America’s Promise Regarding NATO Was Not Black And White

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have renewed their calls for NATO’s eastward expansion to be halted. Russia is concerned about NATO’s presence on the European continent, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. At a recent Russian Security Council meeting, Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov stated, “Their key priorities are halting NATO’s eastward expansion.”

Putin and his minions are adamant that NATO breaks its “promise” to stay out of Eastern Europe made in 1990. James Goldgeier published an article in War on the Rocks in 2016 regarding the subtle evolution of US-Russian discussions over NATO enlargement. The piece is also worth reading as Putin raises concerns about NATO’s expansion and legitimacy.

According to historian Goldgeier, during a phone discussion in February 1990, James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed NATO’s future position in a united Germany. Following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were admitted to NATO. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined them in 2004. Albania and Croatia followed suit in 2009, with Montenegro following in 2017 and North Macedonia following in 2020.

Moreover, conversations with Gorbachev under the Bush Administration were early in the process of negotiating the conditions of German unification, rather than a larger discussion about NATO’s future role in Europe. Understanding the complexities of these interactions is critical to comprehending today’s disputed narratives. In 1990, American authorities warned Yeltsin that NATO expansion was possible in the future but that their efforts would be focused on the Partnership for Peace, which Russia was invited to join. In January 1994, the United States refused to advocate for enlargement or even “associate” member status for other nations at the NATO summit. There was no pledge, nor was there even a discussion of nations such as Poland and Hungary.

According to Goldgeier, during the 1990s, President Clinton attempted to persuade Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO membership would not pose a threat to Russia. According to Goldgeier, Vladimir Putin is now attempting to sell a tale of ill faith US encirclement through revisionism. He claims that the US miscalculated, expecting it could ultimately persuade Russia that NATO’s perseverance and extension were beneficial to Russian interests.

Therefore NATO enlargement has brought significant advantages to a region of Europe that has historically been plagued by instability due to its placement between Germany and Russia. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia have prospered since joining NATO. Their success as democratic, market-oriented countries securely embedded in the alliance is a substantial strategic triumph for Europe. They might have suffered the same concerns and challenges that Ukraine and Georgia now had they been excluded from European institutions.