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When Washington Assured Russia NATO Would Not Expand

Statecraft is a complicated business, but the criteria by which we judge statesmen turn out to be less so. The central question reduces to whether those charged with formulating policy succeed in enhancing the power and security of the nation they lead.

Yet near-term advantage does not necessarily translate into long-term benefit. With the passage of time, a seemingly clever gambit can yield poisonous fruit. So it is with the way the George Herbert Walker Bush administration managed the end of the Cold War.

From a geopolitical perspective, the Cold War from the very outset had centered on the German question. Concluding that conflict necessarily required resolving Germany’s anomalous division into two halves, with West Germany a key member of NATO and East Germany occupying a similar status in the opposing Warsaw Pact. Of course, no such resolution could be possible unless the victors of World War II, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union, but also Great Britain and France, all concurred.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev provided the necessary catalyst to make agreement possible. Gorbachev’s bold effort to reform and thereby save the USSR, launched in the mid-1980s, converted the belt of Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe from a source of strategic depth to a collection of liabilities. When Gorbachev signaled that unlike his predecessors he had no intention of using force to maintain the Soviet Empire, it almost immediately disintegrated. With that, momentum for German reunification became all but irresistible.

By the end of 1989, the issue facing policymakers on both sides of the rapidly vanishing Iron Curtain was not whether reunification should occur, but where a reunited Germany would fit in a radically transformed political landscape. Already possessing the biggest economy in all of Europe, Germany seemed certain to become even more of a powerhouse once it had absorbed its formerly communist eastern precincts. No one—including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—thought it a good idea to allow this new Germany to become a free-floater, situated in the center of Europe but untethered from the sort of restraints that the Cold War had imposed.

For Washington, London, and Paris, the solution was obvious: keep the Germans in a warm but firm embrace. Ensuring that a united Germany remained part of NATO would reduce the likelihood of it choosing at some future date to strike an independent course.

The challenge facing the Western allies was to persuade Gorbachev to see the wisdom of this proposition. After all, twice within memory, Germany had invaded Russia, inflicting almost unimaginable damage and suffering. That the Soviets might view with trepidation the prospect of a resurgent Germany remaining part of an explicitly anti-Soviet military alliance was not paranoia. It was prudence.

To make that prospect palatable, the Bush administration assured the Soviets that they had nothing to fear from a Western alliance that included a united Germany. NATO no longer viewed the USSR as an adversary. Apart from incorporating the territory of the former East Germany, the alliance was going to stay put. Washington was sensitive to and would respect Russia’s own security interests. So at least U.S. officials claimed.


Thanks to newly declassified documents [1] published by the National Security Archive, we now have a clearer appreciation of just how explicit those assurances were. Among the documents is the transcript of an especially revealing conversation between Gorbachev and Secretary of State James Baker in Moscow on February 9, 1990.

The discussion touched on several topics, but centered on the German question. As Baker framed the issue, history was now handing the victorious allies an opportunity to correct the mistakes they had made in the wake of World War II. “We fought alongside with you; together we brought peace to Europe,” Baker told Gorbachev. “Regrettably, we then managed this peace poorly, which led to the Cold War,” he continued.

“We could not cooperate then,” he said. “Now, as rapid and fundamental changes are taking place in Europe, we have a propitious opportunity to cooperate in the interests of preserving the peace. I very much want you to know: neither the president nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place.”

Washington’s intentions were friendly. Gorbachev could absolutely count on the Bush administration to support his perestroika and glasnost initiatives. “In a word, we want your efforts to be successful,” Baker insisted. Indeed, he continued, “if somewhere in the course of events you feel that the United States is doing something undesirable to you, without hesitation call us and tell us about it.”

By extension, there was no need for Gorbachev to trouble himself about NATO. The alliance provided “the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe,” which, Baker implied, was good for everyone. Keeping G.I.s in Europe would prevent Germany from once more becoming a troublemaker, benefiting all parties to include the USSR.

“We understand,” Baker continued, “that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction [emphasis added].” Indeed, the proposed U.S. approach to negotiating terms for ending Germany’s division would “guarantee that Germany’s unification will not lead to NATO’s military organization spreading to the east.”

The secretary of state then posed a hypothetical. “Supposing unification takes place,” he asked Gorbachev, “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 [jurisdiction?] or troops will not spread east of the present boundary?”

