Theater of Cruelty

"Any expansion of NATO's zone would be absolutely unacceptable."

Ola Tunander
Ola Tunander
Tunander is Professor Emeritus of PRIO. See also wikipedia, at PRIO: , as well as a bibliography on Waterstone
NATO ENLARGEMENT / The exclusion of Russia was a serious violation of international law. President Bush's promises to Gorbachev were nothing but deception – he appeared as a two-faced Janus, working closely with Gorbachev on a tactical level, while actually forcing the Soviet Union to retreat on a strategic level. We in the West claim that Russia must follow international law, but we ourselves can break it when it suits us.


We now know that in 1990–93 all American, West German, French and British political leaders promised to NATO was not to be extended to the east, east of West Germany. President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James baker, French President François Mitterand, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major and their Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and also NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner, all these leaders went Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin made clear promises that NATO would not be expanded east of West Germany. These promises were given verbally, but they are written down in a large number of minutes from these meetings.

Now Western politicians and journalists say that these promises were made, but there was never any formal agreement between the Western countries and the Soviet Union/Russia other than the one concerning the unification of the two German states. NATO enlargement has therefore never constituted a breach of agreement on the part of the West. It might not have been nice to promise one thing and do another, but it was something to be forgotten. But is it really that simple? It turns out that oral promises between prime ministers or between foreign ministers have the same validity within international law as a written agreement. This realization could have dramatic consequences.

The promises were made

The minutes are telling: US Secretary of State James Baker said: "Neither the President [Bush] nor I intend to derive any unilateral benefits from the processes now taking place." And he said: "If we maintain a presence in that Germany that is part of NATO, there would be no extension of the jurisdiction of NATO forces one inch to the east." Gorbachev continued: "Any expansion of NATO's zone would be absolutely unacceptable", and "[it] goes without saying that an expansion of NATO's zone is not acceptable". Baker replied, "We agree with that." Baker wrote the next day to German Chancellor Kohl: "Understood, NATO in its present zone may be acceptable." Kohl told Gorbachev that "NATO should not expand the sphere of its activity". President Mitterrand wanted to abolish both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, but the foreign minister Genscher said: "We don't want to expand NATO's territory, but we don't want to leave NATO." That's what they all told Gorbachev.

On the same day, Genscher told British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd: "We cannot allow Poland to leave the Warsaw Pact and then join NATO. 'The Russians must have some assurances.'" "We don't want to expand eastward." Baker echoed Genscher's words. NATO would not expand: "not an inch of NATO's current military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction." This was a prerequisite for German-German reunification, for the Soviet withdrawal of 350 men from East Germany and finally for dissolving the Warsaw Pact in 000.

All four Western powers agreed that NATO membership for the Central European countries would be 'unacceptable'.

In March 1991, when the Poles had been talking about NATO membership, British Prime Minister John Major told Gorbachev and the Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitrij Jazov#: "Nothing of the sort will happen." There will be no membership for them. NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner stated in July 1991: "We should not allow [...] the isolation of the Soviet Union from the European Community", and "Wörner emphasized that the NATO Council and he are against the expansion of NATO (13 out of 16 NATO members support this view)." As early as May 1990, he said in a speech published by NATO: "The mere fact that we are ready not to deploy NATO troops outside the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees."

The same guarantees were given to Boris Yeltsin in 1992–93. But when the US nevertheless started talking about NATO expansion, the 'father' of NATO's so-called containment strategy, Ambassador George Kennan, said that the US proposal for expansion was a mistake of "epic proportions" (1996), "the most fatal mistake in American Politics” (1997). US Secretary of Defense William Perry (1994–97) opposed the expansion, and even then-CIA Director Robert Gates (1991–93, and later Minister of Defence) stated in 2000 that he was concerned about the consequences of "pushing with NATO eastward expansion when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that it would not happen". Gates was fully aware that NATO expansion would open a Pandora's box.

NATO was not to expand

In the Western propaganda campaign of recent years, some Americans have claimed that no promises were ever made to Gorbachev. Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, claimed in 2014 in an article for the Brookings Institution that Gorbachev had said in an interview that "NATO expansion was not discussed at all". Baker's "Not one inch" was about expanding NATO eastward into East Germany, Pifer said, but the Pifer quote does not give us a true picture. Gorbachev says a few lines further down in the same interview: "The decision that the United States and its allies should expand NATO eastward was made in 1993. I called this a big mistake from the very beginning. It was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances given to us in 1990.”

