Gorbachev and the verbal promises of no Nato eastern expansion

Gorbachev and the verbal promises of no Nato eastern expansion
Many Western leaders promised Gorbachev that Nato would not expand eastwards in 1990. Now Putin wants to hold the West to those promises. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin January 13, 2022

The origins of the current Russian demands to halt Nato’s expansion eastwards go right back to just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Then Mikhail Gorbachev was negotiating with German chancellor Helmut Kohl on the reunification of Germany in the course of which the Communist Party general secretary was promised by multiple Western leaders, as well as US Secretary of State James Baker, that Nato would expand “not one inch” to the east.  

The existence of the promises has been hotly disputed for years, but they are central to the current demands Russia is making to stop, and to some extent reverse, the expansion of Nato since 1999.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin has brought the promises up many times. They were central to Putin’s now famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when he called the West to account for reneging on the verbal commitments.  

“I think it is obvious that Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?” Putin said in his address.  

Putin brought up it again most recently at his annual press conference at the end of the year, where he again explicitly referred to the “verbal promises” made in the twilight years of the Soviet Union to Gorbachev that Nato would not expand.  

With Putin’s protestations, the West became defensive and denied the Soviet leader was given any assurances or that accepting new members is any way a threat to Russia. Nato itself declared in 2014 during the spiking tension following the annexation of Crimea: “No such pledge was made, and no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced.”  

The fact of the promises is now a matter of historical record after dozens of embassy, government and other documents were declassified and now freely available on the internet. However, the fact Gorbachev was only ever made verbal pledges and nothing was ever put in writing means the claims remain highly controversial after a decade of denial.  

“The sceptics are correct that the two sides never codified a deal on Nato’s future presence in the east. But they misinterpret the precise implications of negotiations that took place throughout 1990. After all, scholars and practitioners have long recognised that informal commitments count in world politics,” Professor Joshua Shifrinson said in a paper documenting the promises entitled “How the West Broke Its Promise to Moscow” citing 30 documents from the US national security archives that detail all key conversations Gorbachev had with Western leaders in 1990, including from European and Russian official sources.  

The secrecy around the promises at the time has muddied the water. Gorbachev himself contributed to the confusion in an interview where he denied those promises were made, saying that the topic of Nato expansion “was not brought up at all in those years.”  

What motivated Gorbachev to deny the promises remains a matter of speculation but the declassified documents are absolutely clear that the promises were made many times.  

Genscher and Baker

At a meeting between US Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on February 9, 1990, Baker repeated not once, but three times, the “not one inch expansion of Nato east” formula, according to the official State Department write-up of the meeting, written the next day.  

Baker said the same to Gorbachev at a meeting on the same day, saying: “neither the President nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place,” and that the Americans understood 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,” according to the declassified State Department’s official write-up of the meeting.  

The idea of the promise of no Nato expansion was the brainchild of Germany’s Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who oversaw Germany’s Ostpolitik, the attempt by West Germany to normalise its relations with Eastern Europe between 1969 and 1974. Genscher realised that the Soviet Union would see any Nato expansion as very threatening, an attitude that Putin has inherited.  

Years later bne IntelliNews met with Genscher in Berlin at the premier of the play Democracy by Michael Frayn that was set in Berlin and about the changing relations between east and west that featured Genscher as a character. This correspondent asked Genscher about the relations with Russia and the meetings with Gorbachev, but he too refused to divulge any details or comment on his conversations with Gorbachev.  

Genscher made the West’s first concrete assurances of no Nato expansion eastwards at a major public speech at Tutzing, in Bavaria, on German unification on January 31, 1990.  

Genscher said that “the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an ‘impairment of Soviet security interests.’ Therefore, Nato should rule out an ‘expansion of its territory towards the east, i.e. moving it closer to the Soviet borders.’,” according to the declassified US embassy cable sent back to report on the speech to Washington.  

The “Tutzing formula” immediately became the centre of a flurry of important diplomatic discussions over the next ten days in 1990 that also involved US President George Bush, French President Francois Mitterrand, UK Prime Minister Margret Thatcher and Nato General Secretary Manfred Woerner, all of whom adopted the idea.  

Indeed, in his Munich address in 2007 Putin specifically referred to a speech given by Woerner in Brussels a few months later on May 17, 1990 citing him saying: “The fact that we are ready not to place a Nato army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.” Putin went on to ask in Munich: “Where are these guarantees?”

Genscher actively promoted the Tutzing formula in the month following his speech. He met with British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd a few days before the Gorbachev-Baker meeting and the British record shows Genscher saying: “The Russians must have some assurance that if, for example, the Polish Government left the Warsaw Pact one day, they would not join Nato the next.”  

Shifrinson’s paper goes on to show how most of the West’s leaders in the following months all gave Gorbachev concrete verbal assurances that Nato would not expand to the east, all backed up by official declassified records.  

Putin’s demands

It is the basis of these broken promises to Gorbachev that is driving Putin’s insistence that Nato give Russia concrete “legal guarantees” of no further Nato expansion now.  

At the first meeting this week on December 10 in Geneva Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov laid out in explicit detail what Putin is now demanding.  

"We do not trust the other side. We need ironclad, waterproof, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees not promises or assurances but precise guarantees, with the words "must", "must never become" a Nato member. This is a matter of Russia's national security," Ryabkov said.

The promises made to Gorbachev were verbal and never codified in a treaty and so have no legal standing. Moreover, the promises were made to the leader of a nation that no longer exists, only adding to their lack of legitimacy.  

But Putin has made it plain that he insists that the West now keep its promises made in 1990 but this time put them down on paper. And he has threatened to go to war with Ukraine, or worse, if the West does not acquiesce to this demand.