Putin’s Hypocrisy on Ukraine
The current crisis between Russia and the West is fueled by a fallacious claim by Russian President Vladimir Putin that at the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990, the West, specifically the U.S., deliberately misled the Soviet Union and broke promises on the issue that NATO would not expand to the east. This argument of Western betrayal is the motive for Putin’s call for the reversal of the extension of NATO.
The question of adherence to or breaking of promises has been at the forefront of the crisis, indeed the central factor, over claims by President Vladimir Putin and his declaration that the U.S. and NATO, in the last days of the Cold War, agreed not to accept membership applications from former Warsaw Pact nations, especially Ukraine. The basis for this point of view rests on conversations after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and statements made by James Baker and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Coincidentally, documents recently made publicly available indicate assurances given regarding the security of the Soviet Union while the process of German unification was being discussed and taking place. The most well-known and controversial one is the assurance by then-Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, that NATO’s jurisdiction would not “shift one inch eastward from its present position.” He used the words, “iron clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward,” but after some discussion within the U.S. administration eliminated the word “jurisdiction,” and never again spoke of NATO or “not expanding eastward.” At the same time, Chancellor Kohl stated that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory to the current territory of the GDR.”
Baker did agree to a commitment to allow Soviet troops in East Germany to remain for a transitional period, and not call for extension of NATO forces into that territory until they left, but this was not a statement or promise that NATO forces should not extend east.
The context was that negotiations were taking place, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, over the unification of the two Germanies. On January 31, 1990, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced in Tutzing, Bavaria, that changes occurring in that unification process must not lead to an impairment of Soviet security interests. Hence, NATO should not expand its territory towards the east, “moving it closer to the Soviet borders,” nor incorporate East German territory in NATO in any future unified Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany. This special status for the German Democratic Republic (GDR) territory was not part of the German unification treaty of September 12, 1990, but was mentioned in conversations between Soviet and Western figures. Gorbachev agreed to German unification in NATO after assurances by Western leaders, particularly Helmut Kohl, that the USSR “can share and be part of the new Europe.”
Within the U.S. administration, there were differences between the Defense department and State department over NATO expansion. Commentators differ: some argue that the pledge not to enlarge NATO was a myth; others that Gorbachev was misled by the U.S.
In any case, Gorbachev later said that the decision made by NATO in 1993 to expand to the east was a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to the U.S. in 1990 that NATO would not go further east after the GDR was incorporated into West Germany. Others asserted that the West gave the Soviet Union the impression that NATO membership would not be given to Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia. The GDR did not join NATO. It ceased to exist and became part of the Federal Republic of Germany. Logically, the reality is that a former Warsaw Pact nation was not incorporated into NATO.
It is true that there were conversations and seeming assurances on the issue, but no official treaty was ever signed, nor any official U.S. declaration that NATO would not expand. The issue was part of the general problem of the merger of the GDR into the Federal Republic. In any case, circumstances changed with the agreement in 1997 between former Warsaw pact members and NATO ended in agreement with Moscow, and the admission of Poland into NATO. If there ever was a promise, it was renounced by this act.
The opposite is true, in December 1994 Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum on security assurances, which included assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine., Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Moscow stated it would respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine, but it breached the agreement when Russia annexed Crimea and sponsored military forces in east Ukraine to fight against the Ukrainian government.
Putin’s hypocrisy in March 2014 on his aggressive action and violation of his agreement is revealing. For him, the context of Ukraine had changed. “A new state arises, but with this state and in respect to this state, we have not signed any obligatory documents.” James Baker would have been amused.