Top leaders of the “Free World” all agreed that the United States would never enlarge NATO to reassure Gorbachev that the new Russia had nothing to fear from NATO.

By Sharon Tennison, Center for Citizen Initiatives

At last … 30 years plus, the truth comes out. There are numerous accounts by the top leaders of the Free World that they all agreed that the United States would never enlarge NATO to reassure Mikhail Gorbachev that the new Russia had no worry from NATO, definitely there would be no enlargement beyond the borders of the reunited Germany.

Below note how many of the VIP’s assured Gorbachev that he need have no fear … they were adamant that NATO would never move closer to the struggling-to-survive new Russia in the 1990s.

These facts below have been ignored, blurred and buried as Bill Clinton mercilessly began admitting one piece of the  former USSR into NATO. Today NATO surrounds Russia with the latest NATO missiles and troops aimed at Russia.

This is what Putin’s defiant resistance and threat to NATO in Ukraine is all about. He demands to have assurances that NATO will back off … or else. Russia is now strong enough militarily to make such demands. All of us could be caught in the crossfires if this situation isn’t resolved.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Photo by Yuryi Abramochkin

Read the article below to let it sink in how unfair, how two-faced our policies have been since Clinton began taking in former Soviet countries, several of which had fought with Hitler against the USSR in WWII. This is why today the world is facing nuclear annihilation unless Biden, et al, are ready to backtrack and be responsible and responsive toward Russia … as was intended in good faith in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Washington D.C., December 12, 2017 – U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (

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.

The documents reinforce former CIA Director Robert Gates’s criticism of “pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward [in the 1990s], when Gorbachev and others were led to believe that wouldn’t happen.”[1] The key phrase, buttressed by the documents, is “led to believe.”

President George H.W. Bush had assured Gorbachev during the Malta summit in December 1989 that the U.S. would not take advantage (“I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall”) of the revolutions in Eastern Europe to harm Soviet interests; but neither Bush nor Gorbachev at that point (or for that matter, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl) expected so soon the collapse of East Germany or the speed of German unification.[2]

The first concrete assurances by Western leaders on NATO began on January 31, 1990, when West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher opened the bidding with a major public speech at Tutzing, in Bavaria, on German unification. The U.S. Embassy in Bonn (see Document 1) informed Washington that Genscher made clear “that the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an ‘impairment of Soviet security interests.’ Therefore, NATO should rule out an ‘expansion of its territory towards the east, i.e. moving it closer to the Soviet borders.’” The Bonn cable also noted Genscher’s proposal to leave the East German territory out of NATO military structures even in a unified Germany in NATO.[3]

This latter idea of special status for the GDR territory was codified in the final German unification treaty signed on September 12, 1990, by the Two-Plus-Four foreign ministers (see Document 25). The former idea about “closer to the Soviet borders” is written down not in treaties but in multiple memoranda of conversation between the Soviets and the highest-level Western interlocutors (Genscher, Kohl, Baker, Gates, Bush, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Major, Woerner, and others) offering assurances throughout 1990 and into 1991 about protecting Soviet security interests and including the USSR in new European security structures. The two issues were related but not the same. Subsequent analysis sometimes conflated the two and argued that the discussion did not involve all of Europe. The documents published below show clearly that it did.

The “Tutzing formula” immediately became the center of a flurry of important diplomatic discussions over the next 10 days in 1990, leading to the crucial February 10, 1990, meeting in Moscow between Kohl and Gorbachev when the West German leader achieved Soviet assent in principle to German unification in NATO, as long as NATO did not expand to the east. The Soviets would need much more time to work with their domestic opinion (and financial aid from the West Germans) before formally signing the deal in September 1990.

