In 1990, after the end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany, the United States of America gave an assurance to the Soviet Union that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not expand its role beyond the borders of Germany. Strobe Talbott, the principal architect of the Clinton administration’s policy towards Moscow, reveals in his book, The Russia Hand, that the secretary of state, James Baker, told the president, Mikhail Gorbachev: “If we maintain a presence in Germany that is part of Nato, there would be no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction for forces of Nato one inch to the east.”
This categorical assurance was not honoured. In 1999, a decade after the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Nato took the first step in its eastward expansion by admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — three former members of the Warsaw Pact — into its fold.
Last month, at a glittering ceremony in Washington, the Western Alliance took a giant step to the east by incorporating no fewer than seven new members — Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And the story does not end here. Three prospective members, the prime ministers of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, were present at the Washington ceremony to advance their candidature.
When the Soviet Union wound up the Warsaw Pact at the end of the Cold War, a buffer zone came into existence between the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Western Alliance. The central and east European countries — former members of the Warsaw Pact — constituted this zone. Baker’s assurance to Gorbachev amounted to a commitment to preserve this buffer. The subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union added a second layer of buffer states comprising Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.
By expanding into central and east Europe, the Western Alliance has effectively destroyed the buffer that separated it from Russia. Nato today shares a common border with Russia. The entry of Lithuania in the Western Alliance is particularly significant from a strategic perspective since it converts the Russian port city of Kaliningrad into an enclave surrounded by Nato territory. The port is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, both recent entrants to Nato. As an ice-free outlet to the ocean, Kaliningrad is an essential base for the Russian navy. Now separated from the rest of Russia by a strip of Nato territory, it has become dependent upon the Western powers for transit facilities. There can be little doubt that the latter will embark on a policy of weakening the links of unity between Kaliningrad and the Russian Federation — for example, through offers of special economic ties with the European Union and by encouraging autonomist moves in the enclave.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia lost the warm water port of Sevastopol to the breakaway republic of Ukraine. With the progressive degeneration of the Kaliningrad base, Russia will find it virtually impossible to ever recreate the great navy built by the admiral, Sergei Gorshkov, during the heyday of the Soviet Union.
Much of central and east Europe is being permanently incorporated into Western military structures through the expansion of Nato. Together with the parallel expansion of the EU, this will result in permanently marginalizing Russia’s role as a European power. A future resurgent Russia will not be a competitor for influence in this region vis-a-vis the West.
Strong support in central and east Europe was an essential requirement for the expansion of the Western Alliance. Indeed, the initial impetus for expansion came from this region. As early as April 1993, presidents Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Arpad Goncz personally pleaded with Bill Clinton for admission of their respective countries — Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — into Nato. In May 1993, the Estonian president, Lennart Meri, made a similar plea to deputy secretary Talbott, arguing that the only way to prevent a future Russian reoccupation of his country was to admit it into Nato. In most central and east European states, absorption into Nato and the EU is viewed as a passport to prosperity and security. The security factor was particularly important in the case of the breakaway Baltic republics, because of their apprehensions that a future government in Moscow might adopt an irredentist policy.
The Nato response has been largely shaped by the US. By the latter half of 1993, Talbott had conveyed to the Russians that Nato expansion figured on the Western agenda. The Russian response was predictably negative (barring occasional impromptu remarks by the unstable Boris Yeltsin). In particular, Moscow was strongly opposed to the inclusion of any of the former Soviet republics in the Western Alliance. In 1997, the foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, told Talbott that “if any countries of the former Soviet Union are admitted to Nato, we will have no relations with Nato whatsoever”.
By then, Clinton had accurately summed up the nature of the problem that faced US policy-makers. The problem, he said in a cabinet room meeting, was about “keeping Russia sullen but not mutinous while we take its former allies into Nato”. In essence, Washington’s policy has been to assuage Russia by accommodating its quest for status while rolling back its potential as a European power. The regular summits marked by simulated camaraderie, Russia’s partial admission into the Group of Seven, and the establishment of the Nato-Russia permanent joint council must be viewed in this context.
The US has succeeded in its objective of expanding the alliance without excessively antagonizing Russia. Russia may be bitter about the expansion, particularly after the recent round involving the Baltic republics, but it has reacted in a measured manner. After the admission of the seven new members in March, the lower house of the Russian parliament passed a resolution denouncing the move and calling for a reappraisal of Russian defence strategy. Avoiding a confrontational line, the foreign ministry spokesman complained that “in admitting the Baltic states and arranging guarantees for their security, many in NATO apparently proceeded from previous perceptions that a war is possible in Europe”. On an even more restrained note, the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that it was “high time to start developing structures that would leave no one [that is, Russia] feeling excluded”. In short, there has been loud grumbling on Russia’s part but no “mutiny”.
American diplomacy has thus succeeded in solving the problem identified by Clinton. In achieving this goal, Washington has displayed diplomatic skills of the highest order — skills that stand out in sharp contrast to its clumsy handling of such issues as Iraq.
The evolution of US policy on Nato-expansion illustrates an important tendency in international relations. Baker was not necessarily insincere when he gave Gorbachev an assurance that Nato would not expand eastward beyond the borders of Germany. The fact is that policies often change when there is a major shift of power equations. In strategic terms, the intentions of a state tend to change if there is a big change in its capabilities. Russia’s rapid decline after 1990 opened up new and unanticipated opportunities for the Western Alliance. When tectonic shifts occur in the balance of power, mere verbal assurances count for nothing and even formal treaties are apt to be cast aside. Witness the fate of the anti-ballistic missile treaty.
The story is told about the farmer who was asked whether he had good neighbours. “Oh, yes,” he said, “they are all honest folk.” “Then why do you keep that big stick in the corner'” was the next question put to him. “That, sir, is to keep them honest,” was his reply.