.
Jacques Attali, Verbatim - III (1988-1991) (Paris: Fayard, 1995), ?. The memoirs co-authored by Scowcroft and Bush are littered with similar expressions of skepticism about the opportunity of turning the CSCE into a forum to deal with issues of security. For instance, in comments about a call between Thatcher and Bush in February 1990 ahead of Kohl’s visit to Camp David (George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed(New York: Knopf, 1998), 249), Scowcroft writes: “[Thatcher’s] comment about strengthening CSCE made me uneasy. She seemed to have meant it in a useful way, but I had seen much evidence that the French might seek to use CSCE as a way to supplant NATO. That was an unacceptable notion, both because of the centrality of NATO to US strategy and because, to me, collective security, as typified by the League of Nations and United Nations, was, in the end, no security at all.”
“Memorandum of Conversation between George Bush and Eduard Shevardnadze in Washington” (National Security Archive, April 6, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16128-document-14-memorandum-conversation-between.
Dufourcq, “Philip Zelikow, Conseiller Au NSC (15 Avril 2020),” 116.
Maxim Kórshunov, “Mikhail Gorbachev: I Am against All Walls,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, October 16, 2014, https://www.rbth.com/international/2014/10/16/mikhail_gorbachev_i_am_against_all_walls_40673.html.
Kórshunov, “Mikhail Gorbachev: I Am against All Walls”.
Kórshunov, “Mikhail Gorbachev: I Am against All Walls”.
“Quadripartite Meeting of Political Directors, Bonn, 6 March: Security in Central and Eastern Europe,” March 7, 1991, The National Archives, http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/trachtenberg/cv/19910307.pdf.
Chrobog talked about the Elbe, but he was presumably thinking about the Oder-Neisse line, a mistake noted with "(sic)" by the author of the document summarizing the meeting. According to Zubok, Braithwaite recently called this evidence “showstopping” (Vladislav Zubok, “Myths and Realities of Putinism and NATO Expansion,” in Evaluating NATO Enlargement: From Cold War Victory to the Russia-Ukraine War, ed. Joshua Shifrinson and James Goldgeier (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), 147), which is all the more relevant that as the Ambassador to the Soviet Union he was involved in the British government’s deliberations at the time and, as we have seen, had previously said that he didn’t think Western officials had made any promise on NATO expansion.
Klaus Wiegrefe, “In Vertraulichen Gesprächen Ausgeredet,” Der Spiegel, April 30, 2022. As we have seen, this vaguer assurance, which had already been made by Bush to Gorbachev during the Malta summit in 1989, had already been repeated in various forms by Western officials throughout the negotiations on Germany's reunification in 1990. I thank Marc Trachtenberg for bringing Wiegrefe's article to my attention.
As we shall see shortly, Seitz told Nicolas Dufourcq in 2020 that he thought it was understandable that the Russians felt they had been misled, so this interpretation of the document is consistent with his more recently stated view.
In 1993, when the Clinton administration started to move toward expanding NATO and Yeltsin complained that it violated the spirit of the Two Plus Four Treaty, US officials sat down with Klaus Kinkel and Dieter Kastrup, respectively the German Foreign Minister and his top aide, to ask them whether they thought his argument had any merits. Kastrup, while denying that the treaty formally ruled out NATO expansion (which despite how US officials framed the question wasn’t the issue), said that the Russian claim nevertheless had “political and psychological substance that we had to take seriously”. He argued that NATO expansion ran against the “basic philosophy” of the treaty and that he could understand why “Yeltsin thought the West had committed itself not to extend NATO beyond its 1990 limits”. This is only a qualified endorsement of the Russian position, but it’s yet more evidence that, even after the Two Plus Four Agreement was signed, some German officials — especially those who had been close to Genscher — thought that the Russian complaint had merits. See Sarotte, Not One Inch, 168 on this meeting.
William Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case For Its Renewal (New York: Random House, 2019), 55–56. See also pp. 47-49 for the central role played by the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department under Baker.
Burns, The Back Channel, 107.
George H. W. Bush Oral History Project, “Interview with Robert M. Gates” (Miller Center, 2000), https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-oral-histories/robert-m-gates-deputy-director-central. As we shall see, the claim that if Bush had been reelected his administration would not have expanded is questionable (though he is right that the Bush administration approached the problem very differently from the Clinton administration), but Gates left the NSC to head the CIA in November 1991 and he was presumably less involved in the discussions about US grand strategy after that.
Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Raymond Seitz, Directeur Politique Du Département d’État (30 Mars 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 230.
Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Jim Dobbins, Adjoint de Raymond Seitz (20 Avril 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 234.
