I know there are questions that might sound similar, but this is a completely different one. Firstly, I am using the word extending and not expanding. Secondly, the question is limited to a time period long before 2008 and even before Putin came to power.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Cold War was officially over, there was no Warsaw Pact and even no USSR was there to threaten NATO. The new Russian government was relative pro-Western, the most pro-Western government in Russia ever. There was no anti-Western propaganda in Russian media, sometimes even the opposite was the case. Thus, no real threat from Russia was expected at that time. It was also clear that extending NATO would change the situation and bring back confrontation. Some people in the Clinton Administration convinced him to postpone the NATO extension at least until after the presidential election in Russia in order to prevent anti-Western candidate from winning. While the arguments against that extension are clear, which ones were for supporting it?

  • 6
    This is surely a question where lots of original research should be available. But the question doesn't cite anything.
    – Trilarion
    May 22 at 18:18
  • 5
    " the most pro-wester government in Russia ever. " : A debatable claim... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_the_Great
    – Evargalo
    May 23 at 7:04
  • 14
    "It was also clear that extending NATO would change the situation and bring back the confrontation." citation needed
    – RedSonja
    May 23 at 13:04
  • 4
    @JBentley It looks like some people understand expansion as invasion and this is defenetly not what the question is about. I am not saing that NATO has forced the counties to join it.
    – convert
    May 24 at 10:49
  • 4
    “When Michail Gorbachev, the leader of the former Soviet Union, capitulated in 1991, he requested from the western allies a promise that they would not expand NATO beyond Berlin, as a condition for allowing the unification of east and west Germany. This was confirmed by the US Secretary of State James Baker, with the now famous words, “NATO will not move an inch beyond Berlin”. Documents to that extent are available in the Berlin War Museum.” (New Dawn; vol 16, no 3) Jun 15 at 23:15

7 Answers 7


I'll quote this verbatim from an answer I wrote on History.SE. The explanation is by Bill Clinton - American president during the expansion.

American President Bill Clinton, who was President during the biggest phase of NATO expansion, wrote an article today [April 7, 2022] on why he expanded NATO.

Clinton says he wanted to work for the best but prepare for the worst. He writes that he viewed renewed conflict as a possibility, but one that would depend more on Russia than on NATO. In particular, if Russia were to stay on the path of democracy and cooperation, then there'd be no problem, but if Russia were to become more authoritarian and imperialist, a bigger NATO would bolster Europe's security.

Clinton further says that he tried very hard to help Russia become a democracy. He says he offered money for Yeltsin to pull Russian soldiers back from the Baltic states, let Russia join the Partnership for Peace program with NATO, allowed Russia to join peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo, and supported Russia's entry into the G7. He also says that they had an agreement with Russia to pull NATO & Russian forces back from borders, but Putin declined to go ahead with the plan when he became president.

Clinton says that NATO expansion was very successful, since it provided peace and security to Europe for more than two decades. He further says it has provided prosperity by increasing GDP per capita (naming the Czech Repulic, Hungary, and Poland as examples), and that the prospect of NATO membership is what stopped some Eastern European countries from fighting over old disputes.

Finally, Clinton says that Russia's invasion of Ukraine proves that his policy of NATO expansion was the right one, and that the invasion was not about NATO but about Ukraine's shift towards democracy which threatens Putin's authoritarian rule. He says that if NATO hadn't expanded, the war wouldn't be in Ukraine, it would be in central Europe (East Germany).

Interpret as you will.

