What is the myth?
This particular myth argues that the West deceived Russia by reneging on its promises at the end of the Cold War not to enlarge NATO – that it chose to pass up the opportunity to integrate Russia into a new European security framework and instead encouraged Moscow back on to a path of confrontation with the US and its allies. This narrative of Western deceit towards Russia confuses the debate in NATO countries. It plays into Moscow’s hands in terms of Russian efforts to persuade public opinion in key NATO member states that Russia is the victim of unfair treatment.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, stated during a discussion with President Vladimir Putin at the 2018 St Petersburg International Economic Forum:
The US scholar Michael Mandelbaum argued in 2016 that:
Referring to the original decision to enlarge NATO, the prominent German journalist and author, Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, claimed in 2015 that failing ‘to treat Russia as a fully fledged partner’ had hindered ‘normalization processes’ in the country.
In 2014 a US academic, John Mearsheimer, traced Russia’s aggression in Ukraine back to the Clinton administration’s drive to enlarge NATO. Mearsheimer repeated the argument of opponents of the policy at the time: there was no need to contain ‘a declining great power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy’. The inference is that NATO countries unnecessarily provoked Moscow and that it would otherwise have behaved benignly towards its neighbours.
Why is it wrong?
In July 1990 the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, agreed to a united Germany’s incorporation into NATO. The US secretary of state at the time, James Baker, had previously told Gorbachev that NATO’s jurisdiction would not move beyond the inner German border, but Washington retreated from this position after examining the practicalities of part of Germany being outside the Alliance. As part of the deal reached by Gorbachev and the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, no forces of other NATO countries could be deployed on former German Democratic Republic (GDR) territory until after Soviet forces had left, and then only temporarily. There would also be no deployment of nuclear weapons. Moscow also received financial sweeteners, including 12 billion Deutschmarks to resettle returning troops.
However, Gorbachev neither asked for nor was given any formal guarantees that there would be no further expansion of NATO beyond the territory of a united Germany. The issue was not even under discussion at NATO at the time, since the Warsaw Pact and the USSR were both still in existence. Even if the Warsaw Pact’s days were clearly numbered, there was no expectation in Western capitals in the autumn of 1990 that the USSR would collapse a year later.
The disappearance of the USSR created an entirely different geopolitical reality that quickly exposed differences between Western countries and Russia on how to manage European security and, in particular, on the role of NATO. From the end of 1993, Russian diplomacy voiced increasing opposition to NATO’s further enlargement, but accepted that it could not stop the process. Its chief lament was that several leaders of NATO countries in early 1990 had ruled out the possibility of NATO enlargement, and that the West had misled Russia. As Russia’s former foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, noted later with regret, there was no legal force to the statements by Western leaders even though, in his view, legally based commitments would have been possible at the time.
The NATO enlargement myth also contains an important distortion of fact: while the Russian Federation became the de facto legal successor to the USSR after the latter’s collapse, Russia existed in different borders and its security interests were not synonymous with those of the USSR. Indeed, Russian leaders at the time did not want the West to regard the new Russia as a truncated form of the USSR, but rather as a country that had regained its sovereignty and was returning to its European roots after the tragedy of Bolshevism. In addition, the USSR signed the Charter of Paris in November 1990 with the commitment to ‘fully recognize the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements’. The NATO–Russia Founding Act, signed in 1997, similarly pledged respect for the ‘inherent right’ of all states ‘to choose the means to ensure their own security’.
NATO’s Kosovo campaign in 1999 did far more to shape anti-Western attitudes in Russia than NATO enlargement did. Coinciding with a period of extreme weakness in Russia, it represented a crushing defeat for Russian diplomacy.
Moreover, NATO’s Kosovo campaign in 1999 did far more to shape anti-Western attitudes in Russia than NATO enlargement did. Coinciding with a period of extreme weakness in Russia, it represented a crushing defeat for Russian diplomacy, which had persuaded the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milošević, that Russia could protect Serbia, a supposedly traditional ally, from NATO. Russia’s leaders chose to use the episode as evidence of a revived threat to Russia from the West – but were careful to distinguish NATO from the EU. Friendly relations with the EU offered the prospect of weakening the transatlantic relationship. However, despite the debacle of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and growing difficulties in Washington’s relations with Europe, the EU did not embrace Russia.
