By Jonathan Power
NATO has just announced a plan to send troops to the alliance’s
eastern flank, close to the Russian border. NATO says it is attempting
to deter potential Russian aggression.
The UK, the US, Canada and Germany will lead four battle groups to be
based in Poland and the Baltic states. Diplomats say the troops will be
a deterrent to Russian aggression by acting as a “tripwire” that would
trigger a full response from the alliance if necessary.
On June 12 the foreign minister of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier,
condemned Western “sabre-rattling and war cries”. He said, “Anyone who
believes the symbolic tank parades on the Alliance’s eastern border will
increase security is wrong”.
Apart from the appalling fact that the West is contemplating all out
war against Russia there is the plain fact that it has expanded NATO in
contravention of the solemn understandings given the Soviet Union at the
end of the Cold War.
The deal was straightforward: The Soviet Union would agree to the
reunification of East and West Germany and accept that East Germany
would become part of NATO in return for a non-expansion promise.
It is the breaking of this promise that, more than any other one thing, has fuelled
the resurgence of hostile Russian opinion against the West and prompted
President Vladimir Putin to become increasingly determined to put the
West in its place.
Now with this move the Russians, understandably, are livid.
There are a number of scholars and politicians from that era,
including President H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, who did
most of the negotiating at that time with the Soviet president, Mikhail
Gorbachev, who have since tried to re-write history and say there were
no promises made.
But neither Baker nor the scholars can deny – and they do not try to –
that in Moscow, on February 9th 1990, Baker told Gorbachev that “there
will be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or NATO’s forces one inch to
the East”, if Gorbachev agreed to German reunification.
To reinforce this message the next day the West German chancellor,
Helmut Kohl and the foreign minister, Hans Deitrich Genscher offered the
Soviet leaders similar terms. Later Baker confirmed publically at a
State Department press conference that he agreed with Genscher. The US
ambassador to Moscow at the time, Jack Matlock, who was in the room with
Gorbachev and Baker, confirmed these words were said by Baker to
But revisionist scholars have tried to obfuscate this understanding.
It has been argued that US leaders saw these terms as being raised
“speculatively” as part of an ongoing negotiation and far from a final
deal. Thus the US was free to revise the offer and Gorbachev was made no
This is as Machiavellian an interpretation as one could dream up.
Common sense suggests that Gorbachev was not going to radically
revise 45 years of East German and Soviet history without a very big
quid pro quo. Since no other subject was on the table it is obvious that
there was a quid pro quo and this was it. Say no more.
One scholar, Mary Sarotte, writes that the Soviet leaders failed to
obtain “written assurances” against NATO expansion. That is right. But
why should Gorbachev demand them when the Cold War was coming to an end
so amicably and the widespread feeling was that there would never be
enmity again and that the Soviet Union would become close to Nato, and
maybe even seek future membership of it?
There is another political “scandal” from that period.
Behind Gorbachev’s back, as the US negotiators “were stressing limits
on NATO’s future presence in the east, the US was privately planning
for an American-dominated post-Cold War system and taking steps to
achieve this objective”, according to Joshua Shifrinson, writing in the
new issue of Harvard University’s quarterly, International Security
“In July 1990 Baker stated that a revamped CSCE (Conference on
Security and Cooperation in Europe) which had Soviet membership would
provide a ‘half-way house’ for those countries who want out of the
Warsaw Pact but can’t join NATO and the European Union”.
Somewhat paradoxically, Baker did not want to see a CSCE that
overshadowed NATO. By October 1990 detailed discussions about the future
expansion of NATO were underway in the State Department, albeit with
the belief this would only happen if the Soviet Union behaved “badly”.
Contradictorily, the State Department in an internal study on NATO
wrote that “we are not in a position to guarantee the future of these
Eastern countries and do not wish in any case to organize an anti-Soviet
coalition whose frontier is the Soviet border. Such a coalition would
be perceived very negatively by the Soviets and could lead to a reversal
of current positive trends in Eastern Europe”.
Over the last 25 years an anti-Soviet/Russian coalition is what
evolved and that is why Russia has ended up confronting the West.
~ Jonathan Power is a columnist, film-maker and writer. For the first ten years after graduate school his community work was in slum neighborhoods in Chicago and London. Power worked for Martin Luther King from 1966-1967. He was a columnist for the International Herald Tribune from 1974-1991; he has been a regular guest columnist in New York Times and Encounter.