  • 2
    "Clinton, who was President during the biggest phase of NATO expansion": surely not by number of countries. That was in 2004 when Clinton was not president anymore, when 7 countries were admitted. In 1999 only 3 countries were, albeit their area was sizeable due to Poland.
    – Fizz
    May 22 at 15:24
  • 11
    @Fizz maybe, but Clinton set those plans to expand NATO into motion.
    – Allure
    May 22 at 15:43
  • 4
    A politician explaining his actions is not a trustworthy source. Aside from general trust issues with politicians, don't forget that he is party to a ton of highly secretive information that he can't share, even after his presidency is over.
    – Tom
    May 23 at 16:52
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    @Tom That may be true, but we can generally only answer questions here based on what was actually reported. Anything else would be speculation and opinion.
    – Barmar
    May 23 at 21:28
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    @Tom True. Clinton even buys the slogan western powers are trying to sell the world that Putin "is not afraid of NATO, but of a democratical Ukraine". According to the West, neither Kravchuck, Kuchma, Yushchenko or Yanukovich were elected democratically and democracy only started there with the first president that got the office via violence: Poroshenko and his figurehead Turchynov. Go figure.
    – Rekesoft
    May 24 at 11:58

So no real threat from Russia was expected at that time.

Governments can change. This issue was mentioned as such in this regard by [then Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott, in 1995:

among the contingencies for which NATO must be prepared is that Russia will abandon democracy and return to the threatening patterns of international behavior that have sometimes characterized its history, particularly during the Soviet period.

I remember the West being freaked out by Zyuganov possibly winning the elections in the 1990s, for instance. At least nowadays, there's hardly any difference between Zyuganov's positions and Putin's, when it comes to foreign affairs, so those fears were probably not entirely unjustified. Also, an internal 1996 document of the CPRF shows that they were actively focusing on attracting the nationalist [Zhirinovsy camp] votes, even back then. This is one of the reasons why he ran as a candidate of the Bloc of National-Patriotic Forces of Russia, instead of the CPRF. And more explicitly:

Zyuganov platform was also composed with the nationalist voters in mind. Even though the communists were by far the most dominant force within the alliance, nationalist themes dominated its program. It elaborated in great detail all the key ideas the Russian nationalists had been articulating for years. [...] It accused Yeltsin of the destruction of the USSR and the abandonment 25 million of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics. The platform promised to the restore territorial integrity of the former Soviet state, regain it former superpower status, recreate a strong military, and abrogate those international treaties which undermined Russian national interests (Zyuganov, 1996a).

And (I recall) the West turning a (relatively) blind eye to Yeltsin less than democratic means of subduing the parliamentary opposition for that very reason. Etc. Russia was never really convincing as having abandoned its Soviet ways completely, to quite a number of observers, particularly those from Eastern European countries. Their cooperation with the West on Yugoslavia was doubled by attempts to subvert the process too--Russian paratroopers on Pristina airport etc. Despite the Russian rhetoric on NATO expansion as if it happens by some centralized force, those Eastern European countries all applied to join, just in case the wind started to blow in a different direction in Moscow. E.g.

“When we were a candidate country, I often heard the phrase: ‘Russia is not going to be happy if the Baltic countries become members of NATO,’” said former PresidentVaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia, another woman who, like [M.] Albright, had her perspectives on foreign policy shaped by experiences as a World War II refugee. Often standing out as one of the only women in the room, Vike-Freiberga led her country to NATO accession in 2004 as Putin was consolidating his power across the border. “President [Jacques] Chirac of France told me: ‘You should not be fooling with the mustache of the bear, you shouldn’t annoy him.’ I said, ‘No, Mr. President, but we do not want to be eaten by the bear, either.’ That is the point.”

And if you want to go back to Poland's [1999] NATO admission speech, their position (as exemplified here by their MFA Bronislaw Geremek) was not that different, albeit the threat of external force was only mentioned in historical, but rather concrete terms...

For the people of Poland, the Cold War, which forcibly excluded our country from the West, ends with our entry to NATO. Poland, as member of the most powerful alliance, bringing together democratic nations of Western Europe and North America, joins the vital process of bridging old divisions and contributes to the security and stability in Europe. [...]

The nations, who join this community today, were denied those values until 1989. On the streets of Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Gdask in 1970 and 1981 they paid a heavy price. They have proved their democratic credentials, which give them the right to be here today.

