From Broken Promises to Cold War II

In one of my recent articles for the Valdai Club (Military Alliances versus Collective Security, 19 December 2017) I concluded that ever since the stand-off between the Delian League, led by Athens, and the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, all the way up to the recent rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact members, permanent military alliances have, with some rare exceptions, if not directly paved the way to military conflicts, then greatly contributed to rise of tension. It was mainly due to the mutual nuclear deterrence (or MAD – mutually assured destruction) that the Cold War didn’t turn into a hot one. Collective security and military alliances are antipodes that can coexist neither in space nor in time; one excludes the other. Having only recently said that, I didn’t intend to return to the matter, at least for a while. However, some recently published documents, most of which thus far have been classified, force me to revisit the issue.

On 12 December of last year, the National Security Archive [1] published 30 documents that unequivocally testified that during the 1990 negotiations between Soviet and Western leaders, it was indeed promised by the highest officials of leading NATO countries that while a unified Germany would be in NATO, the alliance will not move an inch closer to Soviet (now Russian) borders. These newly-revealed documents, about which the Western mainstream media has remained silent, debunk numerous allegations made by many Western politicians, diplomats and experts (with some prominent exceptions such as the former Washington Ambassador to Moscow Jack F. Matlock, or the former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara) that any promises of NATO not moving East given to the Soviet leaders are simply myths. For the sake of brevity let’s refer to just a few of them.      

So, in response to those few in the West who had different recollections of those crucial days in 1990, Mark Kramer writes: ‘These assertions were sharply challenged at the time by other observers, including former U.S. policymakers who played a direct role in the German reunification process. George H. W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James A. Baker, who served as president, national security adviser, and secretary of state in 1990 respectively, all firmly denied that the topic of extending NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact countries (other than East Germany) even came up during the negotiations with Moscow on German reunification, much less that the United States made a ‘‘pledge’’ not to pursue it. In 1997, Philip Zelikow, who in 1990 was a senior official on the National Security Council (NSC) staff responsible for German reunification issues, maintained that the United States made no commitment at all about the future shape of NATO, apart from some specific points about eastern Germany that were codified in the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany signed in September 1990. ‘‘The option of adding new members to NATO,’’ Zelikow wrote, was ‘‘not foreclosed by the deal actually made in 1990.’’ [2] Echoes Steven Pifer from Brookings Institution: ‘Western leaders never pledged not to enlarge NATO, a point that several analysts have demonstrated’.[3] Mary Elise Sarotte asserts that ’contrary to Russian allegations, Gorbachev never got the West to promise that it would freeze NATO’s borders. Rather, Bush’s senior advisers had a spell of internal disagreement in early February 1990, which they displayed to Gorbachev. By the time of the Camp David summit, however, all members of Bush’s team, along with Kohl, had united behind an offer in which Gorbachev would receive financial assistance from West Germany -- and little else -- in exchange for allowing Germany to reunify and for allowing a united Germany to be part of NATO’.[4] 

And one may go on and on. Moreover, the promised financial assistance was mainly in the form of so-called ‘Bush’s thighs’ (parts of chicken sent by the US). However, in newly-revealed documents we can see that, for example, on 9 February of 1990 the then US Secretary of States James Baker communicated to the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze: ’There would, of course, have to be iron-clad guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward’ (U.S. Department of State, FOIA 199504567 (National Security Archive Flashpoints Collection, Box 38). The same day he states to Mikhail Gorbachev: ‘We understand the need for assurances to the countries in the East. If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is a part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east (Ibid).’

I refrain from quoting from the memos from various negotiations with the participation of other political leaders such as Helmuth Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Vaclav Havel on the matter. They can all be found in the published documents. They allow Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton to conclude: ‘ The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels’ (emphasis added).[5] 

In reading all these documents there remains no doubt that those who have denied that such promises were made but were, or should have been, in the know, were spreading fake news, while various commentators, to use Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical definition [6], were talking bullshit. But as an international lawyer I would like to make some legal comments.