The issue was one he wished to discuss with his colleagues, Gorbachev replied, remarking only that “it goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.”

To which Baker responded: “We agree with that.”

Later that very year German reunification became an accomplished fact. By the end of the following year, Gorbachev was out of a job and the Soviet Union had become defunct. Before another 12 months had passed, Baker’s boss lost his bid for a second term as Americans elected their first post-Cold War president. By this time, countries of the former Warsaw Pact were already clamoring to join NATO. The administration of Bill Clinton proved more than receptive to such appeals. As a consequence, the assurances given to Gorbachev were rendered inoperative.

NATO’s eastward march commenced, with the alliance eventually incorporating not only former Soviet satellites but even former Soviet republics. In effect, U.S. policymakers responded favorably to the aspirations of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians while disregarding Russian security interests, apparently assuming that Kremlin leaders had no recourse but to concede.

As long as Russia remained weak, that may well have been the case. As if to press home the point, Clinton’s successors even toyed with the idea of inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO—more or less the equivalent of incorporating Cuba and Mexico into the Warsaw Pact back in the bad old days.

At that point, a Kremlin leader less trusting of the West than Gorbachev had been decided that enough was enough. Vladimir Putin, a very nasty piece of work but also arguably a Russian patriot, made it clear that NATO’s eastward expansion had ended. Putin’s 2008 armed intervention in Georgia, annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and multiple incursions into Ukraine beginning that same year elicited howls of protest from the Washington commentariat. Putin, they charged, was trampling on the “norms” of international conduct that were supposed to govern behavior in the post-Cold War world.

But Putin was not wrong to observe that the United States routinely exempted itself from any such norms when it perceived its own vital interests to be at stake. For roughly a quarter century, the United States had paid no price for picking Gorbachev’s pocket back in 1990. Indeed, nations once unhappily lodged within the Soviet sphere had thereby benefited greatly. NATO became a club open to everyone but Russia. In Washington’s favored formulation, Europe thereby became “whole and free.” Now, however, the bills incurred by this feckless policy are coming due and Europeans are looking to the United States to pay them.

Today’s NATO consists of 29 nations, nearly double what its membership was when Secretary Baker promised Gorbachev that the alliance would not advance a single inch eastward. When it comes to paying for the collective defense, few of those nations contribute their required share. In effect, America’s allies expect it to do the heavy lifting. The United States has thereby incurred burdensome obligations without accruing any obvious benefit. Once more, over 70 years after World War II, the United States is sending its troops to defend Europeans fully capable of defending themselves. Donald Trump has charged, not without cause, that our allies are playing us for suckers.

In today’s Washington, where Russophobia runs rampant, it has become fashionable to speak of a New Cold War, provoked by Putin’s aggressive actions. Yet if we are indeed embarking upon a new age of brinksmanship, we can trace its origins to 1990 when Putin was merely a disgruntled KGB colonel and we were playing the Soviets for suckers.

In his meeting with Gorbachev, Baker expressed regret about the victorious allies mismanaging the opportunity for peace created by the end of World War II. A similar judgment applies to the opportunity for peace created by the end of the Cold War. Upon reflection, the United States might have been better served had it honored its 1990 commitment to Gorbachev.

Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "When Washington Assured Russia NATO Would Not Expand"

#1 Comment By Cynthia McLean On December 22, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

Thank you for being such a truth-teller.

One point, not made, is the Profit — in billions $$ — that US armaments corporations have made by supplying weapons to all these ex-soviet states.

The US is not to be trusted on much of anything except its belief that Might is Right.

#2 Comment By Xtof On December 22, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

AB is partly correct in that both Baker and Genscher did make very bold proposals to Soviet leadership about the future of NATO – – Baker’s ‘not one inch into East Germany’ conception being less extensive than Genscher’s comprehensive non-expansion ‘Tutzing formulation’ – – but he should have put much greater emphasis on at least two points: 1) that these proposals were merely suggestions, and were designed to ‘feel out’ Soviet leadership on what it was willing to negotiate regarding German reunification; second, and arguably even more important, both of these conceptions did not have the support of either the West German Chancellor or the U.S. President – – points which also follow from the ‘recently declassified diplomatic record’ (so read the Bush-Kohl dialogue, and see that they were completely unified on German reunification without any conditions or restrictions to be placed on NATO) – – and thus both Foreign Minister Genscher and Secretary of State Baker were completely hamstrung at the time when each made his conception known.