Why the West agreed is a somewhat different question, which is honestly a bit difficult to retell concisely. In Bush's time, when the major expansion happened, he was hemmed in by Iraq war policy and looking for allies beyond the traditional Western Europe which wasn't all that supportive (see the fabled "you forgot Poland" in the Bush-Kerry presidential debate). That stuff has been derided, but there have been more serious US positions around that time why the US wanted allies further east.

As for the Western EU capitals, I think it would have been politically difficult for them to agree to expanding the EU but to oppose expanding NATO, especially since the EU treaty has a common defense clause too. Such a stance would have probably come across as naked anti-Americanism. Even though some German press declared Poland a "nation of thieves" and a Trojan horse of the US with respect to Iraq... But that only emphasizes why these Eastern European countries saw the US [and thus NATO] as the true guarantor of their security. The Western Europeans were seen as less reliable and possibly even conflicted on economic matters, like Russian gas etc.

And looking back at one of Albright's speeches (from 1997) that angle (of US being the real deal in terms of security guarantees) is emphasized, albeit to a US audience:

Many organizations are doing their part to assure the prosperity and security of Europe. The European Union is expanding. The OSCE is promoting democracy and helping to resolve conflicts from the Caucasus to the Balkans. Many of the new market democracies are joining the World Trade Organization and the OECD.

But NATO is taking the lead, just as it has for the past half century. NATO is still the anchor of our engagement in Europe, the only organization in Europe with real military might, the only one capable of providing the confidence and security upon which our other goals depend.

One other worthwhile point she brings up is that during the process/negotiations of joining candidate countries were more or less compelled to solve many/most of the their outstanding issues... peacefully.

Just the prospect of enlargement has given central and eastern Europe greater stability than it has seen in this century. Old disputes between Poland and Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, Hungary and Romania, Italy and Slovenia, Germany and the Czech Republic are melting away as nations align themselves with NATO. Democratic reforms are advancing. Country after country has made sure soldiers take orders from civilians. These nations are fixing exactly the problems that could have led to future Bosnias.

And finally, she does get to the "historical injustice" angle that we saw in the Polish speech too, albeit this just the third leg of her argument to a US audience.

The third reason, Mr. Chairman, as I suggested, is to right the wrongs of the past. If we don't enlarge NATO, we will be validating the dividing line Stalin imposed in 1945 and that two generations of Americans and Europeans fought to overcome. That's conscionable. With the Cold War over, there is no moral or strategic basis for saying to the American people: "we must be allied with Europe's old democracies forever, but with Europe's new democracies never."

We would begin to think in entirely new terms about what a European continent, whole and free, would look like, and what our relationship with Russia and other key states on such a continent would be.

And I think it's a bit of a misconception that NATO was all that expansionist during Clinton's time alone. I vaguely recall more countries having applied back then, but not being quite so welcomed. For example Romania was sort of put on a waiting list:

July 1997 - NATO holds its "enlargement" summit in Madrid; the Alliance decides to invite the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to join the Alliance; the final communiqué confirms that the process of enlargement continues; the text nominates Romania among the candidate countries which have made significant progress in fulfilling the NATO membership criteria.

Romania and six other countries joined during Bush's presidency, i.e. in 2004. Only three countries joined during Clinton's. I haven't quite summed up the areas of the 1999 vs 2004 waves, but on first glance they look similar.

I also think it was not all that

clear that extending NATO would change the situation and bring back the confrontation

(as the question says) because Russia and NATO back in 1996-97 had agreed to the “Founding Act" (on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation signed in Paris), in which NATO countries promised not to deploy nuclear weapons or "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in the new NATO members. Eventually, those NATO promises became insufficient for subsequent Russian governments (specifically Putin's--he demanded a rollback to a pre-1997 situation sometime in late 2021). But it was hardly clear to participants in the 1997 agreement that those restrictions on NATO force deployments would be seen as insufficient (much) later by a subsequent Russian governments.

