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Why NATO and Ukraine are a flash point with Russia 30 years after the end of the Cold War

Tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have reached the point of crisis. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening a wider military incursion into Ukraine unless the U.S.-led alliance makes several major security concessions, including a commitment to cease expanding eastward.

Russia says that the United States and NATO have continually violated pledges allegedly made in the early 1990s that the alliance would not expand into the former Soviet bloc. Meanwhile, alliance leaders have said they are open to new diplomacy with Russia on arms control and other matters but that they are unwilling to discuss forever shutting NATO’s doors to new members.

What is the source of Russia’s dispute with NATO?

Russian leaders have long been wary of the eastward expansion of NATO, particularly as the alliance opened its doors to former Warsaw Pact states and ex-Soviet republics in the late 1990s (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) and early 2000s (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). Their fears grew in the late 2000s as the alliance stated its intent to admit Georgia and Ukraine at an unspecified point in the future.

For the Kremlin, the notion that Ukraine, a pillar of the Soviet Union with strong historic ties to Russia, would join NATO was a red line. “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia,” Putin warned U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who is now director of the CIA, in the weeks leading up to NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit.

Although NATO did not announce a formal membership plan for Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest Summit, the alliance did affirm “that these countries will become members of NATO,” and it extended formal invitations to accession talks to Albania and Croatia, which became members in 2009. NATO expanded again in 2017, admitting Montenegro, and in 2020, welcoming North Macedonia.

Did the United States promise the Soviet Union that it would freeze NATO expansion?

Russian officials say that the U.S. government made a pledge to Soviet leaders not to expand the alliance’s eastern borders, a commitment they say came during the flurry of diplomacy following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and surrounding the reunification of Germany in 1990. Proponents of this narrative often cite the words that U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker said to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990, that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.” They say the United States and NATO have repeatedly betrayed this verbal commitment in the decades since, taking advantage of Russia’s tumultuous post-Soviet period and expanding the Western alliance several times, all the way to Russia’s doorstep in the case of the Baltic states.

CONTEXT: A historical timeline of post-independence Ukraine

However, many Western analysts and former U.S. officials involved in these discussions dispute what they say is a selective view of history. They point out that, in early 1990, the focus of the diplomacy between the so-called Two Plus Four (East and West Germany plus the United States, France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) was the future of Germany and the question of whether the soon-to-be unified country would be part of NATO. (West Germany was already an alliance member, while East Germany was part of the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact.) They say that the discussions were not about NATO’s long-term plans for eastward expansion, which would have made little sense at that time; the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union still existed, and there was scant indication they would dissolve as quickly as they did, in a matter of months. In a 2014 interview, Gorbachev said as much: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was never discussed. It was not raised in those years.”

The diplomacy between U.S. and Soviet leaders during this period focused on Germany and included discussions of various post-unification security options, including the potential for Germany to become part of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, for Germany to be nonaligned, and even for the Soviet Union to join NATO. Early in the talks, Soviet leaders insisted that a unified Germany never become part of NATO, though they eventually accepted Germany’s right to decide for itself. Similarly, the United States stepped back from Baker’s initial language on not expanding “NATO’s jurisdiction,” which he reportedly used only in the discussion about whether NATO troops would be based in what was then East Germany. In the end, the treaty recognizing German unification that the Two Plus Four powers signed in the summer of 1990 stipulated that only German territorial (non-NATO) forces could be based in East Germany while Soviet forces withdrew. After that, only German forces assigned to NATO could be based there, not foreign NATO forces. The treaty doesn’t mention NATO’s rights and commitments beyond Germany.

How did NATO feature in diplomacy between U.S. and post-Soviet Russian leaders?

Some experts point to another pivotal moment to help explain the mistrust between Russia and NATO today: the 1993–94 discussions between the Bill Clinton administration and the Russian government led by Boris Yeltsin.

By this point, the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Clinton administration was seeking to craft a new security architecture in Europe that would help foster and fortify the continent’s fledging, post-Soviet democracies, including Russia. Some in the Clinton government, as well as Central European countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, wanted to move quickly and start expanding NATO’s membership eastward. However, most Clinton officials reportedly did not, being wary that expansion would rankle Russian leaders at a fragile, transitional moment and detract from other U.S. foreign policy objectives, such as nuclear arms control.

Instead, Clinton chose to develop a new NATO initiative called the Partnership for Peace (PfP), which would be nonexclusive and open to all former Warsaw Pact members, as well as non-European countries. Seeing this non-membership framework as a compromise of sorts, in October 1993, U.S. diplomats proposed it to Yeltsin, who eagerly accepted. (Just days before, Yeltsin, with the Russian military’s support, forcefully put down an attempt by parliament to oust him.) NATO launched PfP at its annual summit in January 1994, and more than two dozen countries, including Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine, joined in the following months.

