Did the United States break a promise to Russia when NATO moved eastward with new members?
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush made a promise to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would "not move one inch eastward."
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According to the Soviet-released transcript the "promise" was made in this form by James Baker, in a phone conversation with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze (they were both on the line on the Soviet end.)
Gorbachev: I wanted to ask you, what do you think about the possibility of a “four + two” mechanism?
Baker: I think that it would be better to have a “two + four” mechanism. I explained to Mr. Shevardnadze why, in our opinion, a four-sided approach will not work. I think that the idea of using the CSCE process is also difficult to realize since it would be too cumbersome. I would also like to point out that I do not have confirmation from the FRG side that the Germans will agree to the “two + four” approach. It goes without saying that when developing an approach to the external aspects of unification it is necessary to a certain degree to consider the concerns of Germany’s neighbors. Therefore it is quite possible that the CSCE forum could be used for the ratification of agreements developed within the framework of the “two + four” mechanism.We fought alongside with you; together we brought peace to Europe. Regrettably, we then managed this peace poorly, which led to the Cold War. We could not cooperate then. Now, when rapid and fundamental changes are taking place in Europe, we have a propitious opportunity to cooperate in the interests of preserving the peace. I very much want you to know: neither the president nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place.Some other details. We indeed are not speaking in favor of Germany being neutral. The West Germans have also said to us that they do not consider such a decision to be satisfactory. I would like to explain why. If Germany is neutral it does not mean it will not be militaristic. Quite the opposite, it could very well decide to create its own nuclear potential instead of relying on American nuclear deterrent forces. All our West European allies and a number of East European countries have made it known to us that they would like the United States to keep its military presence in Europe. I do not know whether you support such a possibility. But I would like to assure you that as soon as our allies tell us that they are against our presence, we will bring our troops home.
Shevardnadze: I do not know about your other allies, but a united Germany may demand it.
Baker: If that happens, our troops will return home. We will leave any country that does not desire our presence. The American people have always had a strong position favoring this. However, if the current West German leadership is at the head of a unified Germany then they have said to us they will be against our withdrawal. And the last point. NATO is the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe. If NATO is liquidated, there will be no such mechanism in Europe. We understand that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction. We believe that consultations and discussions within the framework of the “two + four” mechanism should guarantee that Germany’s unification will not lead to NATO’s military organization spreading to the east.
These are our thoughts. Perhaps a better way can be found. As of yet, we do not have the Germans’ agreement to this approach. I explained it to Genscher and he only said that he will think it over. As for [French Foreign Minister Roland] Dumas, he liked the idea. Now I have given an account of this approach to you. I repeat, maybe something much better can be created, but we have not been able to do that yet.
Gorbachev: I want to say that in general we share this way of thinking. Indeed, the process has begun and is underway. And we need to try to adjust to the new reality. A mechanism is needed that would assist stability in Europe--a very important center of world politics--in remaining undisturbed. Of course we have some differences in looking at this situation. I think there is nothing terrible in that. The most important thing is not to approach this situation in too simplistic a manner. Firstly, we want the situation in Europe to improve. The situation cannot be allowed to worsen as a result of what is taking place. We need to think about how to act under conditions of the new reality. A question arises: what will this Germany be like? How will it tend to act in Europe and the world? These are fundamental questions. And as we see it, they are perceived differently in, say, Paris, London, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest.
Baker: I understood that.
Opinions differ how to interpret that (highlighted piece). Sure, a lot of the Russia media says it was a promise. But read the context, it's an expression of that the US "understands" the USSR and some Europeans (e.g. France) wanted at that point. But Baker also says he didn't have the German's agreement on that. Whether true or not, it's an escape hatch for him not to commit more firmly to any promise, as in: we're still discussing this among ourselves in NATO.
Besides, as some other commenter have mentioned, such oral exchanges don't carry a lot of water with future [US] administrations' policies. So the US feels much less obligated to that "promise" than (say) Russia feels to the (written) Budapest memorandum (not to attack Ukraine).
Also, as a piece in the Guardian comments Bush apparently thought that Baker has exceeded his mandate a bit:
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 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.
The latter Act says:
To achieve the aims of this Act, NATO and Russia will base their relations on a shared commitment to the following principles: [...]
refraining from the threat or use of force against each other as well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence in any manner inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and with the Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations Between Participating States contained in the Helsinki Final Act;
respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples' right of self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE documents;
So, yeah, there are those in NATO who argue that Russia signing that Act agreed that NATO can expand (e.g. a press release by the White House [by then under Clinton] immediately following the signing says that). Of course, it's not quite that explicit in the Act.
The NYT has slightly more on what Baker meant exactly by "forward on my skis":
As an inducement for agreeing to German unification, Mr. Baker offered what he called “ironclad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward,” according to a declassified memorandum recording the discussion.
“There would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east,” Mr. Baker told Mr. Gorbachev, coming back to the formula three times during the conversation.
Back in Washington, the National Security Council staff was alarmed. The word “jurisdiction” could imply that the NATO doctrine of collective defense would apply only to part of German territory, limiting German sovereignty. It was one thing to agree not to move troops into the East right away, as far as American officials were concerned, but all of Germany had to be part of NATO.
“The N.S.C. got to him pretty quickly and said that language might be misinterpreted,” Condoleezza Rice, then a Soviet adviser to Mr. Bush and later secretary of state under President George W. Bush, remembered in an interview for a biography of Mr. Baker.