It's true however that even Yeltsin equivocated on NATO expansion, changing his level of stated opposition. In particular, the issue was electorally toxic for him back home. So, the Clinton administration postponed any concrete steps until after the 1996 election in Russia. On other hand, even Yeltsin recognized [e.g. to Clinton at Hyde Park in 1995] that the Polish American Congress was exercising pressure in the opposite direction in the US elections. I recall one Canadian diplomat claiming to me that this was a major factor in US support, but that kind of claim is somewhat hard to substantiate. But one book kind of supports that:

Of the ten districts with the highest concentration of Polish Americans, Ronald Reagan had won seven in 1980 and nine in 1984. Although [H. W.] Bush also won nine of these in his race with Michael Dukakis in 1988, Clinton had take seven of these districts in the 1992 campaign. (And he would go on to defeat Bob Dole in eight of them.)

Somewhat counterbalancing that though:

A poll taken in 1996 showed that while Americans of central and eastern European descent did not show support for NATO enlargement at higher levels than other Americans (who were generally favorable), they felt more strongly about the issue and they were also significantly more likely to be aware of it.

The book also recounts how Bob Dole's tried to court that vote by "naming [country] names and setting a date" for the enlargement, and meeting with Lech Walesa. So, yeah, there was the US domestic lobbying aspect at least for Poland, but it's probably hard to pin too much on that angle for the other countries that joined (later or in the same wave). It's also worth noting that not all Republicans tried to "one up" Clinton on this. And neither were all Democrats convinced. Sam Nunn opposed "rapid NATO enlargement" for fear of jeopardizing nuclear disarmament agreements with Russia, and voted against one relevant bill, somewhat famously changing his vote to nay during the roll call.

Support for enlargement was ultimately a fairly broad affair in 1997-98 (vote was 80-19 in the Senate, with 67 required to pass):

Although support for NATO’s enlargement was broad, it was comprised of what political scientist George Grayson later called a “strange bedfellows” coalition, including Republicans and Democrats, defense hawks and human rights idealists, unionists focused on the brave actions of Poland’s Solidarity, and business leaders focused on the lure of new markets in Central Europe.

The people entrusted with making this law pass the Senate were also tasked to convince that it would

not come at the expense of other U.S. interests, including constructive relations with Russia. Clinton had staked a good deal on building closer ties to Russia and President Boris Yeltsin. A win on NATO enlargement would be undermined if pursued in a way that needlessly poisoned that relationship.

And in particular:

The [NATO-Russia] Founding Act was positive enough toward Moscow that it reduced anxieties (mostly among Democrats) that NATO enlargement would antagonize Moscow. But it also had enough red lines between Russia and NATO’s own decision-making that it minimized concerns (mostly among Republicans) that NATO was giving Russia any kind of vote or veto.

So back then (late 1990s), in the US at least, the expansion was not seen a posing that kind of "clear" danger (by most US decision-makers), given these other mitigating efforts the US/NATO was undertaking vis-a-vis of Russia.

What I personally find more surprising is that the second, 2004 expansion was voted 96-0 in the US Senate, despite involving more countries that were closer to Russia, and which had longer borders with it, than in the 1999 wave. Pretty much every article I've read on that latter vote mentions that a number of those countries stood by the US on the Iraq decision... and some of the new candidates had helped the US logistically or militarily (e.g. Romania and Bulgaria). Unfortunately, it is difficult to research whether the amount of verbal opposition/protest from Russia's leadership against NATO expansion had gone up or down in that 1999-2003 time frame. For what it's worth, the NYT wrote in their 2003 coverage of that Senate vote:

But past Russian opposition to NATO expansion has faded under President Vladimir V. Putin, who has carved out for his country a consultative role with the alliance.

So, at least some of the US opinion makers were of that view. (And the consultative thing seems to refer to the 2002-established NATO-Russia Council.)

