Let's Get It Straight: 1989 West Promised Moscow NATO Would Not Expand

It was the reassurance Moscow demanded to decrease its footprint in Central and Eastern Europe

Tue, Jan 6, 2015
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This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Consortium News


Less than three weeks after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9. 1989, President George H.W. Bush invited Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev to a summit in Malta where they cut an historic deal:

  • Moscow would refrain from using force to re-impose control over Eastern Europe;
  • Washington would not “take advantage” of the upheaval and uncertainty there.

That deal was fleshed out just two months later, when Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker persuaded Gorbachev to swallow the bitter pill of a reunited Germany in NATO in return for a promise that NATO would not “leapfrog” eastward over Germany. 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock, who was witness to all this, told me in an email, “I don’t see how anybody could view the subsequent expansion of NATO as anything but ‘taking advantage.’”

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This consummate diplomat, who took part in the critical bilateral talks in early 1990, added that the mutual pledge was not set down in writing. 

Nonetheless, reneging on a promise – written or not – can put a significant dent in trust.

Why No Written Deal

Last year I asked Matlock and also Viktor Borisovich Kuvaldin, one of Gorbachev’s advisers from 1989 to 1991, why the Baker-Gorbachev understanding was not committed to paper. Matlock replied:

“There was no agreement then. Both Baker and West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher were putting forth ideas for Gorbachev to consider.

He did not give an answer but just said he would think about them. … The formal agreements had to involve others, and they did, in the two-plus-four agreement, which was concluded only in late 1990.”

Fair enough.

In an email to me last fall, Kuvaldin corroborated what Matlock told me. But he led off by pointing out “the pledge of no eastward expansion of NATO was made to Gorbachev on consecutive days when he met first with Baker and then with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl [on Feb. 9 and 10, 1990].” As to why this pledge was not written down, Kuvaldin explained:

“Such a request would have sounded a little bit strange at that time. 

The Warsaw Pact was alive; Soviet military personnel were stationed all over central Europe; and NATO had nowhere to go. 

At the beginning of February 1990 hardly anybody could foresee the turn of events in the 1990s.”

Again, fair enough. But when I met Kuvaldin a few months earlier in Moscow and asked him out of the blue why there is no record of the promises given to his boss Gorbachev, his reply was more spontaneous – and visceral. He tilted his head, looked me straight in the eye, and said,

“We trusted you.”

Written down or not, it was a matter of trust – and of not “taking advantage.” Kuvaldin’s boss Gorbachev opted to trust not only the U.S. Secretary of State, but also the West German government in Bonn. According to a report in Der Spiegel quoting West German foreign ministry documents released just five years ago:

“On Feb. 10, 1990, between 4 and 6:30 p.m., Genscher spoke with [Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze.

And, according to the German record of the conversation, Genscher said: ‘We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions.

For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.’

And because the conversation revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly:

‘As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.’”

NATO’s Growth Spurt

Some of us – though a distinct minority – know the rest of the story. Generally overlooked in Western media, it nevertheless sets the historical stage as background for the upheaval in Ukraine last year. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and the break-up of the Warsaw Pact – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2004. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009.

And the Kremlin’s leaders could do little more than look on impotently – and seethe.

One can hardly fault those countries, most of which had lots of painful experience at Soviet hands. It is no mystery why they would want to crowd under the NATO umbrella against any foul weather coming from the East. 

But, as George Kennan and others noted at the time, it was a regrettable lack of imagination and statesmanship that no serious alternatives were devised to address the concerns of countries to the east of Germany other than membership in NATO.

The more so, inasmuch as there were so few teeth left, at the time, in the mouth of the Russian bear. And – not least of all – a promise is a promise.


Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is a 30-year veteran of the CIA and Army intelligence. During his years as a CIA analyst, he served as chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, chair of several National Intelligence Estimates, and preparer and White House briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is the co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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