We could add a third key point, and that is that, even if Gorbachev or Shevardnadze had decided to push for EITHER the Baker or Genscher Plan – – and we can easily appreciate why no Soviet official would be either willing or able to think in terms of post-Warsaw Pact, let alone post-Soviet, times… and thus of their forthcoming Russian Federation’s future relationship with NATO – – then they would have publicly met with the same unified American-West German refusal to put conditions on NATO that Bush & Kohl had previously agreed; so, in effect, with these two supporting an open-ended future of NATO, any Soviet leader would have been told ‘nyet’ if he had sought to codify Baker’s or Genscher’s conceptions into a formal agreement.

Last, on the subject of what NATO did finally agree with the Russian federation, review the text of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, and you’ll find two very nice surprises from early post-Cold War history: 1) that NATO was quite willing to codify its plans for membership expansion, principally to reassure Federation leadership that its planned expansion had no hostile intent whatsoever toward the Fdereation; and 2) that Yeltsin, as Federation President, did not feel threatened in the least by NATO expansion, and he said so publicly… he didn’t like that expansion, and also said so publicly, but it’s very telling that he never felt threatened by it. Furthermore, NATO still avoided stationing its forces into the Eastern part of the reunified German state until well after the Soviet collapse.

Given the article at hand, that’s all that AB should need to know about the stark differences between Yeltsin’s Federation and Putin’s, and the amazing continuity between NATO’s late Cold War and its early post-Cold War position regarding its expansion plans… and how this continuity fits nicely with the context of the only major treaty to be negotiated with the Federation.

#3 Comment By jjc On December 22, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

This article links to the National Security Archive’s recent collection of documents which clearly demonstrates the assurances made to Gorbachev were sourced widely among NATO members, much more so than previously understood. The opinions expressed in, for example, the 2014 Brookings article – shared by a commentator – which downplays the matter, are now outdated.

Sphere of influence: the argument that Russia has no right to have opinions on regional politics, or security concerns, usually ignores major contextual information; i.e the NATO expansion has occurred during a transformation from defensive alliance to a more assertive posture, as seen in Serbia and Libya. It has occurred while the US has assumed a military posture based on world hegemony and clearly stated objectives of preventing other states from ever posing a challenge to this primacy. It occurred while arms treaties (ABM) were broken and while missile systems were introduced to the region. Important as well to acknowledge Russia as a major nuclear power, and this policy of poking the bear, so to speak, seems needlessly aggressive and unintelligent.

Further, the situation in Ukraine appears to have been a deliberate provocation sought by the Anglo bloc of the NATO alliance, in concert with the more paranoid political actors of the region. A negotiated political settlement had been reached concerning the Maidan. The subsequent coup was an expressly deliberate reaction to prevent this settlement from going into effect. The USA, UK, and Canada provocatively determined the coup as “legitimate”, and in doing so chose to assist in the destabilization of the country. This Anglo bloc has promoted a false and incomplete narrative of events, and stepped up a dangerous militarization of the region justified by this false account.

#4 Comment By tom maertens On December 23, 2017 @ 10:53 am

“Few outside the Russian propaganda bubble ever seriously entertained the Kremlin’s line.”
As many as 800,000 people protested peacefully in the Maidan until Yanukovyich’s Berkut (riot police) snipers opened fire on them over Feb. 18-20, killing almost 100. Yanukovich fled the night of Feb. 21-22, probably because he feared the repercussions, and appeared later that day on television from eastern Ukraine.

There was no coup: Yanukovych lost the support of his followers and the Berkut, who refused to kill any more Ukrainians to keep him in power. He fled the night of Feb. 21-22 with all the money he could carry.

“Ukraine Leader Was Defeated Even Before He Was Ousted”


#5 Comment By ScottA On December 23, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

Mark VA says:

“Fair points, ScottA, but let’s clarify your position:

(a) Should NATO defend Western Europe, if it is ever attacked by Russia? Alternately, are the people of Eastern Europe intrinsically different from Western Europeans? Retreating to the position that such an attack is unlikely is an evasion – so, da or nyet?

(b) It is true that Russia was attacked by Napoleon, and the USSR, while an ally of Nazi Germany, was then betrayed and attacked by Hitler. Does this give Russia today a right to a permanent sphere of influence in Eastern Europe? Da or nyet?