The conversations before Kohl’s assurance involved explicit discussion of NATO expansion, the Central and East European countries, and how to convince the Soviets to accept unification. For example, on February 6, 1990, when Genscher met with British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, the British record showed Genscher saying, “The Russians must have some assurance that if, for example, the Polish Government left the Warsaw Pact one day, they would not join NATO the next.” (See Document 2)

Having met with Genscher on his way into discussions with the Soviets, Baker repeated exactly the Genscher formulation in his meeting with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on February 9, 1990, (see Document 4); and even more importantly, face to face with Gorbachev.

Not once, but three times, Baker tried out the “not one inch eastward” formula with Gorbachev in the February 9, 1990, meeting. He agreed with Gorbachev’s statement in response to the assurances that “NATO expansion is unacceptable.” Baker assured Gorbachev that “neither the President nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place,” and that the Americans understood that “not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.” (See Document 6)

Afterwards, Baker wrote to Helmut Kohl who would meet with the Soviet leader on the next day, with much of the very same language. Baker reported: “And then I put the following question to him [Gorbachev]. Would you prefer to see a united Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position? He answered that the Soviet leadership was giving real thought to all such options [….] He then added, ‘Certainly any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.’” Baker added in parentheses, for Kohl’s benefit, “By implication, NATO in its current zone might be acceptable.” (See Document 8)

Well-briefed by the American secretary of state, the West German chancellor understood a key Soviet bottom line, and assured Gorbachev on February 10, 1990: “We believe that NATO should not expand the sphere of its activity.” (See Document 9) After this meeting, Kohl could hardly contain his excitement at Gorbachev’s agreement in principle for German unification and, as part of the Helsinki formula that states choose their own alliances, so Germany could choose NATO. Kohl described in his memoirs walking all night around Moscow – but still understanding there was a price still to pay.

All the Western foreign ministers were on board with Genscher, Kohl, and Baker. Next came the British foreign minister, Douglas Hurd, on April 11, 1990. At this point, the East Germans had voted overwhelmingly for the deutschmark and for rapid unification, in the March 18 elections in which Kohl had surprised almost all observers with a real victory. Kohl’s analyses (first explained to Bush on December 3, 1989) that the GDR’s collapse would open all possibilities, that he had to run to get to the head of the train, that he needed U.S. backing, that unification could happen faster than anyone thought possible – all turned out to be correct. Monetary union would proceed as early as July and the assurances about security kept coming. Hurd reinforced the Baker-Genscher-Kohl message in his meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow, April 11, 1990, saying that Britain clearly “recognized the importance of doing nothing to prejudice Soviet interests and dignity.” (See Document 15)

The Baker conversation with Shevardnadze on May 4, 1990, as Baker described it in his own report to President Bush, most eloquently described what Western leaders were telling Gorbachev exactly at the moment: “I used your speech and our recognition of the need to adapt NATO, politically and militarily, and to develop CSCE to reassure Shevardnadze that the process would not yield winners and losers. Instead, it would produce a new legitimate European structure – one that would be inclusive, not exclusive.” (See Document 17)

Baker said it again, directly to Gorbachev on May 18, 1990 in Moscow, giving Gorbachev his “nine points,” which included the transformation of NATO, strengthening European structures, keeping Germany non-nuclear, and taking Soviet security interests into account. Baker started off his remarks, “Before saying a few words about the German issue, I wanted to emphasize that our policies are not aimed at separating Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union. We had that policy before. But today we are interested in building a stable Europe, and doing it together with you.” (See Document 18)

The French leader Francois Mitterrand was not in a mind-meld with the Americans, quite the contrary, as evidenced by his telling Gorbachev in Moscow on May 25, 1990, that he was “personally in favor of gradually dismantling the military blocs”; but Mitterrand continued the cascade of assurances by saying the West must “create security conditions for you, as well as European security as a whole.” (See Document 19) Mitterrand immediately wrote Bush in a “cher George” letter about his conversation with the Soviet leader, that “we would certainly not refuse to detail the guarantees that he would have a right to expect for his country’s security.” (See Document 20)