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However, Clinton soon began speaking publicly about expanding NATO’s membership, saying in Prague just days after the launch of PfP that “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how.” Yeltsin warned Western leaders at a conference in December of that year that “Europe, even before it has managed to shrug off the legacy of the Cold War, is risking encumbering itself with a cold peace.”

Clinton subsequently made efforts to allay Yeltsin’s concerns: pushing off enlargement until after the Russian leader was reelected in 1996, inviting Russia to join the Group of Seven, and establishing a formal, non-adversarial forum for Russia-NATO diplomacy. But analysts say that NATO’s expansion in the ensuing years would leave deep scars on the Russian psyche. “For many Russians, most importantly Vladimir Putin, the 1990s were a decade of humiliation, as the United States imposed its vision of order on Europe (including in Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch,” James Goldgeier, an expert on NATO-Russia relations, wrote for War on the Rocks.

The Russian government, led by Putin, continued to be wary of NATO expansion in the 2000s. Putin expressed doubts that the alliance, which grew its fastest in 2004, would be effective in tackling the security challenges of the day, including international terrorism and the conflict in Afghanistan. Many new members, particularly the Baltic countries, saw NATO membership as a shield against their former Soviet rulers.

In the years that followed, Putin grew increasingly outspoken in his displeasure at NATO’s inroads into Eastern Europe, saying at a high-profile speech in Munich in 2007 that “it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” In the summer following NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, where NATO stated its intent to admit Georgia and Ukraine, Russia invaded the former. Six years later, as Kyiv stepped closer to an economic partnership with another Western bloc, the European Union, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

What is Russia demanding of NATO and the United States today?

Russia has put forth two draft agreements that seek explicit, legally binding security guarantees from the United States and NATO, respectively:

Treaty with the United States

The draft treaty contains eight articles, some of which call for tight restrictions on U.S. and NATO political and military activities.

  • Article 4 calls for NATO to end its eastward expansion, specifically, deny future membership to ex-Soviet states, such as Ukraine. It would also ban the United States from establishing bases in or cooperating militarily with former Soviet states.
  • Article 5 would block both signatories from deploying military assets in areas outside their national borders that “could be perceived by the other party as a threat to its national security.” Heavy bombers and “surface warships of any type” shall refrain from deploying outside the party’s national airspace or territorial waters to areas where they could strike the other’s territory.
  • Article 6 calls for parties to confine their deployments of intermediate- and short-range, ground-launched missiles to their own territories, and only in areas where they could not strike the other’s territory.
  • Article 7 would block the parties from deploying nuclear weapons outside their respective territories and would require related nuclear weapons infrastructure in third-party countries to be dismantled.

Agreement with NATO

The draft agreement has nine articles, including several that call for dramatic military concessions from the transatlantic alliance.

  • Article 4 would effectively divide NATO’s Western and Eastern European membership. It would ban NATO countries that were members of the alliance as of 1997 (a grouping that excludes nearly all eastern members) from deploying military assets to “any of the other states of Europe” in excess of what those members had deployed by 1997. Such deployments could only take place “in exceptional cases” and with Russia’s consent.
  • Article 5 would forbid the parties from stationing intermediate- and short-range, ground-launched missiles in areas that could strike the other parties.
  • Article 6 would restrict NATO “from any further enlargement,” including admitting Ukraine.
  • Article 7 would ban NATO members from conducting any military activity in Ukraine, as well as in other Eastern European states and those in South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Many Western analysts and officials have said that several of Russia’s demands, such the ban on future NATO enlargement, are effectively nonstarters and that the Kremlin has proposed them in bad faith. Some fear Moscow’s demands are deliberately excessive, intended to be dismissed by Western powers and serve as a pretext for Russia to escalate its military activity in Ukraine, potentially by a broad invasion.

How are the United States and NATO supporting Ukraine?

The United States and NATO have said they remain committed to restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. They do not recognize Russia’s claims to Crimea, and have encouraged Russia and Ukraine to resolve the conflict in the country’s eastern Donbas region via the Minsk agreements [PDF]. Signed in 2014 and 2015 and brokered by France and Germany, these accords call for a cease-fire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons, Ukraine’s control over its border with Russia, and local elections and a special political status for certain areas of the region.

Meanwhile, Kyiv has affirmed its goal of eventually gaining NATO membership, and it holds yearly military exercises with the alliance, including the Sea Breeze and Rapid Trident drills. The U.S. military has provided Ukrainian forces with training and equipment, including sniper rifles, grenade launchers, night-vision gear, radars, Javelin anti-tank missiles, and patrol vessels. In 2020, Ukraine became one of just six so-called enhanced opportunity partners, a special status given to NATO’s closet allies, such as Australia.

This article originally ran on the Council on Foreign Relations website.