As talks between the U.S., NATO, and Russia took place on January 10, Russia’s embassy in Estonia tweeted a falsehood that the Kremlin has promoted about NATO expansion.
The erroneous claim is that in 1990, the U.S. “promised” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand.
“Then US Secretary of State James #Baker assured: ‘There would be no extension of @NATO one inch to the East,’” the tweet read.
“If don’t believe us, look at the unclassified docs.”
In fact, the “docs” only help disprove this bogus claim.
The documents are transcripts of a conversation between Secretary of State James Baker, who served in the administration of George H.W. Bush (1989-1993), and then-Soviet leader Gorbachev. The topic was German reunification.
West Germany was a member of NATO with a U.S. military presence. East Germany belonged to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact alliance and similarly hosted Soviet troops on its soil. Naturally, the merger of East Germany into West Germany raised the question of membership in the alliance, in this case NATO.
In the photos of the transcripts provided by the Russian Embassy in Estonia, one passage is highlighted. It reads:
“We understand the need for assurances to the countries in the East. If we maintain a (military) presence in a Germany that is a part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.”
This is the alleged “promise.”
But to anyone familiar with the historical context, this interpretation makes little sense. The notion that there was a formal pledge or promise has been convincingly debunked.
Let's drill in.
Germany represented a special instance because it consisted of two states, each belonging to a different alliance, merging into one. In the documents shown by the tweet, James Baker points out to Gorbachev that a neutral Germany would not necessarily mean a demilitarized Germany.
More importantly, the Warsaw Pact still existed at the time of this conversation, and it would continue to formally exist until being dissolved in July of 1991.
Therefore, the idea of Warsaw Pact nations joining NATO at some point in the future was entirely hypothetical at the time of this conversation, and there was scant acknowledgment of such a possibility both among Western leaders and those of the Warsaw Pact nations themselves.
The pre-1991 discussions focused almost entirely on German reunification and the NATO question surrounding it. As a report on the matter from the Brookings Institution points out, the central issue was limited to whether non-German NATO forces would be stationed in the former East Germany prior to the withdraw of the Soviet troops still there. The concept of NATO absorbing Warsaw Pact countries was a fringe hypothetical with limited mention in contemporaneous diplomatic documents.
But if that isn’t enough, Gorbachev himself has said there was never a blanket promise not to expand NATO.
In a 2014 interview with the state-owned Russian media outlet Russia Beyond the Headlines, Gorbachev was asked why he did not get any such assurances.
“The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years,” Gorbachev answered, continuing:
“I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991.
“Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR (East Germany) after German reunification.
“Baker’s statement, mentioned in your question, was made in that context.”
Although Baker never made any such promises and no legally binding agreements were ever offered, officials and leaders from other countries such as West Germany and the U.K. had discussed the idea of Warsaw Pact states joining NATO at some point in the future, and either expressed doubts or opposition to the idea.
To quote Mark Kramer, Director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard University, writing in The Washington Quarterly in 2009:
"The British, French, U.S., and West German governments did make certain commitments in 1990 about NATO’s role in eastern Germany, commitments that are all laid out in the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, but no Western leader ever offered any 'pledge' or 'commitment' or 'categorical assurances' about NATO’s role vis-a-vis the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries."
"Declassified materials show unmistakably that no such pledge was made. Valid arguments can be made against NATO enlargement, but this particular argument is spurious."
What typically goes unsaid by Russia are the provocations that prompted subsequent NATO expansion.
Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia continued to use its military to influence close neighbors and waged a brutal war to retain Chechnya, whose local leaders wanted independence. Russian troops or mercenaries took part in conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, creating frozen conflicts that still exist to this day.
The process of NATO expansion in Europe would not begin until 1997, and the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join the alliance were Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, which all became full members in 1999. Even then, Russia was not left out of the consultations. In May 1997, Russia and NATO signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, aimed at facilitating cooperation between the two parties. Russia also joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994.
In 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia joined NATO. In 2009, Croatia and Albania joined, followed by Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020.
Russian military aggression against Ukraine since 2014 – fomenting a war in the Donbas region and annexing the Crimean peninsula – has molded Ukrainian public opinion in favor of NATO membership.
By contrast, support for joining the NATO alliance previously was as low as 15 percent. Although the issue of Ukraine joining NATO was raised in 2008, a lack of support from the U.S. and Germany led to the country not being offered a Membership Action Plan.