Likewise, the Yale historian argued Mary Elise Sarotte that Genscher and Baker had "speculated" and said they would not move NATO east "in the belief that it might make German reunification more tolerable for Moscow". But what Baker, Genscher and other leaders thought doesn't matter. What matters is what they told Gorbachev, and their promises are well documented through meeting minutes and in other documents in the National Security Archive in Washington. Says Sarotte: "By the end of February [1990] [President Bush] insisted that the Secretary of State [Baker] stop using such wording ['Not an inch']," but Bush as well as Baker still talked about a pan-European process and a "European home" that would presuppose a Europe where NATO did not expand eastward to divide Europe. A document (March 6, 1991) shows how all four Western powers agreed that NATO membership for the Central European countries would be 'unacceptable': "Security in Central and Eastern Europe Summary: […] General agreement that membership in NATO and security guarantees are unacceptable. […] We made it clear during the Two Plus Four negotiations that we would not expand NATO beyond the Elbe. We could therefore not offer membership in NATO to Poland and the others. [US Representative Raymond Seitz confirmed during this meeting that the West made it clear to the Soviets:] NATO must neither formally nor informally expand eastward.”

"NATO must neither formally nor informally expand eastward."

The document was found in 2022 by Wilson Center historian Joshua Shifrinson in the British National Archives. But already in 2016, in an article in International Security, he showed how Baker spoke about not expanding NATO and about pan-European institutions, while the president's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft asked Bush as early as December 1989 to ensure "that a reunited Germany maintains its ties to NATO ", while at the same time facilitating "a much more robust and constructive American role in the center of Europe". The US had to position itself "between Germany and Russia in Central Europe". The US should therefore expand NATO to Poland and the other Eastern European countries, while Baker told Gorbachev the opposite. Baker also told Gorbachev that KSSE (from 1995 OSCE) was "an important cornerstone of the new Europe", while privately warning Scowcroft and Bush, saying that the "real risk to NATO is KSSE". President Bush appeared as a two-faced Janus, working closely with Gorbachev on a tactical level, while actually forcing the Soviet Union to retreat on a strategic level. Bush showed respect for Gorbachev, and Gorbachev expressed his sincere confidence in Bush, while CIA with Bush's approval, supported Boris Yeltsin in his power struggle against Gorbachev.

About nuclear weapons

On December 8, 1991, when Boris Yeltsin, as head of the Russian Federation, together with his Ukrainian and Belarusian counterparts staged a coup d'état and decided to abolish the Soviet Union, Yeltsin did not call Gorbachev to tell him that he was no longer president, he called to President Bush to tell him the news. President Bushs promises to Gorbachev were anything but amount. Shifrinson concludes "that the US exploited Soviet weaknesses despite presenting a cooperative facade", especially towards Gorbachev. This "facade of cooperation" was nothing more than that – a facade. The Bush administration succeeded in convincing Gorbachev by presenting a series of verbal commitments, while having no intention of living up to these commitments.

Many from the Western side now recognize that a dirty game was played towards Russia. But there was never any written treaty other than the German-German unification (formally the Treaty of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany; otherwise known as the Two Plus Four Agreement, signed in Moscow on 12 September 1990). There was no violation of international law, they say. The treaty states: "After the completion of the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces from [East Germany], [...] foreign armed forces and nuclear weapons or their missiles will not be stationed in that part of Germany or deployed there."

In the treaty it is clear that no nuclear weapons or forces from other NATO countries would be deployed in the former East Germany, and of course Moscow would never accept such a deployment further east, east of Germany in "Poland and the others". It was out of the question. Apparently, there was a consensus among all the participants. Consequently, as Gorbachev said in 2014, "the topic of NATO expansion was not discussed," since there was no disagreement about it. In 1993, Boris Yeltsin said that the 'spirit' of the treaty "precludes the possibility of expanding the NATO zone in the East", and the verbal promises made to Gorbachev by Western leaders in 1990-91 would have led him to believe that it was consensus. And just as important: Documented oral commitments between heads of state are also legally binding.