Yes, there were no solemn treaties signed or ratified on these issues. Therefore, there is some truth in claims that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze may have been naïve in believing in such oral promises, though fixed in different written memos. But there is no truth to claims that oral promises do not have political or even legal consequences. The matter is that international law knows so-called gentlemen agreements in oral form, as well as unilateral statements that create legal obligations. The UN International Law Commission (ILC), whose task is the codification and progressive development of international law, having studied state practice and the judgements of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has adopted the Guiding Principles on unilateral declarations capable of creating legal obligations [7] that state: ‘Just as every State possesses capacity to conclude treaties, every State can commit itself through acts whereby it unilaterally undertakes legal obligations under the conditions indicated in these Guiding Principles. This capacity has been acknowledged by the International Court of Justice’. It is also generally acknowledged that the heads of State, heads of Governments and ministers for foreign affairs are competent to formulate such declarations ex officio, i.e. without special credentials called full powers. The ILC confirms that ‘while written declarations prevail, it is not unusual for States to commit themselves by simple oral statements’. The binding character of such declarations is based on the principle of good faith. The states concerned, in this case the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, as the state continuation of the USSR, may take them into consideration and rely on them. This is what the Soviet Union did in 1990 and 1991. The ILC also emphasises that ‘such States are entitled to require that such obligations be respected’. Therefore, NATO expansion to the East, the continuation of this major Cold War institution, whose very raison d’être had been the containment of an enemy who has since disappeared, was not only the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century; it has also been contrary to international law and significantly contributed to the weakening its core principles.

It is not easy to deny that during the Cold War NATO played a counter-balancing and crucial role in guaranteeing the security of Washington’s European allies vis-à-vis Moscow’s missionary strive. However, in the post-Cold War world, NATO has become not only an anti-Russian, but an anti-European organisation, in the sense that by means of the Atlantic Alliance, Washington has deprived Europe of any independent foreign policy decision-making power, particularly on matters of European and international security. Moreover, as military might and political levelheadedness are often at odds, and what may be enjoyable for Uncle Sam may not necessarily satisfy Marianne or Germania, such an outsourcing of European security has become dangerous for the Old Continent. Therefore, it is natural that many in Europe, particularly in Rumsfeld’s ‘Old Europe’, consider the current tension between Russia and the West as one of the greatest follies of the century, one that is mainly due to the policies of Western political elites. Renaud Girard has written that ‘we definitely lack a serious policy on Russia’ and ‘it is urgent that France become closer to Russia’ (‘que la France se rapproche de la Russie’).[8]

Already in 1998, George Kennan, the father of the containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, warned against moving NATO closer to Russian borders: ’I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. [9] In the end, NATO’s existence became justified’, observed Richard Sakwa, ‘by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargements’.[10]

And here we are. And there is no way back to those 1990s, which were so promising but failed to deliver. What has been light-heartedly done cannot be undone in the same way. The hardest thing for politician to do is to admit their own mistakes or mistakes made by their states (my country, right or wrong). Therefore I don’t expect any apologies or that somebody would start sprinkling ash onto his/her head. I am writing these words in the hope that there are those, especially among the younger people, who may learn from the mistakes made by their predecessors, and think more in terms of collective security than in terms of military alliances. Security against others has always been short-lived and illusory.    


[2] M. Kramer, ‘TWQ: The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia’, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, Spring 2009 (

April 1, 2009)


[4] M. E. Sarotte, ‘A Broken Promise? What the West Really Told Moscow About NATO Expansion’, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014.


[6] H. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005.

[7] Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 2006, vol. II, Part Two, pp. 368-381.

[8] R. Girard, ‘La diplomatie française doit en finir avec le néo-conservatisme’, Le Figaro, Vox Monde, 29 March 2016.

[9] T.L. Friedman, ‘Foreign Affairs; Now a Word From X’, New York Times, 2 May 1998.

[10] R. Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (I.B.Tauris, 2015), p. 4.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.