Moscow solidified its hold on Crimea in April, outlawing the Tatar legislature that had opposed Russia’s annexation of the region since 2014. Together with Russian military provocations against NATO forces in and around the Baltic, this move seems to validate the observations of Western analysts who argue that under Vladimir Putin, an increasingly aggressive Russia is determined to dominate its neighbors and menace Europe.
in Moscow, however, tell a different story. For them, Russia is the
aggrieved party. They claim the United States has failed to uphold a
promise that NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe, a deal made
during the 1990 negotiations between the West and the Soviet Union over
German unification. In this view, Russia is being forced to forestall
NATO’s eastward march as a matter of self-defense.
The West has vigorously protested that no such deal was ever struck.
However, hundreds of memos, meeting minutes and transcripts from U.S.
archives indicate otherwise. Although what the documents reveal isn’t
enough to make Putin a saint, it suggests that the diagnosis of Russian
predation isn’t entirely fair. Europe’s stability may depend just as
much on the West’s willingness to reassure Russia about NATO’s limits as
on deterring Moscow’s adventurism.
After the Berlin Wall fell,
Europe’s regional order hinged on the question of whether a reunified
Germany would be aligned with the United States (and NATO), the Soviet
Union (and the Warsaw Pact) or neither. Policymakers in the George H.W. Bush administration decided in early 1990 that NATO should include the reconstituted German republic.
In early February 1990, U.S. leaders made the Soviets an offer.
According to transcripts of meetings in Moscow on Feb. 9, then-Secretary
of State James Baker suggested that in exchange for cooperation on
Germany, U.S. could make “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not
expand “one inch eastward.” Less than a week later, Soviet President
Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to begin reunification talks. No formal deal
was struck, but from all the evidence, the quid pro quo was clear:
Gorbachev acceded to Germany’s western alignment and the U.S. would
limit NATO’s expansion.
Nevertheless, great powers rarely tie their own hands. In internal
memorandums and notes, U.S. policymakers soon realized that ruling out
NATO’s expansion might not be in the best interests of the United
States. By late February, Bush and his advisers had decided to leave the
After discussing the issue with West German
Chancellor Helmut Kohl on February 24-25, the U.S. gave the former East
Germany “special military status,” limiting what NATO forces could be
stationed there in deference to the Soviet Union. Beyond that, however,
talk of proscribing NATO’s reach dropped out of the diplomatic
conversation. Indeed, by March 1990, State Department officials were
advising Baker that NATO could help organize Eastern Europe in the U.S.
orbit; by October, U.S. policymakers were contemplating whether and when
(as a National Security Council memo put it) to “signal to the new
democracies of Eastern Europe NATO’s readiness to contemplate their
At the same time, however, it appears the Americans still were trying
to convince the Russians that their concerns about NATO would be
respected. Baker pledged in Moscow on May 18, 1990, that the United
States would cooperate with the Soviet Union in the “development of a
new Europe.” And in June, per talking points prepared by the NSC, Bush
was telling Soviet leaders that the United States sought “a new,
It’s therefore not surprising that Russia was
incensed when Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and
others were ushered into NATO membership starting in the mid-1990s.
Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev and Gorbachev himself protested through
both public and private channels that U.S. leaders had violated the
non-expansion arrangement. As NATO began looking even further eastward,
to Ukraine and Georgia, protests turned to outright aggression and
NATO’S widening umbrella doesn’t justify Putin’s bellicosity or his
incursions in Ukraine or Georgia. Still, the evidence suggests that
Russia’s protests have merit and that U.S. policy has contributed to
current tensions in Europe.
In less than two months, Western heads of state will gather in Warsaw for a NATO summit.
Discussions will undoubtedly focus on efforts to contain and deter
Russian adventurism — including increasing NATO deployments in Eastern
Europe and deepening NATO’s ties to Ukraine and Georgia. Such moves,
however, will only reinforce the Russian narrative of U.S. duplicity.
Instead, addressing a major source of Russian anxieties by taking future
NATO expansion off the table could help dampen Russia-Western
Just as a pledge not to expand NATO in 1990 helped end the Cold War,
so too may a pledge today help resuscitate the U.S.-Russian
Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson is an
international security fellow at Dartmouth College and assistant
professor at the Bush School of Government, Texas A&M University.
His article, "Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S.
Offer to Limit NATO Expansion" was published in the spring issue of