At the heart of the problem discussed above is the legal meaning of oral or verbal commitments. Under Cuban crises was President John F. Kennedys agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev a verbal agreement. The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba if the US withdrew its missiles from Turkey (and Italy). Such verbal agreements between political leaders are considered legally binding. The UN's "Definition of key terms" states:

“On the one hand, [the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties] defines treaties as 'international agreements' […]. On the other hand, it uses the term 'international agreements' for instruments that do not meet the definition of 'treaty'. Article 3 of the Act also refers to 'international agreements that are not in written form'. Although such oral agreements may be rare, they may have the same binding force as treaties, depending on the intention of the parties. An example of an oral agreement could be a promise from the foreign minister of one state to his counterpart in another state."

"A breach of a legally valid agreement"

Several authors have referred to the 'East Greenland case' as an example of an oral agreement: In a short report from Norway's Minister for Foreign Affairs Nils Claus Ihlen in 1919 it is stated that, at Danish request, he informed his Danish colleague that the Norwegian government would not oppose Danish sovereignty over East Greenland ("would not face difficulties in Norway"). Ihlen's written note on this oral promise convinced in 1933 (14 years later) the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague that this oral statement was binding on Norway (Norway had to recognize Danish sovereignty over a territory that was larger than Norway itself), which which also became decisive for international law.

"For its part, the International Law Commission made it clear [in 1962] that, despite the exclusion of oral agreements from the codification of treaty law, it has 'no intention of denying that oral agreements are legally consistent with international law'."

The American Society of International Law stated in 1997 that "under customary international law, oral agreements are no less binding [than a formal treaty]", although they may not be easy to prove. The US Senate writes in "Treaties and other international agreements" (prepared for The Committee of Foreign Relations) January 2001:

"[The] Vienna Convention's definition of a treaty does not include oral agreements (Article 2), although according to the Convention its definition shall not affect the legal force of such agreements (Article 3 no. a). [...] Whether a statement is made orally or in writing does not play a significant role. […] According to customary international law, oral agreements are as binding as written agreements.”

"According to customary international law, oral agreements are as binding as written agreements."

This means unequivocally that NATO's expansion into Poland and other Central European states in 1999 and further in 2004 was legally "a breach of a legally valid agreement". The NATO expansion was demonstrably contrary to the verbal promises made by the Western states to Gorbachev, and consequently "a violation of international law".

Poland and the other countries in Central Europe were of course entitled to express their interest in joining NATO after many years of Soviet domination, but NATO would also have to consider the consequences of taking in new members. That would be a violation of international law, an aggression directed at Russia.

The question is whether this would give Russia the legal right to intervene in 'self-defense' to prevent US territorial expansion? In 1962, Khrushchev and Kennedy kept their end of the bargain, and if Khrushchev had it not done so, it would probably have resulted in war. However, in the 1990s, after Russia withdrew its forces from East Germany, the US began to expand NATO and refused to keep its promises. Does this mean that Moscow had the formal right to move back 350 men to Central Europe? Would there be a proportionate Russian response?

What amazes us is that Russia did not go to war earlier.

Russia already protested from the mid-1990s against Western proposals for NATO expansion into Central Europe. I myself warned against the consequences in the magazine Security Dialogue in 1995. I also listened to Russia's foreign minister (later prime minister) Yevgeny Primakov#'s criticism of Western promise violations during his lecture in Oslo in 1997. From 1996, Primakov had collected a number of the assurances that the Western countries had given Moscow. When the US and NATO agreed to the eastward expansion, this would also be contrary to the 'spirit' of the German Unification Treaty, and the Russians described it even then as a threat to Russian security. Europe would slide into confrontation. Russia protested strongly, not least when the first pool of land was included in 1999, and when the second pool was taken up in 2004. What amazes us is that Russia did not go to war earlier. It doesn't matter what we think – as long as Russia sees NATO as a threat.

We in the West claim that Russia must follow international law, but we ourselves can break international law when it suits us, and the question is whether Russia's 'violation of international law' was really a legitimate response to the violations of international law the West had already committed.

"The reddest of all red lines."

