Did NATO Promise Not To Expand?

No. Meanwhile, Russia violated a treaty promising to respect the inviolable territorial integrity of Ukraine.

One of the most oft-repeated talking points shared by those defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that NATO supposedly violated a promise not to expand eastward.

Let’s take a look and see how that claim holds up.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeated the claim many times. This remark, from a 2007 speech in Munich, sums it up:

“And we have the right to ask: against whom is this [NATO] expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? … I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Where are these guarantees?”

You’ll notice that Putin refers here to a discussion taking place when the Warsaw Pact was falling apart, amid the broader collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.

As noted by Stephen Pifer – a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution – a NATO official did say NATO wouldn’t place non-German NATO troops on the territory of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), a state which ceased to exist in October of 1990, but no broader promise to halt NATO’s expansion was made:

“Western leaders never pledged not to enlarge NATO, a point that several analysts have demonstrated. Mark Kramer explored the question in detail in a 2009 article in The Washington Quarterly. He drew on declassified American, German and Soviet records to make his case and noted that, in discussions on German reunification in the two-plus-four format (the two Germanys plus the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France), the Soviets never raised the question of NATO enlargement other than how it might apply in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).”

“What the Germans, Americans, British and French did agree to in 1990 was that there would be no deployment of non-German NATO forces on the territory of the former GDR. I was a deputy director on the State Department’s Soviet desk at the time, and that was certainly the point of Secretary James Baker’s discussions with Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. In 1990, few gave the possibility of a broader NATO enlargement to the east any serious thought.

The agreement on not deploying foreign troops on the territory of the former GDR was incorporated in Article 5 of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which was signed on September 12, 1990 by the foreign ministers of the two Germanys, the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France. Article 5 had three provisions:

    1. Until Soviet forces had completed their withdrawal from the former GDR, only German territorial defense units not integrated into NATO would be deployed in that territory.
    2. There would be no increase in the numbers of troops or equipment of U.S., British and French forces stationed in Berlin.
    3. Once Soviet forces had withdrawn, German forces assigned to NATO could be deployed in the former GDR, but foreign forces and nuclear weapons systems would not be deployed there.”

Gorbachev says there was no promise not to expand NATO

“We now have a very authoritative voice from Moscow confirming this understanding. Russia behind the Headlines has published an interview with Gorbachev, who was Soviet president during the discussions and treaty negotiations concerning German reunification. The interviewer asked why Gorbachev did not “insist that the promises made to you [Gorbachev]—particularly U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s promise that NATO would not expand into the East—be legally encoded?” Gorbachev replied: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled.”

Ironically, NATO’s recent increased military presence in new NATO members was a response to Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014:

“Several years after German reunification, in 1997, NATO said that in the “current and foreseeable security environment” there would be no permanent stationing of substantial combat forces on the territory of new NATO members. Up until the Russian military occupation of Crimea in March, there was virtually no stationing of any NATO combat forces on the territory of new members. Since March, NATO has increased the presence of its military forces in the Baltic region and Central Europe.”

Another official who was present during the fall of the Warsaw Pact makes similar points to that of Gorbachev and Pilfer:

“When President George H.W. Bush sat down with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate the peaceful end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, former Under Secretary of State Robert Zoellick ’81 was in the room where it happened.

During the 1990 summit, Zoellick says President Gorbachev accepted the idea of German unification within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, based on the principle that every country should freely choose its own alliances.

“I was in those meetings, and Gorbachev has [also] said there was no promise not to enlarge NATO,” Zoellick recalls. Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, later president of Georgia, concurred, he says. Nor does the treaty on Germany’s unification include a limit on NATO enlargement. Those facts have undermined one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine — that the United States had agreed that former Warsaw Pact nations would never become part of the North Atlantic security alliance.”

Russia violated a real treaty

You’ll notice that Russia can’t point to any actual signed treaty that would have precluded NATO enlargement, because there isn’t one.

And even if one did exist – it does not – it would have been made with a country that no longer exists – the Soviet Union.

Ironically however, Russia has indeed violated an actual signed treaty in which they promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The treaty is known as the Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine agreed to give their stockpile of nuclear weapons – inherited from the Soviet Union – to Russia, in return for guarantees of their inviolable territorial integrity:

“On December 5, 1994, leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation met in Budapest, Hungary, to pledge security assurances to Ukraine in connection with its accession to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapons state. The signature of the so-called Budapest Memorandum concluded arduous negotiations that resulted in Ukraine’s agreement to relinquish the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which the country inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union, and transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantlement. The signatories of the memorandum pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability of its borders, and to refrain from the use or threat of military force. Russia breached these commitments with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and aggression in eastern Ukraine, bringing the meaning and value of security assurance pledged in the Memorandum under renewed scrutiny.”

The treaty can still be viewed here:

Budapest Memorandum

This is an unambiguous, real treaty signed by countries that still exist today.

And Russia completely violated it.

Russia tends to accuse other countries of what it’s doing, so it’s no surprise to see them accuse NATO of violating a non-existent treaty while Russia itself violates a treaty that actually exists and that they signed.

I hope this brings some clarity to the situation, which can be difficult amid all the propaganda flying around.

Based upon the facts, it is clear that NATO never promised not to expand.

And it is also clear that Russia is the one who violated a treaty in regards to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Spencer Fernando

Photo – YouTube