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    "As for the Western EU capitals, I think it would have been politically difficult for them to agree to expanding EU but to oppose expanding NATO." But EU membership without the NATO one works as can be seen on the example of Austria. An other 2 examples were Sweden and Finland.
    – convert
    May 22 at 13:35
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    @convert: yes, but those have been domestic decisions. Those didn't apply and [were not] turned down. Although with Turkey lately, who knows if they can be bought off wrt Finland and Sweden.
    – Fizz
    May 22 at 14:17
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    @convert: actually not entirely domestic, as it turns out. Austria promised to not join any military alliance in a 1955 treaty with the USSR, as a condition for Soviet troop withdrawal. thelocal.at/20220304/explained-why-isnt-austria-in-nato
    – Fizz
    May 22 at 21:31

An often neglected reason for the fundamental change in the NATO-Russian relationship is the civil war in Yugoslavia. Before that, there were ideas to create a pan-European security system that would include Russia, for example by letting Russia join NATO. One often-quoted source from this time is German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who reportedly said this in a speech in Tutzing, Bavaria on Jan 31st, 1990:

NATO should rule out an ‘expansion of its territory towards the east, i.e. moving it closer to the Soviet borders.’”

In the same speech he also called for bigger involvement of the CSCE in the construction of the future security framework in Europe, which surely would have come at the expense of US influence.

Then NATO general secretary Manfred Wörner shared this position. In a speech on May 17th 1990, he emphasized the role of the CSCE in assuring everybody that Russian security interests would not be jeopardized. This is the speech Vladimir Putin referred to in Munich in 2007, when he complained about promises being broken by NATO.

So, in the early 90s, NATO expansion was not considered an imminent or even desirable thing.

What changed this? The siege of Sarajevo started to show differences between Russian and Western views of the conflict. While the Western public was shocked by the atrocities committed by all sides in the war, Russia vetoed actions in the UN security council. In the West, the public grew increasingly frustrated with the Russian blockade. After the Srebrenica massacre, Western countries decided to act unilaterally, and repeated this a few years later.

Russia viewed this as a huge insult. Prof. Yuriy Davydov writes in his study "Should Russia join NATO?" in 2000:

The NATO military action in Yugoslavia was used by the national patriots for carrying out the most massive anti-Western campaign in Russia since the cold war. It has become the first step to V. Putin’s victory in the presidential elections 2000.

In the same year, Alexei Arbatov published his study "The Transformation of Russian Military Doctrine: Lessons Learned from Kosovo and Chechnya" Arbatov argues that the NATO bombings led to a change in Russian military doctrine:

Russia has learned many lessons from Kosovo. Above all, the end justifies the means. The use of force is the most efficient problem solver, if applied decisively and massively. Negotiations are of dubious value and should be used as a cover for military action. International law and human suffering are of secondary significance in achieving the goal. Massive devastation and collateral fatalities among the civilian population are acceptable in order to limit one’s own casualties. Foreign public opinion and the position of Western governments are to be discounted if Russian interests are at stake. The key to success is a concentrated campaign in the mass media and tight control over information about the war.

In Eastern Europe this change in the Russian position towards the West was noticed immediately. Just like Sweden and Finland today, countries quickly started to reevaluate their security needs and apply for NATO membership. In the United States, this was met with support. On July 23rd 1996, a Republican-led House of Representatives passed HR3564, calling for NATO membership of three countries

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic

but also

in order to promote security in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Moldova, and Ukraine: (1) the United States should continue to support the full and active participation of these countries in activities that will qualify them for NATO membership

In 1997, NATO began to negotiate with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and on March 12th 1999, the three countries officially joined NATO.

So, in short: Russia and the Western countries have fundamentally different ideas of how Europe's future security architecture should look like. Russia sees NATO as a tool for US imperialism, and is perfectly fine with that, as long as the West is ok with Russian imperialism. Western Europeans see NATO as a purely defensive alliance, and notice Russia's habit of attacking non-NATO countries. These views are irreconcilable, and it took the crises of the 1990, in particular the war in Yugoslavia, to make this visible.


So at the begin of the 90s the Cold War was officially over no Warsaw Pact and even no USSR was there to threaten NATO. The new Russian government was relative pro-western, the most pro-western government in Russia ever. There was no antiwestern propaganda in Russian media, sometimes even the opposite was the case.