At the NATO summit in 2008, Moscow could see clearly that France and Germany, among others, restrained Washington’s effort to put Georgia and Ukraine on a path to membership of the Alliance. Despite NATO’s ill-advised assurance to both countries in the summit communiqué that they would join NATO, there was in reality no prospect of this ever happening without Moscow’s de facto consent. Yet despite their efforts to avoid a crisis over enlargement, Paris and Berlin then saw Russia invade Georgia in 2008 and cut off gas to Europe in 2009 because of a dispute with Ukraine. If Moscow wanted to demonstrate that it could be a reliable security partner for the EU, this was not the way to do so.
By 2013, Russia had shifted to conservative nationalism. It viewed itself as the guardian of European values of a different era, and was hostile not just to NATO but to the EU as well. The EU’s Third Energy Package, which came into force in 2009, and its anti-trust investigation of Gazprom in 2011 had changed the tone in relations with Brussels. This was the backdrop for Russia’s reckoning with Ukraine, and provided the ultimate proof that Russia did not regard its neighbour as a fully sovereign country (in this case, with the right to determine its own relations with the EU). Russia still bore the features that Mearsheimer had highlighted from the 1990s. Yet these weaknesses did not stop Russia from rebuilding its military capabilities and its confidence to enforce its writ in a major country neighbouring the EU.
History over centuries points to the fact that Russia generates its security by exerting influence over neighbouring states. Its military establishment has imbibed the lesson that Russia should always fight defensive wars beyond its own territory. There is no evidence that, in the absence of EU and NATO enlargement, Russia would have suspended its traditional security thinking. At the same time, without the enlargement of both organizations, Europe would once again have struggled to remain stable. Germany and its Central European neighbours would have found themselves pulled in two directions, with serious consequences for the wider region. Russian policymakers who argue that NATO enlargement damaged Russia’s security interests disregard the fact that an unstable Europe would have increased rather than mitigated Russia’s security problems.
Despite his public opposition to enlargement at the time, Andrey Kozyrev (Russia’s foreign minister after the collapse of the USSR until 1996) recently stated: ‘The United States and NATO were on the right side of history by admitting new democracies to the Alliance and being willing to find an accommodation with Russia. It was Moscow that returned to its antagonism toward NATO.’
What is its impact on policy?
Repeated references to the West’s alleged breach of faith towards Russia help preserve an anti-Western consensus in Russia. Meanwhile, timid responses by NATO leaders over the years have allowed myth to become supposed ‘fact’.
This passivity was visible in a general tendency up to 2014 to shy away from confrontation with Russia, in the belief that NATO enlargement had been hard for Moscow to accept and that there was no point in rubbing salt into old wounds. This failure to speak openly with Moscow was at odds with the emphasis placed by Germany and others on dialogue with Russia as a confidence-building measure.
The narrative of Western deceit towards Russia sits alongside what Moscow describes as the West’s ‘anti-Russian’ sanctions as an example of how Western policies towards Russia are presented as unfair and counterproductive. The purpose is to convince the European members of NATO that a good relationship with Moscow is worth more in security terms than standing up for what Russia regards as the outdated security principles of the 1990s. Germany’s pursuit of direct gas supplies from Russia in the face of strong opposition from its allies in Central Europe is a case in point. President Macron’s desire to ‘ease and clarify’ Europe’s relations with Russia is another.
What would good policy look like?
Russian policymakers are more conscious of history than their Western counterparts are, in part because they understand the power of owning a historical narrative and deploying it to gain advantage. For example, in recent months Moscow has been spinning a heavily biased interpretation of why Stalin entered into a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939. Its purpose is to blame others for the start of the Second World War – in particular Poland, whose historical narrative of that period challenges Russia’s.
Governments of NATO countries need to recognize that history matters, and that Russia is manipulating the facts about NATO for a purpose. Calling out the myth would be a good place to start. This requires senior officials not just to be well briefed and confident of the facts but ready also to challenge their Russian interlocutors when they present false narratives. At the same time, NATO member states need to educate opinion leaders in their own countries rather than relying on NATO to do the job for them. Defence against disinformation begins at home.