How Gorbachev was misled over assurances against NATO expansion

2 January 2018

Declassified documents show security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Baker, Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major and Woerner

On the 12 December 2017 the National Security Archive at George Washington University posted online 30 declassified US, Soviet, German, British and French documents revealing a torrent of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991. Some of the documents have been publicly available for several years, others have been revealed as a result of Freedom of Information requests for the study. See the briefing here.

US Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on 9 February 1990 was only part of a cascade of similar assurances.

As the authors, Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton argue: “The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels”.

The documents reinforce former CIA Director Robert Gates’s criticism of “pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward [in the 1990s], when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen”.

During the discussions to re-unify East and West Germany, the Western parties sought to defuse Moscow’s fears that a reunified state in the heart of Europe would present a threat to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev only accepted German reunification—over which the Soviet Union had a legal right to veto—because he received assurances that NATO would not expand after he withdrew his forces from Eastern Europe from James Baker, President George H.W. Bush, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the CIA Director Robert Gates, French President Francois Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, British foreign minister Douglas Hurd, British Prime Minister John Major, and NATO secretary-general Manfred Woerner.

In February, George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, assured his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, that in a post-Cold War Europe NATO would no longer be belligerent – “less of a military organization, much more of a political one, would have no need for independent capability”.

Nonetheless, Baker promised Shevardnadze “iron-clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward”. On the same day in Moscow, he famously told the Soviet General Secretary that the alliance would not move “one inch to the east”.

The following day, February 10, 1990, Helmut Kohl, the future chancellor of a united Germany, repeated the same thought to Gorbachev, even as they disagreed on other issues. “We believe that NATO should not expand the sphere of its activity. We have to find a reasonable resolution. I correctly understand the security interests of the Soviet Union, and I realize that you, Mr. General Secretary, and the Soviet leadership will have to clearly explain what is happening to the Soviet people,” Kohl said.

The promises not to expand NATO only lasted until 1997, however, when Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were invited into the alliance. In total, 13 Eastern European states have become NATO members since then.

Gorbachev and subsequently Putin have frequently bemoaned the West’s broken promise, with the latter insisting that it fundamentally undermined the fragile trust between an internationally retreating Russia and an ascendant United States.

Nonetheless, NATO and senior Western officials have continued to claim that there was no such official promise. None of the assurances of non-expansion were included in any treaty documents, as NATO makes clear in its official explanation on its website: “NATO allies take decisions by consensus and these are recorded. There is no record of any such decision having been taken by NATO. Personal assurances, from NATO leaders, cannot replace alliance consensus and do not constitute a formal NATO agreement”.

Former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul labelled the idea of a reneged promise a “myth” in an interview in 2016. Other experts have labelled Russian grievances as a case of “false memory syndrome”.

With the exception of RT in Russia and a handful of online opinion articles (see below), no major media outlet has so far reported on the release of these newly declassified documents. In ending the Cold War by breaking promises to Gorbachev, the attitude of the revived Russia of today should not come as a surprise. As the Russian journalist and columnist for Bloomberg Leonid Bershidsky concludes it is now “highly unlikely that any successor to Putin will simply cast aside the broken promise story, which is by now embedded in the Russian government's post-Soviet DNA. For years, perhaps decades, maintaining a confrontation with Russia will be easier than rebuilding trust”.

Also see:

John Dobson, The Perfidious West: Why Putin’s suspicion is justified, Sunday Guardian, 23 December 2017

Andrew Bacevich, When Washington Assured Russia NATO Would Not Expand, The American Conservative, 20 December 2017

Eric Margolis, No to Eastward NATO Expansion? 'Sorry Chump, You Didn't Have It in Writing', Common Dreams, 17 December 2017

Newly Declassified Documents: Gorbachev Told NATO Wouldn't Move Past East German Border, National Interest, 12 December 2017