NATO, Russia and the Other Broken Promise

Pressured by ever encroaching NATO expansion toward its borders and increased lethal arms sales to, and flirtations with, Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the US a proposal on mutual security guarantees and an urgent request for immediate negotiations.

The security proposal has many clauses, but two of the leading proposals are that:

  1. “The United States of America shall take measures to prevent further eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and deny accession to the Alliance to the former USSR republics”
  2. The United States accepts the "obligation not to establish military bases in former Soviet states that are not NATO members, not to use their infrastructure to carry out any military activity, and not to develop bilateral military cooperation with them."

Several western analysts have characterized Putin’s demands as "bold." But they are only bold in the sense that Iran is being bold by requesting that the US promise to keep their promise when they sign an agreement. Putin is only being so bold as to hold up assurances that the US has already made long ago. America seems to have a problem keeping its promises.

Recently declassified documents make it clear that, not only did the US guarantee Gorbachev that, if NATO got Germany, NATO would not extend even "one inch" further east, but that all the western powers, including the UK, France and Germany repeatedly made the same promise.

At the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, a US attempt to accelerate Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership was stopped only because it was blocked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Instead the two countries were guaranteed eventual membership: "NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO."

Neither the US nor NATO has ever retracted that promise. And both Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have reiterated US support for NATO membership for Ukraine.

Putin is not being bold by reminding the US of its previous promise and asking them, again, to honor it.

But there is a second, even less discussed, promise that the US made to Russia . . . and broke.

In May 1997, when President Clinton broke America’s promise and expanded NATO much more than an inch to the east, he at least signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, which promised generally to "not consider each other as adversaries" in a "peaceful and undivided Europe" and promised explicitly that as NATO expanded east, there would be no “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” And even that, according to Gorbachev’s memoirs, verified by Jack F. Matlock Jr., who was the American ambassador to Russia at the time and was present at the meeting, was a repetition of the February 1990 promise, not just that NATO membership wouldn’t extend east, but that NATO troops would not extend east. The US obliterated this promise.

Since that second promise, Stephen Cohen, who was director of the Russian Studies Program at Princeton University, says that NATO has built up its “permanent land, sea and air power near Russian territory, along with missile-defense installations.” US and NATO weapons and troops have butted right up against Russia’s borders, while anti-missile installations have surrounded it, leading to the feeling of betrayal in Russia and the fear of aggression. In 2015, Russia’s National Security Strategy would note that NATO’s "continued expansion and the approach of its military infrastructure to Russia’s borders, all create threat to national security."

In 2007, the US announced a plan to install an anti-ballistic missile base in Poland and a radar control center in the Czech Republic. According to Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, in 2014, NATO adopted a "Readiness Action Plan" to create "spearhead" military bases in Eastern European states and a rapid reaction force in Poland. Military bases were placed in Poland and the Baltic republics. Because the bases were "fixed" but not "permanent," Sakwa says, though, they were within the letter of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, they violating its spirit.

Among the earliest moves of the Trump administration were the moving of NATO troops into Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Tod Wolters has recently suggested that NATO should send troops to Bulgaria and Romania. The proposal would extend NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” mission, which has already placed troops in Poland and the Baltic countries. According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Wolters wants "reinforcement of troops on the eastern border” of NATO that would "expand NATO’s presence [to Romania and Bulgaria].”

Though it is NATO’s expansion east and not the placement of bases, troops and weapons that has drawn the most attention, it is actually the second promise that has more concerned Putin. Sakwa says that, decades ago, "NATO enlargement was the enduring divisive issue, but it was BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense] that Russia considered the greatest strategic threat." Similarly now, former Chief of the CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch Ray McGovern told me in a personal correspondence that, even more than NATO pushing its expansion into Ukraine, what is more concerning to Putin is NATO’s plan to put antiballistic missiles within range of Europe.

After all, what difference does it make if Ukraine is prevented from being a NATO member it its territory is still used to base US troops and as a launching ground for NATO missiles?

Though the West is quick to ridicule Putin’s security proposal as delusionally bold, the historical record makes it clear that it is little more than reasonable request that America keep its promises.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.