Mr. Baker got the message and began walking back his words by ditching the term “jurisdiction” from all future discussions. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany likewise rejected Mr. Genscher’s formulation.
“I may have been a little bit forward on my skis on that, but they changed it and he knew that they changed it,” Mr. Baker recalled of Mr. Gorbachev. “He never once again in all the months that followed ever raised the question of NATO expanding its jurisdiction eastward. He then signed documents in which NATO did expand its jurisdiction.”
When Mr. Baker returned to Moscow in May, he offered what were called the nine reassurances, including a commitment to allow Soviet troops in East Germany to remain for a transition period and not extend NATO forces into that territory until they left. This was hardly a promise not to extend the alliance east, but he insisted to the Soviets that this was the best the United States could do.
If you're curious about the opposing viewpoint Marc Trachtenberg has written a 50-page paper arguing it. Alas it is rather badly summarized in both its abstract and conclusions section, so a few [counter]points I'm trying to extract from there in my own notes:
Hopefully I didn't miss any important point, but someone may want to write their own, longer answer if they fancy that paper. But I can kinda summarize all that with what Gorbatchev is quoted (in that paper) to have said in a 2014 interview that NATO expansion:
“was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990.”
Putin, of course, said similar things.
On the US side, Robert Gates (who, somewhat ironically, was G.W. Bush's SecDef post-2006, so after the 2004 NATO expansion wave was done by that administration, and who hand been director of the CIA under H.W. Bush '91-'93) is probably the highest US official to have made an admission of policy error on this (but he said this in 2000, when he had no official position and when the 2004 G.W. Bush-led expansion was still in the future):
at a time of a special humiliation and difficulty for Russia, pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward, when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen, at least in no time soon, I think probably has not only aggravated the relationship between the United States and Russia but made it much more difficult to do constructive business with them. I think between that and the bombing of Belgrade we have really antagonized the Russians in a major way and I think those are two things that the Bush administration would not have done, when all is said and done.
(Note the double jab at Clinton's administration, whom Gates held responsible for those errors. FWTW he also added the he understood why the Eastern Europeans had been applying to NATO: "They’ve got a long experience with the Russians, and they know the Russians will come again some day and they want us there when it happens".)
I managed to find a 3rd party summary of Trachtenberg's paper that summarizes it somewhat better than I did above:
The belief that Baker was only referring to East Germany was bolstered also by the tangible negotiation outcome: the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, also known as the Two Plus Four Agreement, signed in September 1990. The agreement did not include any reference to the non-expansion of NATO, and because it was believed that Secretary Baker was only referring to East Germany in his statement, any alleged promise would have been superseded by the September treaty. Both of these propositions led scholars to conclude Baker’s statement did not constitute a broken promise to the Soviet Union. It was only because of changes to the international system and the dissolution of the Soviet Union that NATO expanded; this certainly could not have been what the United States initially intended. Trachtenberg challenges each proposition by exploring both the chronology of events in and around the same time and statements made by Germany’s Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and others. He provides several instances wherein the future of the Warsaw Pact was not only questioned but also hypothesized to be on the decline as support for Communism waned, as well as evidence that Eastern Europe as a whole was on everyone’s minds. He concedes the accuracy of claims regarding the extraordinarily narrow focus of reunification negotiations, but argues this is not evidence in and of itself as to the locus of Baker’s statement or the Soviet Union’s interpretation of events. The existing broken promise propositions, he argues, are not definitive; rather, Trachtenberg asserts that based on the existing records it is not possible to determine whether there was an explicit promise not to expand into Eastern Europe and if so, whether that promise was broken.
The second claim bolstering the defense of American policymakers’ support for NATO expansion after the February reassurance is linked to interpretations of international law. As Trachtenberg details, both the degree to which diplomacy can be binding absent a codified legal document in general is an unsettled question. However, arguments as to whether the United States did not break its promise to the Soviet Union do not quite rise to the threshold of the larger debate regarding the degree to which states are bound in international law. The belief that each side, at least to some extent, can be trusted is paramount to diplomatic negotiations. As negotiations unfold, states engage in different behaviors to signal the degree to which they believe their statements and the statements of their partners to be binding. Trachtenberg highlights the explicitness with which the United States’ promise was made, the ways in which other policymakers reiterated Baker’s statement, and the context in which the assurance was made as evidence the U.S. may have made a promise it did not intend to keep. There is strong evidence for the first two elements, but, as Trachtenberg notes, the third element is less clear. Although Genscher was clearer in his belief that the assurance applied to all of eastern Europe, Baker did not explicitly state whether he meant the entire eastern European region – despite the fact that he had many opportunities to do so after the February meeting. On the other hand, “there is little evidence to show that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze at the time actually saw them as applying to Eastern Europe as a whole”. Gorbachev’s later reflections on the February meeting muddied the water as to the context of Baker’s statement and the interpretations of each side. The third and final claim grapples with whether American officials were negotiating in bad faith and intentionally misled their Soviet and Russian counterparts. This is perhaps the most challenging question to answer for both proponents and opponents of the broken promise theory, and although Trachtenberg highlights several key factors informing the debate, he too does not speak definitively to the merit of this argument.
Valid agreements cannot contain unfair terms. It cannot be agreements between the two countries which unions other sovereign countries will join or not in the future. Such declaration is void since being made. This would be the analog of the Ribbentrop - Molotow pact.
This is probably why USA avoided to make these promises on paper or very openly in public. Public declaration of the kind "we do not defend these post-Soviet states, come and take back them whenever you get some free time" would have likely caused formation of the alternative defensive treaty between those rejected.