Reactions to ‘No Cold War II’ of 16 September 2014

My article on the effect of the Ukraine crisis on our relations with Russia has prompted several interesting reactions. Most readers agreed that the growing sense of mutual distrust between Russia and the West constituted a danger, but few endorsed my view that Russia had a point in being angered by the West’s curt dismissal of its fear of being hemmed in by NATO and by the crafty way particularly the United States had dealt with the question of NATO expansion in 1990. They pointed out that there was nothing unethical about the post-Cold War discussions on NATO enlargement: every step had been based on mutual agreement, and there had been no ‘promises’ that could subsequently be ‘broken’ by the West.

Let me first clarify that ‘having a point’ is not the same as ‘being entirely in the right.’ I maintain that the West bears some of the responsibility for the deplorable state of its relations with Russia. To illustrate this, I would like to cite two recent publications that both arrive at the conclusion that, contrary to Russian allegations, the West never promised that it would freeze NATO’s borders. Without claiming that such a promise would have produced better relations between Russia and the West in the twenty-first century, both authors conclude that the West, thoughtlessly or intentionally, left Russia at the periphery of a post-Cold War Europe.

The first publication is an article by Jack Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, entitled ‘NATO EXPANSION: WAS THERE A PROMISE?’ It was posted on his website on 3 April 2014, see link below:

The second publication is an essay by Mary Elise Sarotte, Dean’s Professor of History at the University of Southern California and author of ‘THE STRUGGLE TO  CREATE POST-COLD WAR EUROPE’ (Princeton University Press, 2014). The essay is entitled ‘A BROKEN PROMISE? What the West Really Told Moscow About NATO Expansion’ and can be found in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014, Volume 93, Number 5. Title on the cover: ‘How the West provoked Putin.’

First some quotes from Mr Matlock’s article:

> When NATO expansion occurred some years later it was not the result of some U.S. or NATO decision to press eastward or to threaten Russia. The impetus came from the East European countries, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and initially was supported vigorously only by the smaller or less populous NATO countries (e.g., Denmark, Canada). The U.S. crafted the Partnership for Peace in an effort to avoid expanding NATO’s military structure. This policy did not satisfy the East European governments, however. Because of their historical experience – does anyone today recall the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact? – they insisted on full NATO membership.

> I also thought that expanding NATO would weaken it, and I believe that it has. It is not a reliable instrument of American power as many Russians appear to believe.

> I have described the process as one of “inconsiderate U.S. (and Western) actions met by Russian overreaction.” All parties to today’s current disputes bear some of the responsibility for the deterioration of relations.

And some quotes from Ms Sarotte’s essay: 

> Writing in this magazine earlier this year, the Russian foreign policy thinker Alexander Lukin accused successive U.S. presidents of “forgetting the promises made by western leaders to Mikhail Gorbachev after the unification of Germany—most notably that they would not expand NATO eastward.” Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were fueled in part by his ongoing resentment about what he sees as the West’s broken pact over NATO expansion.

> Kohl, too, brought his rhetoric in line with Bush’s, as both U.S. and West German transcripts from the two leaders’ February 24-25 summit at Camp David show. Bush made his feelings about compromising with Moscow clear to Kohl: “To hell with that!” he said. “We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

> Gorbachev ultimately gave his assent to a united Germany in NATO in exchange for face-saving measures, such as a four-year grace period for removing Soviet troops and some restrictions on both NATO troops and nuclear weapons on former East German territory. He also received 12 billion deutsch marks to construct housing for the withdrawing Soviet troops and another three billion in interest-free credit. What he did not receive were any formal guarantees against NATO expansion.

> In the short run, the result was a win for the United States. U.S. officials and their West German counterparts had expertly outmaneuvered Gorbachev, extending NATO to East Germany and avoiding promises about the future of the alliance.

> By design, Russia was left on the periphery of a post-Cold War Europe. A young KGB officer serving in East Germany in 1989 offered his own recollection of the era in an interview a decade later, in which he remembered returning to Moscow full of bitterness at how “the Soviet Union has lost its position in Europe.” His name was Vladimir Putin, and he would one day have the power to act on that bitterness.


None of the reactions I received to my previous article referred to what I had written about Kosovo (which took up more than half the article). Readers may have felt that Russian indignation at ‘the West’s broken promises of 1990’ was the real issue, and assumed that I had mentioned the questionable recognition of Kosovo only to add some local colour to my account by describing events from my own experience. But if that was their assumption they seriously underestimated Russia’s indignation at what it had experienced as a Western slap in the face after Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

Let us compare the two insults as they must have been perceived in Moscow:

The commitments of 1990

In 2009 President Medvedev accused the West of breaking promises made after the fall of the Iron Curtain, saying that NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe violated commitments made during the negotiations over German reunification. The only acknowledgment he received from the West was that there might have been occasional misunderstandings due to a lack of precision, for example with regard to the meaning of the term ‘eastward expansion,’ but that there had been no commitments. As for this lack of precision, Ambassador Matlock pointed out in his post of 3 April 2014 that “all the discussions in 1990 regarding the expansion of NATO jurisdiction were in the context of what would happen to the territory of the GDR. There was still a Warsaw Pact. Nobody was talking about NATO and the countries of Eastern Europe. However, the language used did not always make that specific.”

The commitments of 1999

There had been no such lack of precision in the drafting of Security Council resolution 1244, which was adopted on 10 June 1999. The NATO intervention, launched on 24 March, had become more and more deadlocked from the middle of May onward, and when on 3 June 1999 Milosevic abruptly agreed to the demands of the international community, the West (or NATO) was only too anxious to adopt a Security Council resolution bringing the controversial intervention to an end and calling for a political solution to the Kosovo crisis. In the circumstances, Russia had no difficulty in cramming the resolution and its annexes with binding commitments (‘of all Member States’) to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, while for Kosovo the resolution could only call for substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration.

Russia may have felt that the adoption of this resolution made up for its embarrassing failure to secure the adoption of a resolution condemning NATO’s armed intervention of 24 March 1999 as a flagrant violation of the UN Charter. It seemed indeed to have every reason to celebrate: Milosevic, the increasingly unmanageable thorn in its flesh, was suddenly out of the picture, but the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia had been safeguarded for good.

Then, on 17 February 2008, Kosovo declared itself independent. In no time more than half the UN Member States had recognised Kosovo as a sovereign State. Unlike the 1990 commitments on the non-expansion of NATO, which – if they ever existed – had never been documented, the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been reaffirmed in a Chapter VII resolution of the Security Council.

It stands to reason that around that time in 2008 it occurred to at least some people in Moscow that if the West could disregard Serbia’s sovereignty in order to create an independent Kosovo, Russia was free to disregard Ukraine’s sovereignty in order to return Crimea to Russia.