The idea that the Soviet Union was tricked in 1989-90 is at the heart of Russia’s confrontation with the west
President George Bush (left) with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and US secretary of state James Baker (right) in 1989. Photograph: Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images
The Guardian-Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor
The current confrontation between Russia and the west is fuelled by many grievances, but the greatest is the belief in Moscow that the west tricked the former Soviet Union by breaking promises made at the end of the cold war in 1989-1990 that Nato would not expand to the east. In his now famous 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin accused the west of forgetting and breaking assurances, leaving international law in ruins.
Does the betrayal claim matter?
It matters desperately to Russia since it fuels distrust, feeds Russia’s cynicism about international law and is the central motive behind Russia’s draft security treaties calling for a reversal of Nato’s extension, due to be discussed on Wednesday at the Nato-Russia Council. The betrayal theory is not confined to Putin, but was supported by Boris Yeltsin, and from mid-1995 right across the Russian political elite.
A new book, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of the Cold War Stalemate, by the prize-winning historian Mary Elise Sarotte, charts all the private discussions within the western alliance and with Russia over enlargement and reveals Russia as powerless to slow the ratchet effect of the opening of Nato’s door. The author concludes the charge of betrayal is technically untrue, but has a psychological truth.
What is the basis of the complaint?
At one level it narrowly focuses both on verbal commitments made by the US secretary of state James Baker under President George HW Bush and the terms of a treaty signed on 12 September 1990 setting out how Nato troops could operate in the territory of the former East Germany.
Putin claims that Baker, in a discussion on 9 February 1990 with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, made the promise that Nato would not expand to the east if Russia accepted Germany’s unification.
The following day Chancellor Helmut Kohl, ambiguous about Germany remaining in Nato after unification, also told Gorbachev “naturally Nato could not expand its territory to the current territory of the GDR”. The promise was repeated in a speech by the Nato secretary general on 17 May, a promise cited by Putin in his Munich speech. In his memoirs, Gorbachev described these assurances as the moment that cleared the way for compromise on Germany.
Were these promises ever written down in a treaty?
No, largely because Bush felt Baker and Kohl had gone too far, or in Baker’s words he had “got a little forward on his skis”.
The final agreement signed by Russia and the west in September 1990 applied only to Germany. It allowed foreign-stationed Nato troops to cross the old cold war line marked by East Germany at the discretion of the German government. The agreement was contained in a signed addendum. Nato’s commitment to protect, enshrined in article 5, had for the first time moved east into former Russian-held territory.
Did Russia see the implications of the 1990 agreement for Warsaw Pact countries?
Yes, many Russian policymakers opposed the concessions being made at the time by Gorbachev in part because of the implications for eastern Europe. Russia was given verbal assurances about the limits of Nato’s expansion, but no written guarantees. In March 1991 John Major, for instance, was asked by the Soviet defence minister, Marshal Dmitry Yazov, about eastern Europe’s interest in joining Nato. Major, according to the diaries of the British ambassador to Moscow, Rodric Braithwaite, assured him “nothing of that sort will ever happen”.
Did Russia complain about the ‘betrayal’?
Repeatedly. In 1993 Boris Yeltsin, angling for Russia to join Nato, wrote to President Bill Clinton to argue any further expansion of Nato eastwards breached the spirit of the 1990 treaty. The US state department, undecided at the time about Poland’s call to join Nato, was so sensitive to the charge of betrayal that Clinton-era officials even asked the German foreign ministry formally to report on the complaint’s merits. The German foreign minister’s top aide replied in October 1993 that the complaint was formally wrong but he could understand “why Yeltsin thought that Nato had committed itself not to extend beyond its 1990 limits”.
Did the deceit narrative poison relations?
Yes. In 1997 at the time of the Nato-Russia Founding Act, a treaty designed to create a new relationship between the alliance and Russia, foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov again raised Baker’s “double dealing” 6 years earlier. It prompted the then US secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to commission an internal report into the claim. The report drew a distinction between side comments made by German politicians, such as Hans-Dietrich Genscher, ruling out Nato expansion, and what was agreed in the treaty text.
So did Russia at some points sanction Nato expansion?
Yes. In August 1993 Yeltsin, in talks with the Polish leader, Lech Wałęsa, conceded Poland’s right to join Nato, a concession that left his colleagues thunderstruck. More formally Russia did the same with the Nato Russia Founding Act in 1996.
Was there an alternative?
Some say yes. Sarotte argues Washington won its power battle over enlargement, but in a way that led to confrontation, not cooperation, with Moscow.
Russia throughout presented itself as a potential Nato member, but the US always saw this as a fantasy that would paralyse the alliance. The US often preferred to deflect rather than reject. The US administration in 1993 could have delayed Nato expansion, but supporters who saw it as a democratic right of the former Warsaw Pact countries defeated those who argued it would weaken both Russian support for arms control and the forces of reform inside Russia.
Was Russia in a true position to negotiate?
Russia’s economy and politics were in ruins. “Not One Inch” details how Russian openness to Nato’s expansion often turned on the level of financial support provided by the US or Germany, support neither side described as bribes. Such were the levels of Russian corruption that much of this money just went missing as soon as it was transferred.