Probably there were no threat to then NATO countries. How about threat to those, that applied to NATO at that time?
Russia intervened in Georgia, supported separation of Abkhazia, resulting in ethnic cleansing of Georgians. No one was held responsible for those atrocities. Later Russia supported Transnistria separation from Moldova.
Few years later world could observe first Chechen war, with more war crimes committed by Russian forces. Again - no one was held responsible. In 1999 those, who were responsible for yet another massacre got awarded.
Russian troops left Poland in 1993. Should Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Baltic states feel safe with such a neighbor? Was it reasonable for them to apply to NATO? Those, who are responsible for American war crimes, are sometimes prosecuted, Russian perpetrators - never.

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    Exactly. Countries like Poland (which has had a whole history of trouble involving Russia) and Czechia (whose previous attempt at diverging a little from the USSR earned them a Soviet invasion and two decades of occupation) obviously had little reason to believe Russia was going to leave them alone this time. They were highly motivated to build close ties with the West as quickly as possible. Had NATO refused to accept them, it would have caused massive disillusionment and damaged relations for a long time to come.
    – TooTea
    May 23 at 21:03

I think calling it extending still shapes the question in a somewhat wrong light. NATO has a charter with rules that regulate how new members can join. Countries can decide on their own if they want to apply for membership. These rules were not changed in a major way in the 90s. The only thing that was different in the 90s compared to the 80s or the 2000s is that NATO got a lot more applications for membership. The criteria to accept an application haven't changed a lot and so a time period with a lot of applications comes with a lot of new members.

  • 1
    "calling it expanding" Where did I called it expanding? I even explicitly worte, that I am not using this term.
    – convert
    May 23 at 9:58
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    @convert Sorry, misquoted you. I will edit to the word extending that you used. My point was more that this still sounds like an active thing that NATO does, whereas my point is that to a large degree it is passive, other countries apply to NATO.
    – quarague
    May 23 at 10:50
  • 2
    But NATO has an active role, as it not just about countries wanting to join NATO, but also about the ones who are already members.
    – convert
    May 23 at 11:25

Not the only reason by any means, but one can't ignore how the behind-the-scenes lobbying in Washington went at the time:

The arms makers quickly latched onto the idea and over time helped the Administration sell it. ''It's not a case of whispering in Clinton's ear and saying, 'Expand NATO because we want to sell arms,' '' said William D. Hartung, author of a recent report for the World Policy Institute, a private arms control group that opposes expansion. ''But they've become one of Clinton's most energetic allies in promoting it.''

The chief vehicle of support for NATO expansion is a group called the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO, which is backed by the arms industry. The committee president is Bruce L. Jackson, who is also director of strategic planning for Lockheed. Corporate sponsors are also supporting ethnic groups that have championed NATO membership for their native countries

The incentives were strong:

Under NATO rules, new members are required to upgrade their militaries and make them compatible with those of the Western military alliance, which oversees the most sophisticated -- and expensive -- weapons and communication systems in the world. The companies that win the contracts to provide that ''inter-operability'' to the aging Soviet-made systems in Eastern Europe will benefit enormously from NATO's eastward expansion.

Thus the sums spent on lobbying and for campaign contributions are relatively small compared with the potential benefits in the new markets provided by a larger NATO, particularly from the sale of big-ticket items like fighter aircraft


Active intervention in case of attacks

One of the underlying principles of NATO is that a military attack on one country is an attack on all, and will be responded to militarily. Since the total military strength of all NATO countries was greater than any single country (including any single NATO country), this gave a guarantee of military protection in the event of any future conflicts, from any possible source.

If other similar treaty organisations had existed, perhaps these countries would have chosen to join those organisations instead. However no other such arrangement existed between sovereign nations.

Note that there was no need to speculate about the source of any future attack. In fact the first time the principle of mutual defense was invoked was in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with an enemy who could not possibly have been foreseen when the USA and other countries first formed NATO in 1949. Nevertheless, the principle still applied. In the case of the ex-Soviet countries, the possibility of disputes amongst each other was very real. It is notable though that in spite of all the conflicts within the Caucasus region, none of them have involved border conflicts with Turkey (a NATO member).

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