In 2008, according to the then US ambassador to Moscow, current CIA director William Burns, all actors in Russia, not just Vladimir Putin, said that a NATO membership for Ukraine was a red line. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: «I was very sure […] that Putin would not just let this happen. From his perspective, expanding NATO to Ukraine would be 'a declaration of war'". To bring Ukraine into NATO was completely unacceptable: "The reddest of all red lines," as Burns wrote to his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In a telegram to Washington entitled "New Means New: Russia's NATO Enlargement Red Lines", Ambassador Burns wrote in 2008 that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saw a NATO expansion into Ukraine as a "potential military threat".

The Russians said in 2008 that it would open up a Ukrainian civil war between east and west, between the Ukrainian speakers and the Russian speakers, and for a possible Russian intervention to save the Russian-speaking population. That would "leave the United States and Russia in a classic confrontational posture," he said. The Washington elite knew that Ukrainian access to NATO would almost certainly lead to war. It had nothing to do with who was in charge in Moscow. When Putin now talking about the war as 'existential', it is because Ukraine is becoming an American military bridgehead close to Moscow. The US will now be able to strike at the "heart of Russia". It is as if the southeastern United States with Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama had become independent states fully armed by Russia. Washington would never accept that.

It is as if the southeastern United States with Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama had become independent states fully armed by Russia.

Country after country has now gained NATO membership and US military installations. The US said for many years that NATO expansion was not aimed at Russia. At the same time, the US moved its positions step by step, ever closer to Moscow with new weapons systems.

"Salami tactics"

If this process continues, it will hardly be possible for Russia to defend itself. A single step cannot legitimize a military response, but in sum several steps mean a radical geopolitical shift. It is a "salami tactic" similar to the Israeli one, which with each new settlement conquers more and more Palestinian territory until there is no more Palestinian land left.

It is also parallel to the US's strategy towards China. The US says it recognizes China's "one-China policy", but at the same time allows top US officials to visit Taiwan, and they welcome Taiwan's president to the United States, as if Taiwan were an independent state. You take small steps until you have reached one fait accompli. This must be seen as a clear breach of the UN Charter's goal of maintaining "international peace and security" and removing "threats to peace". For Russia, it became necessary to create a kind of "buffer zone", which would reduce the risk that the country would one day have to attack preventively – pre-emptively – in self-defence, in order to protect its vital interests.

Russia asked for negotiations

On December 17, 2021, Russia called for negotiations to get the United States to withdraw its forward-deployed weapons installations and bases from Central Europe, from the new NATO member states. And to get guarantees for Ukraine's neutrality, and thus establish a form of 'Nordic buffer zone' through Central Europe as we knew the Nordic countries from the Cold War. This will reduce the threat to Moscow and mitigate the risk of an escalation of the conflict and thus remove the "threats to the peace".

Gorbachev's 1988 proposal was for a neutral Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – a European "neutral buffer zone".

This had been Gorbachev's proposal from 1988 with a neutral Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – a European "neutral buffer zone" similar to the Nordic countries. Gorbachev was influenced by Giorgio Arbatov and The Palme Commission (1982), and he thought in terms of a zone of low tension between the major nuclear powers to limit the risk of pre-emptive strikes.

However, the Americans thought in terms of 'deterrence', not only at a strategic level, but also at a local tactical level. They preferred to threaten deployments near the Russian border to "dissuade the Russians from adventuring." In a RAND report, Enhancing Deterrence and Defense on NATO’s Northern Flank (2020), the deployment of Western missiles with a range of 900 km is proposed to give Norway a "deterrent" capability. But in a tense situation, these missiles could provoke a preemptive Russian attack. And Western military planners know full well that Russia would be unable to defend itself if Western forces were deployed in Ukraine near Moscow.

In 2007, former US Secretary of State Henry wrote Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senate Defense Committee Chairman Sam Nunn for the Nuclear Security Project on the need to avoid preemption placementis to reduce the risk of escalation. Such advanced deployments could provoke a pre-emptive attack.

For Russia, it is not about "conquering Ukrainian territory", but about denying the West an advanced military presence, a bridgehead close to Russia's most vital interests. This is thus a direct parallel to the Cuban crisis when the American leaders believed that the Soviet , rearmament had been deployed far too close to America's vital interests

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