Narrative X-ray: did NATO promise Russia not to expand eastwards? 

11.09.2023

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Contrary to the narrative cultivated by Russia, the USSR was not offered an official guarantee at the end of the Cold War on the restriction of NATO’s enlargement. However, how such a narrative was born and for what and to whom it is being told – the narrative x-ray enlightens.

Putin’s talk about the promises made by the Western countries to avoid the eastern expansion of NATO is not completely fiction, but it is still a selective use and arbitrary interpretation of the facts, which, among other things, gave him the excuse to begin a full-scale military invasion in Ukraine.

How did the narrative of an agreement to limit NATO enlargement come about?

The roots of the narrative date back to February 1990, when James Baker, the then US Secretary of State, visited Moscow, where he met Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the USSR. The Berlin Wall had fallen three months earlier, and Western leaders publicly discussed the reunification of Germany. Moscow was frightened by the thought of NATO troops being deployed in East German territory.

Later, according to the notes published, Baker reassured Gorbachev at the meeting that it was better for all parties to have a united Germany within the political and military structure of NATO than outside it. It is from this conversation that we find the words of Baker, which form the basis of the narrative: “If we maintain a presence in Germany, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.”

Mark Kramer, Head of the Cold War Research Project at the University of Harvard, who worked thoroughly on a disclosed transcription, wrote in an article published in 2009, The East was clearly understood by both sides at that meeting to mean only East Germany, as a possible expansion of NATO into another former Warsaw Pact country had not even occurred to anyone in the West or East at the time. The Warsaw Pact only collapsed a year later. This is how Mikhail Gorbachev remembers the content of the conversation and he confirmed it in an interview in 2014): “The expansion of NATO was not discussed at all, it was not raised in those years. I say this with full responsibility.”

In 1996, in a very different political situation, compared to 1990, Yevgeny Primakov became the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Russia. The processes leading to Poland and Hungary joining NATO in 1999 were underway. Primakov had heard the “not one inch to the east” story and asked his team to search the archives for traces of Baker’s pledge. A memorandum has been drawn up, which has not yet been disclosed to the public, but the content of which apparently became known to the Americans, who drafted a counter-memorandum for their European embassies, which has now been disclosed.

German historian Kristina Spohr finds that whatever the various Western leaders discussed with Gorbachev in 1990, these discussions were based on the assumption that the Soviet Union exists, and thus became insignificant with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

According to Spohr, Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin later created a narrative for domestic political purposes that NATO was in breach of its pledge not to admit former Soviet Union or former Warsaw Pact countries as members. Putin later picked it up and “this deliberately false statement has become a central propaganda motive of Russian state media since the late 1990s. However, the historical record in Eastern and Western Europe proves that such narratives of broken promises are untrue.”

What story does this narrative tell us?

According to Russia’s historical interpretation, at the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, which Russia considers itself to be the successor of, was promised by various Western leaders that, in return for withdrawing troops from East Germany, NATO would not expand eastwards and would not admit former Soviet countries as members.

However, according to the Kremlin, the collective West has broken its promise and does not care about Russia’s security concerns related to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the shifting of the alliance’s borders to Russia’s side. In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin accused the alliance of playing a double game and threatening Russia’s security.

“I think it is obvious that NATO’s expansion has nothing to do with modernizing the alliance or ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust,” he said. “What happened to the promises made by our Western partners after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?”

Among other things, the Kremlin has also justified the invasion of Ukraine by the expansion of NATO and Ukraine’s desire to join NATO.

Who is it aimed at?

Above all, the narrative of the treacherous West is targeted for domestic consumption. Repeated references to the alleged breach of Western trust in Russia help maintain an anti-Western consensus in Russia. At the same time, NATO leaders’ vague attitude to this narrative over the years has allowed this alternative interpretation of history to grow into an indisputable “fact” in Russia.

On the other hand, the Kremlin also uses this narrative widely in foreign communication, and it is aimed at foreign leaders, diplomats and ordinary citizens – and not at all unsuccessfully. The Kremlin’s talking points were repeated, for example, by the President of France Emmanuel Macron, when he said at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2018: “I think the mistake that was made in the last 20 years was that we in NATO were not able to fully fulfil all the commitments we made, which caused certain fears, completely justified fears. We also did not have the trust that Russia rightly expected.” (http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57556).

One of those who have supported Russia’s claims about the promise is former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, who has repeatedly emphasized, both in congressional testimony and as recently as a few years ago, that Gorbachev received promises that if Germany joined and remained in NATO, NATO’s borders would not move eastward.

Even in academic circles, there are still scientists and researchers who allow themselves to be influenced by the Kremlin’s interpretations of history. For example, the American scholar Michael Mandelbaum argued in the book “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era” published in 2016 that the expansion of NATO taught the Russians two things that were far from in America’s interest: that American promises cannot be trusted and that the West is taking advantage of a weak and indulgent Russia.

What are the goals of this narrative?

The alleged treachery and nefarious behaviour of Western countries help create the image of a common enemy. A powerful adversary in the form of NATO helps mobilize society and draw attention away from all sorts of shortcomings in state governance and people’s quality of life.

Ukraine’s desire to join these traitors and thus bring Russia under NATO’s siege is a valid domestic argument in support of the war as well. At the same time, it makes it possible to explain why the war in Ukraine is progressing worse than expected – after all, the war is being fought with the entire expanding NATO, not only with Ukraine.

In his speech following the Russian parliament’s support for the annexation of Crimea, Putin said that Russia had been humiliated by NATO expansion. “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, made us face the facts,” he claimed.

The narrative of deception in the West is also consistent with how Moscow explains to its people the Western sanctions against Russia, which are just another example of the West’s unfair and mean policy towards Russia.

Also directed outside the country, one of the goals of the narrative is to justify Russia’s war in Ukraine (and previously in Georgia). In the long term, its goal is definitely to put a limit on the expansion of NATO and to convince the Western leaders and the public that it is not possible to accept either Ukraine or Georgia as a member of the alliance. This creates the prerequisites for the restoration of Russian influence in the areas of the former Soviet empire and the expansion of the “Russian world” into neighbouring countries.

How is it going at the moment?

Before the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, this narrative was doing quite well – the Kremlin’s talking points were repeated by several influential politicians, journalists and scientists in the West, and NATO’s eastward expansion was stalled. In April 2008 at the Bucharest summit, NATO refused to offer Georgia and Ukraine a fast track to membership.

“Russia has been quite successful in selling the narrative that in exchange for accepting German unification through the 2+4 agreement, they were promised that NATO would not expand,” Wolfgang Ischinger, an influential former German diplomat, told RFE/RL in 2021. “Russia presents itself as a victim.”

Ischinger finds, however, that whatever promises were negotiated with the USSR in 1990, the stark fact is that Russia accepted NATO expansion with detailed conditions and in writing when it signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. In fact, the USSR had already signed the Paris Charter in November 1990, with which it was obliged to ‘fully recognize the freedom of countries to choose their own security arrangements’.

If before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the narrative of the promise given to Russia to limit NATO’s expansion to the east could have a resonance in Western countries, the reckless aggression of the Kremlin regime and the war crimes committed in Ukraine has made it clear to everyone that the only working security guarantee next to such a neighbour is NATO membership.

Even in their most pessimistic forecasts, the masters of the Kremlin could not foresee Finland’s accession to NATO, yet it came true. So, at least in Western countries, this narrative is no longer relevant.

But in Russia, this narrative continues to live and flourish, like all the others that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been able to give birth to.

The used images are screenshots from the referenced web pages. The infographic has been created by the Propastop editorial team.