Jack Matlock is another high-ranking US official at the time who, in a Congressional testimony he gave in 1996 during the debate about NATO expansion (U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy Toward NATO Enlargement: Hearing Before the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, Second Session, June 20, 1996 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), 31), claimed that Gorbachev had received a verbal pledge that NATO would not be expanded from Baker. He apparently repeated this view the next year in a telephone interview with a journalist. See Gordon, “The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding”. However, he seems to have changed his mind, since more recently he insisted that the assurances made in 1990 pertained only to the GDR. See Jack Matlock, “NATO Expansion: Was There a Promise?,” Jack F. Matlock, Jr (blog), April 3, 2014, https://jackmatlock.com/2014/04/nato-expansion-was-there-a-promise/ and Pavel Palazhchenko, “Mikhail Gorbachev and the NATO Enlargement Debate: Then and Now,” in Exiting the Cold War, Entering a New World, ed. Daniel Hamilton and Kristina Spohr (Washington, D.C.: Foreign Policy Institute, 2019), 448–49. I suspect that he would agree with the weaker argument I make here though.
Dufourcq, “Frank Elbe, Directeur de Cabinet de Hans-Dietrich Genscher (28 Mai 2020),” 158. Elbe got the date of Baker’s meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow wrong. They met on February 9, not February 8 as he incorrectly claimed.
Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Christopher Mallaby, Ambassadeur de Grande-Bretagne à Bonn En 1990 (3 Juin 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 279. The possibility that NATO expansion might have had something to do with Putin’s subsequent policies apparently didn’t occur to him.
Even Krzysztof Skubiszewski, Poland’s Foreign Minister between 1989 and 1993, wrote that “in reality, the various guarantees extended by the West to the USSR in relation to the settlement of the German problem eliminated, under the circumstances, the option of admitting new members” (Krzysztof Skubiszewski, “Polska i Sojusz Północnoatlantycki w Latach 1989–1991,” Sprawy Mied̨zynarodowe, no. 1 (1999): 18), which could be seen as a qualified version of the position I’m defending on this controversy.
Although I think the Soviet and US records of the conversation between Gorbachev and Baker makes another interpretation difficult, this conclusion requires a close examination of the documentary evidence and, despite what critics of the Russian position claim, is anything but obvious. They usually cite Kramer’s paper in support of that conclusion, but as I noted above, nowhere in that paper does Kramer make the only argument that, in my view, conclusively establishes that Baker was only talking about the territory of the GDR, namely the fact that Baker told Gorbachev that his assurance that NATO would not move eastward was for the sake of “countries in the east”. Kramer simply asserts that “the phrasing of these passages and the context of the negotiations leave no doubt” that it’s what Baker meant, but he doesn’t explain what about the phrasing rules out the alternative interpretation and, as we have seen, he grossly misrepresents the context in question.
Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” 55 makes that point.
In his paper on the controversy, Shifrinson does spend some time on the import of the broader assurances that were made after February 1990 (Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 28–34), but his overall argument still hinges on the assurances made by US and West German officials in Moscow.
See Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: Norton, 1969) for a good account of the deliberations inside the US government that led to the decision to create NATO and commit the US to Western Europe’s defense by one of the main architects of this policy.
The Soviet documents that were briefly made accessible to researchers in the 1990’s suggest that Moscow had no intention of doing anything of the sort, but American and Western European officials did not know that and we cannot rule out that without NATO the Soviets would have eventually changed their calculus, though it’s hardly obvious. See Vladimir Pechatnov and C. Earl Edmondson, “The Russian Perspective,” in Debating the Origins of the Cold War: American and Russian Perspectives, ed. Ralph Levering et al. (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 85–151 for a good summary of what is known about the motives of Soviet officials during that period.
Sarotte, Not One Inch, 98.
Wörner himself had already explicitly made this point to defend the decision to keep NATO in place despite the end of the Cold War in a speech he gave in May 1990. See “The Atlantic Alliance and European Security in the 1990s: Address by Secretary General, Manfred Wörner to the Bremer Tabaks Collegium,” May 17, 1990, https://www.nato.int/docu/speech/1990/s900517a_e.htm and in particular the section “A European Security Structure”.
James A. Baker, “Russia in NATO?,” The Washington Quarterly 25, no. 1 (March 2002): 98–99, https://doi.org/10.1162/016366002753358348.
Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (New York: Random House, 2002), 238–39.
See Bozo, Mitterrand, La Fin de La Guerre Froide et l’unification Allemande, 344–61 and Frédéric Bozo, “The Failure of a Grand Design: Mitterrand’s European Confederation, 1989–1991,” Contemporary European History 17, no. 3 (August 2008): 391–412, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0960777308004542 on Mitterrand’s project, its motivations and the reasons for its failure.
“Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker (with Delegations) in Moscow”.
Baker, “Russia in NATO?,” 103. As Baker also notes in this paper, Gorbachev brought up the possibility that the Soviet Union might join NATO on 2 other occasions in 1990, once when he met Bush in Washington at the end of May and another time in July.
See Blanton, “The Logic of 1989: The Soviet Peaceful Withdrawal from Eastern Europe” for a good account of the Bush administration’s policy during the revolutions of 1989.
