Did NATO ‘betray’ Russia by expanding to the East?

The Kremlin claims the West broke a promise it made in the 1990s not to expand NATO, and is now using this claim to justify threats to invade Ukraine.

One of Russia’s consistent demands has been for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to stop expanding to the east and pledge never to include Kiev in the security alliance. But NATO has long insisted it has an open-door policy to any nation that meets its criteria for membership. 

The United States and NATO dismissed Moscow’s security demands as nonstarters in a written response to the Kremlin delivered last week by the US ambassador to Russia.

While the current standoff between Russia and the West is based on many grievances, the narrative of Western betrayal has featured prominently in Moscow’s rhetoric for decades.

In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Vladimir Putin accused Western powers of violating a solemn pledge by considerably enlarging NATO – most notably with the Baltic countries joining the Alliance in 2004 – asking, “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”  

NATO has not stopped expanding since the fall of the Soviet Union, growing from 17 countries in 1990 to 30 today, several of which were once part of the Soviet-led Warsaw pact.

The origin of the betrayal claim

To understand Russia’s claims of betrayal, it is necessary to review the reassurances then US secretary of state James A. Baker made to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting on February 9, 1990. In a discussion on the status of a reunited Germany, the two men agreed that NATO would not extend past the territory of East Germany, a promise repeated by NATO’s secretary general in a speech on May 17 that same year in Brussels.

Russia and the West finally struck an agreement in September that would allow NATO to station its troops beyond the Iron Curtain. However, the deal only concerned a reunified Germany, with further eastward expansion being inconceivable at the time.

“The Soviet Union still existed and the countries of Eastern Europe were still part of the Soviet structures – like the Warsaw Pact – which was not officially dissolved until July 1991,”  said Amélie Zima, doctor of political science at the Thucydide Centre (Panthéon-Assas) in Paris. “We cannot speak of betrayal, because a chain of events that would rearrange the security configuration in Europe was about to take place.”    

In short, at a time when Westerners were offering the “guarantees” spoken of by Vladimir Putin, no one could have predicted the collapse of the USSR and the historic upheavals that followed.

“In addition, these promises were made orally and were never recorded in a treaty,” recalled Olivier Kempf, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. “The turning point of NATO enlargement came much later, in 1995, at the request of the Eastern European countries.” 

That year, NATO published a study on its enlargement before starting membership talks two years later with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all of which would become members in 1999. The addition of these new members has long sparked debate within NATO, thus undermining the Russian myth of a betrayal orchestrated by the West. “Even within the American administration, some thought that NATO should not expand because it would make it less effective, dilute its skills and become a financial burden,” explained Zima.

Ukraine’s strategic importance

For many years, the question of NATO enlargement has fuelled tensions between the United States and its allies, on the one side, and Russia on the other. In August 2008, Georgia’s NATO and EU ambitions helped prompt Moscow to back pro-Russian separatists in Georgia’s self-proclaimed autonomous republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  

Russia also views the alliance’s anti-missile shield – established in 2016 in NATO member Romania – with great suspicion. A similar NATO base exists in Poland.

Faced with these Russian concerns, Western governments consistently underscore the defensive nature of the NATO alliance.  

“The Russians find it difficult to accept NATO enlargement, but they forget that they signed a document called the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, through which they become partners and committed to guaranteeing peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area as well as the territorial integrity of all member states,” Zima noted.

Today, Moscow is reviving its rhetoric in the context of the Ukraine crisis by turning Kiev’s possible future NATO membership into a new red line not to be crossed.

Ukraine currently has “partner country” status with NATO. In reality, Kiev still has a long way to go before it can qualify for full membership.

“One of the main rules of the Alliance is that member countries must have solved all of their border issues so as not to integrate a new crisis factor into the Organisation. With the continuing conflict [with Russia over] Crimea, it is unlikely Ukraine would be able to join NATO,” said Kempf.

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