(c) If da, how would a Westerner make that case to Eastern Europeans? Please give it a try;”

My response:

The reason I am opposed to NATO expansion eastward is not because I don’t care about what happens to people in Eastern Europe or because I want Russia to take over these areas. It is about what is best for the security of my country, the US, and what policies are most likely to keep my country out of a war with Russia, a country armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Moving NATO up to the borders of Russia increases the possibility of war with Russia.

The idea that I oppose NATO expansion because I love Putin and am a big Russia fan is absurd. You are way too overconfident about making big promises to countries along Russia’s borders that the general population of the US is willing to be drafted to go and fight Russia over these areas, areas most Americans couldn’t find on a map. You are living in a fantasy world.

And yes NATO can continue to defend Western Europe, although they are perfectly capable of defending themselves.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 23, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

I am concerned that so many here express the sentiment that anyone who takes US diplomatic discourse seriously is kidding themselves.

That we the people have a class of leaders who should not be taken seriously is a hurdle for me. I would think that we want negotiators who upon sitting at the table would be reliable in their dealings. Now certainly one has to allow room for next admin to act according to their course. But their reasons for a shift in said policies should rest more on the actual realities of harm or good for the US. Not merely a desire to set one’s own course.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 23, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

I have been unable to find the original sources,


but it’s fairly clear that our expressed position after the Soviet retraction was not to press NATO expansion north or east against the Russian borders. One of the hardest lines to to track and keep is a line on one’s word.

A look at US diplomacy suggests that we need to do a better job of establishing credibility and maintaining the same even across admin. transitions.

I am deeply concerned with our history regarding N. Korea in this regard. At a time when Pyongyang was engaged in curtailing nuclear weapons, we opted to to withhold support materials as per the agreement. That choice based on no evidence of violation ha helped lead us to the point in which it appears a nuclear N. Korea is a reality.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 24, 2017 @ 11:33 pm



Even if one grants that Russia misunderstood what was intended, the EU attempt to undercut the sale of oil by Russia to the Ukraine at a higher price and then actively provoke a violent revolution would be well beyond the expectations of fostering good relations de-escalating tensions the NATO/RUSSIA FOUNDING ACT was intended to accomplish.

I think it was always wise to consider Russia a world player. The Soviet Retraction was never going to change that Russia herself was going to be a actor in international affairs. The fact that we and the Europeans have been “poking the bear” so to speak has only complicated the obvious and nearly everything else concerning US international relations of significance.

Pres. Putin has managed to minimize the attacks of his enemies by appearing both the peace maker and diplomat of strength.

The Russians are re-engaging old allies and partners even the Chinese. The periodical Russia-Direct does a fairly decent job of discussing Russia’s response to Europe, the Middle East, and US relations. We have made Russian success easier than it should have been. And that road was paved long before the current President came into office.

#9 Comment By Mark VA On December 26, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

Thank you for your reply, ScottA. In my reading, it centers on the policies that “…are most likely to keep my country out of a war with Russia”, and I respect that. We have a reasonable disagreement on how to deal with aggressive powers – conciliation or resolute opposition?

If we do choose the path of conciliation, I would argue that the nature of aggressive powers is then to push for ever tightening, multifaceted restrictions on the conciliator. History of the last century testifies to this tendency;

In this scenario, the USA would likely become a regional power, concerned mostly with itself and perhaps France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and South Korea;

The rest of the world, mostly thru necessity, would probably realign with China and its “One Belt One Road” global initiative currently underway. At that point, even France, Germany, Great Britain, and perhaps Japan and South Korea, may choose to realign in this direction as well;

I am very ambivalent about such an abdication.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On December 27, 2017 @ 3:48 am

“Indeed, nations once unhappily lodged within the Soviet sphere had thereby benefited greatly.”

I’m not sure this is true either objectively (standards of living, economic inequality, mass emigration, economic growth) or subjectively (polling regarding the changes of the last 25 years, especially outside of the Baltic states).

#11 Comment By Ben Anderson On May 15, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

The Soviet Union. Not Russia.

This would be cogent if Bush inked an agreement with Boris Yeltsin.

That didn’t happen. Not sure why we’re viewing this agreement as transferable.

#12 Comment By Yuri On June 14, 2018 @ 6:48 am

Spheres of influence are not “awarded”, they are aknowledged.