See Anatoly Adamishin, “The End of the Cold War: 30 Years On,” in Exiting the Cold War, Entering a New World, ed. Daniel Hamilton and Kristina Spohr (Washington, D.C.: Foreign Policy Institute, 2019) for the perspective of a Russian diplomat who served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time. While I think he exaggerates the import of the pause, he nevertheless makes several good points about Bush’s broader policy toward the Soviet Union.
Baker described in his memoirs (James Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989-1992 (New York: Putnam, 1995), 475) the strategy of the US after Shevardnadze’s resignation in December 1990 as “trying to get as much as we could out of the Soviets before there was an even greater turn to the right or shift into disintegration”. Baker refers to the fear of disintegration here, which the Bush administration did not start to seriously consider until the summer of 1990 at the earliest, but the fear of a Soviet backlash was common even before that and not just in the US. For instance, as Sarotte noted (Sarotte, Not One Inch, 76), Kohl told Hurd as early as May 1990 that within a year “we would wake up and read that there had been a major turn for the worse in the Kremlin”, so that “foreign policy was like mowing grass for hay” in that you had to “gather what you had cut in case of a thunderstorm”.
See James Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), chap. 2 for a very good account of the Bush administration’s policy toward the Soviet Union as it was undergoing the transformations that eventually led to its disintegration. As Goldgeier and McFaul note, a minority of officials in the Bush administration (especially in the Pentagon around Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense) thought that the disintegration of the Soviet Union would be a good thing for the US, but they lost the argument inside the administration and the policy of supporting the center against the republics was adopted.
Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 28.
See Mariana Budjeryn, Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine, Johns Hopkins Nuclear History and Contemporary Affairs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023), 45–46 on Baker’s thinking on this issue and how it influenced US policy on relations between the center and the republics in the Soviet Union. As Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 28 noted, according to a contemporary media report, Bush inserted the phrase “suicidal nationalism” into the draft of the speech prepared by his staff himself because he was thinking about Yugoslavia.
Zubok, Collapse, 249–50.
Nicolas Dufourcq, ed., “Jacques Blot, Directeur Europe Au Ministère Des Affaires Étrangères (27 Avril 2020),” in Retour Sur La Fin de La Guerre Froide et La Réunification Allemande: Témoignages Pour l’Histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2020), 244–45.
Mary Sarotte, “Perpetuating U.S. Preeminence: The 1990 Deals to ‘Bribe the Soviets Out’ and Move NATO In,” International Security 35, no. 1 (July 2010): 135, https://doi.org/10.1162/ISEC_a_00005.
Zubok, Collapse, 249.
Zubok, Collapse, 250.
See in particular Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal?,” 34–40, Sarotte, “Perpetuating U.S. Preeminence”, Liviu Horovitz and Elias Götz, “The Overlooked Importance of Economics: Why the Bush Administration Wanted NATO Enlargement,” Journal of Strategic Studies 43, no. 6–7 (November 9, 2020): 847–68, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2020.1819799 and Shifrinson, “Eastbound and Down”.
See Horovitz and Götz, “The Overlooked Importance of Economics” for the importance of this sort of economic considerations in the thinking of US officials at the time.
Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe,” 75–76.
See Goldgeier, Not Whether But When and Asmus, Opening NATO’s Door for two classical and very good accounts of how NATO was expanded under the Clinton administration that reflect this understanding.
See in particular Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe”, Shifrinson, “Eastbound and Down”, Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe” and Horovitz and Götz, “The Overlooked Importance of Economics” on this point.
Horovitz, “The George H.W. Bush Administration’s Policies Vis-à-Vis Central Europe,” 80–81.
A fact that would play a role in the crisis between Ukraine, the EU and Russia in 2013-2014, but I will come back to that issue in detail later.
“Memorandum of Conversation between Helmut Kohl and George Bush at Camp David” (National Security Archive, February 24, 1990), https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/document/16127-document-13-memorandum-conversation-between.
George H. W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union” (The American Presidency Project, January 28, 1992), https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-before-joint-session-the-congress-the-state-the-union-0.
Dufourcq, “Philip Zelikow, Conseiller Au NSC (15 Avril 2020),” 116.
Vladislav Zubok, “New Evidence on the ‘Soviet Factor’ in the Peaceful Revolutions of 1989,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, no. 12/13 (Fall/Winter 2001): 5–23.
Baker, “Russia in NATO?,” 100.
Whether it was politically feasible to create a pan-European security architecture at the end of the Cold War and would have been in the interest of the US is a different question that will be examined later. In theory, even if I’m right that the decision to ensure NATO’s primacy in the post-Cold War era made the subsequent deterioration of relations between Russia and the West more likely (which in turn created the conditions that made the Russo-Ukrainian war possible), it could still be that it was the only politically realistic option or that despite its drawbacks for the rest of the world it was a superior alternative for the US.