In a recent essay in The National Review, James Kirchick argues that the recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations stems not from “NATO enlargement, nor American foreign policy…but Russian revanchism and revisionism.” Echoing several other analysts over the last two decades, Kirchick particularly attacks the idea that Western violations of a 1990 NATO non-expansion pledge contributed to U.S.-Russian tensions. claiming there is “no evidence of a promise not to enlarge NATO, because such a promise was never made.” Indeed, as he subsequently elaborated (also in The National Review), there is not “a single treaty, accord, or other published document in which this alleged ‘promise’ was made.”
I have spent 10 years researching American foreign policy towards the Soviet Union and Russia. And while Kirchick’s narrative is convenient for those seeking to portray recent U.S.-Russian tensions as a Manichean clash between an aggressor (Russia) and defender (U.S.) of the status quo, it is not factually correct. Russian and Soviet leaders do not claim that a non-expansion pledge was codified in 1990 – they argue the United States violated an unwritten diplomatic guaranteenot to expand NATO in post-Cold War Europe. And here, archival materials released over the last decade strongly support the idea that the United States tendered a NATO non-expansion pledge in 1990, only to subsequently violate the assurances.
Kirchick correctly notes that former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker pledged to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward” if the Soviets agreed to German reunification. He is mistaken, however, when subsequently claiming that Baker’s promise was meant to apply “solely in the context of East Germany.” In fact, Baker’s pledge was expressly about Eastern Europe writ large. We know this because, during the week precedinghis promise to the Soviet leader, Baker embraced and defended a proposal from West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher pledging – as Genscher underlined in a joint press conference with Baker earlier that month – that “NATO would not extend its territorial coverage to the area of the GDR nor anywhere else in Eastern Europe.” Thus, a broad interpretation of what expansion “eastward” meant was on everyone’s mind when Baker made his offer.
This was not just part of the diplomatic background. Concurrent with Baker’s meetings with Soviet leaders, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates met with Soviet intelligence head Vladimir Kryuchkov. As the declassified conversation shows, Gates was explicit about the broad scope of the non-expansion pledge, asking Kryuchkov what he thought “of the Kohl/ Genscher proposal” before offering “It seems to us to be a sound proposal.”
The United States did not stop at these informal guarantees. As other documents from the Bush Library, Baker’s personal papers, and the National Security Archive show, the United States used subsequent negotiations to reinforce the impression that expansion to Eastern Europe in general was off the table—even once it became clear that East Germany itself was to be inside NATO. This effort included moves throughout the spring and summer of 1990 to offer the former East Germany “special military status” in NATO to suggest a dividing line between NATO and the rest of Eastern Europe; agreeing to transform NATO into a “political” institution; and pledging to construct pan-European security institutions—sought by Soviet leaders—to supplant NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
Kirchick approvingly cites a 2014 interview in which Gorbachev vowed that “[t]he topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years.” Conveniently, however, he ignores Gorbachev’s clarification in the same interviewthat expansion “was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990.” As Gates himself explained in 2000, “Gorbachev and others were led to believe that [NATO expansion] wouldn’t happen.”
When NATO expansion nevertheless began, violation of the “spirit and assurances” given in 1990 came back to haunt U.S. foreign policy. Contrary to Kirchick’s assertion that the United States bears no responsibility for antagonizing Russia and spoiling East-West relations, Russian officials were explicit on the problems that could result from NATO enlargement, and practically begged the United States not to press the issue. The warnings were stark, with Russian leaders telling senior Clinton administration officials throughout the 1990s that European security should not be based on “a bloc mentality…expanded NATO membership was not the answer;” that NATO expansion entailed “nothing but humiliation for Russia” and would inflame Russian fears of NATO “encirclement;” that expansion “could be seen as precipitous and contributing to the security of others’ at the expense of Russia;” and that there were those in Russia “who are afraid of NATO getting closer to our borders.”
Of course, the Clinton administration delayed the first round of NATO expansion by a few months to help Russian President Boris Yeltsin in his domestic political struggles, crafted consultative diplomatic channels, and capped deployed troops in Eastern Europe. Yet these were largely tactical adjustments. Faced with Russian opposition to NATO expansion as a strategicmatter and given warnings of the dangers that could result, the U.S. stayed the course.
To be sure, Kirchick is correct to ask, “What right does Russia have to decide whether its former satrapies can join a defensive military alliance of their own free will?” Still, the thought exercise also works in reverse: Ultimately, the United States had the right to decline NATO membership for Eastern European states whose inclusion in the Western alliance could spoil U.S.-Russian relations. The United States chose one course and now lives with the consequences.
None of this excuses recent Russian behavior—exacerbating the Ukraine civil war, antagonizing its neighbors, and harming U.S. political and economic institutions. These all merit a response. Still, we need clear-eyed analysis as to what caused the U.S.-Russian relationship to deteriorate so badly—not repackaged talking points free of evidence.
Joshua Shifrinson is a graduate of MIT and will join Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies this summer.His 2016 article “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion”was the co-recipient of the International Studies Association’s 2017 Best Article award from the Diplomatic Studies Section. Cornell University Press is publishing his first book, Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Manage Power Shifts, later in 2018. The views expressed are the author's own.