America Didn’t Promise Russia that NATO Will Not Enlarge

Буш-Горбашов, Хелсинки 1990. Фото: Susan Biddle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bush-Gorbachev, Helsinki 1990. Photo: Susan Biddle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is no treaty signed by the US, Europe, and Russia specifying that NATO will not enlarge. The idea of NATO expansion beyond Germany was not on the agenda in 1989, because the Warsaw Pact still existed. Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed it in an interview in 2014

We are fact-checking a post on the social network Facebook (screenshot here) stating the following:

Jeffrey Sachs on the crisis in Ukraine. The USA established the basis for a special operation long before Putin was elected.
“30 years ago, the US President promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO will not move a bit towards the East… Unfortunately, in the early 90s, NATO enlargement plans with Ukraine itself were already made. My opinion is that this was the biggest mistake made by the United States”, stated the American economist and professor at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs on his YouTube channel. Sachs admitted that such an action undermined the trust between Washington and Moscow and that it was the reason for the conflict in Ukraine. “All this started long before Putin’s presidency. The basis was America’s belief in the unipolar concept of the world. This belief was wrong, dangerous, and provocative”.

Contrary to the contents of the post we are fact-checking, NATO on its website officially qualified this as not true or a myth.

According to NATO’s website, there is no agreement in which NATO promises Russia that it would not enlarge after the Cold War. NATO’s door has been open to new members since it was founded in 1949 – and that has never changed.

This Open Door Policy is enshrined in Article 10 of NATO’s founding Treaty, which says that any other European country in a position to further the principles of the Treaty and to contribute to the security of NATO can apply for membership. Decisions on membership are taken by consensus among all allies.

There is no treaty signed by the US, Europe, and Russia specifying that NATO will not enlarge. The idea of NATO expansion beyond Germany was not on the agenda in 1989, because the Warsaw Pact still existed. Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed this in an interview in 2014.

The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up either, says Gorbachev, NATO’s website specifies .

Declassified transcripts from the White House also confirm that in 1997, Bill Clinton constantly rejected the proposal of Boris Yeltsin for a gentlemen’s agreement that none of the former Soviet republics would join NATO.

I cannot commit on behalf of NATO, and I will not put myself in a position to veto NATO expansion with respect to any other country, not to mention to allow someone else to do so. NATO works with consensus, Clinton said.

An article published in the Harvard University paper specifies that Robert Zoellick, an US diplomat who helped negotiate the end of the Cold War, says Vladimir Putin’s claims about Ukraine are part of a disinformation campaign. When President George Bush sat down with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to negotiate the peaceful end of the Cold War, Robert Zoellick was in the room where it happened. During the 1990 Summit, Zoellick says that President Gorbachev accepted the idea of German unification within NATO based on the principle that every country should freely choose its own alliances.

I was in those meetings and Gorbachev said there was no promise not to enlarge NATO, recalls Zoellick.

Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister, Eduard Shevarnadze, later President of Georgia, concurred, he says.

He added that the Treaty on Germany’s unification does not include a restriction to NATO enlargement. Those facts have undermined one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine – that the United States had agreed that former Warsaw Pact nations would never become part of the North Atlantic security alliance.

The reality was that in 1990 most people, and certainly the Soviets, weren’t focusing on whether the Eastern European countries would become part of NATO. Knowing Soviet and Russian diplomacy, Moscow would have demanded assurances in writing if it believed the US had made such a promise. And even in 1996, when President Bill Clinton welcomed former Warsaw Pact nations to join NATO, “one of the German diplomats involved told me that as they discussed the enlargement with the Russians, no Russian raised the argument that there had been a promise not to enlarge”, Zoellick says.

According to him, the motive for the decision of the Russian President to attack Ukraine is that Putin does not see Ukraine as an independent and sovereign country.

He believes that everybody in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine are, in fact, Russians living in a Greater Russia. And I think that at age 69, Putin feels that this is a question not only of Russian history, but his place in Russian history, specifies Zoellick.

Zoellick adds that when Putin’s earlier attacks on the Crimea and country’s eastern regions failed to halt Ukraine’s drift towards the West, the Russian leader believed he had no other choice but to invade.

That’s his motivation. And I think we need to be aware that he’s going to double down. The resilience and resolve of the Ukrainian people to resist has been a surprise to him and everybody else. I don’t think he’s going to ultimately be successful, Zoellick adds.

Fact-checkers from Politifact claim that no legal agreement prohibits NATO from expanding eastward.

Due to all of the above-noted facts, we assess that it is not true that the US President promised Mikhail Gorbachev 30 years ago that NATO would not enlarge.


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