At the Washington summit on May 31, 1990, Bush went out of his way to assure Gorbachev that Germany in NATO would never be directed at the USSR: “Believe me, we are not pushing Germany towards unification, and it is not us who determines the pace of this process. And of course, we have no intention, even in our thoughts, to harm the Soviet Union in any fashion. That is why we are speaking in favor of German unification in NATO without ignoring the wider context of the CSCE, taking the traditional economic ties between the two German states into consideration. Such a model, in our view, corresponds to the Soviet interests as well.” (See Document 21)

The “Iron Lady” also pitched in, after the Washington summit, in her meeting with Gorbachev in London on June 8, 1990. Thatcher anticipated the moves the Americans (with her support) would take in the early July NATO conference to support Gorbachev with descriptions of the transformation of NATO towards a more political, less militarily threatening, alliance. She said to Gorbachev: “We must find ways to give the Soviet Union confidence that its security would be assured…. CSCE could be an umbrella for all this, as well as being the forum which brought the Soviet Union fully into discussion about the future of Europe.” (See Document 22)

The NATO London Declaration on July 5, 1990 had quite a positive effect on deliberations in Moscow, according to most accounts, giving Gorbachev significant ammunition to counter his hardliners at the Party Congress which was taking place at that moment. Some versions of this history assert that an advance copy was provided to Shevardnadze’s aides, while others describe just an alert that allowed those aides to take the wire service copy and produce a Soviet positive assessment before the military or hardliners could call it propaganda.

As Kohl said to Gorbachev in Moscow on July 15, 1990, as they worked out the final deal on German unification: “We know what awaits NATO in the future, and I think you are now in the know as well,” referring to the NATO London Declaration. (See Document 23)

In his phone call to Gorbachev on July 17, Bush meant to reinforce the success of the Kohl-Gorbachev talks and the message of the London Declaration. Bush explained: “So what we tried to do was to take account of your concerns expressed to me and others, and we did it in the following ways: by our joint declaration on non-aggression; in our invitation to you to come to NATO; in our agreement to open NATO to regular diplomatic contact with your government and those of the Eastern European countries; and our offer on assurances on the future size of the armed forces of a united Germany – an issue I know you discussed with Helmut Kohl. We also fundamentally changed our military approach on conventional and nuclear forces. We conveyed the idea of an expanded, stronger CSCE with new institutions in which the USSR can share and be part of the new Europe.” (See Document 24)

The documents show that Gorbachev agreed to German unification in NATO as the result of this cascade of assurances, and on the basis of his own analysis that the future of the Soviet Union depended on its integration into Europe, for which Germany would be the decisive actor. He and most of his allies believed that some version of the common European home was still possible and would develop alongside the transformation of NATO to lead to a more inclusive and integrated European space, that the post-Cold War settlement would take account of the Soviet security interests. The alliance with Germany would not only overcome the Cold War but also turn on its head the legacy of the Great Patriotic War.

But inside the U.S. government, a different discussion continued, a debate about relations between NATO and Eastern Europe. Opinions differed, but the suggestion from the Defense Department as of October 25, 1990 was to leave “the door ajar” for East European membership in NATO. (See Document 27) The view of the State Department was that NATO expansion was not on the agenda, because it was not in the interest of the U.S. to organize “an anti-Soviet coalition” that extended to the Soviet borders, not least because it might reverse the positive trends in the Soviet Union. (See Document 26) The Bush administration took the latter view. And that’s what the Soviets heard.

As late as March 1991, according to the diary of the British ambassador to Moscow, British Prime Minister John Major personally assured Gorbachev, “We are not talking about the strengthening of NATO.” Subsequently, when Soviet defense minister Marshal Dmitri Yazov asked Major about East European leaders’ interest in NATO membership, the British leader responded, “Nothing of the sort will happen.” (See Document 28)

When Russian Supreme Soviet deputies came to Brussels to see NATO and meet with NATO secretary-general Manfred Woerner in July 1991, Woerner told the Russians that “We should not allow […] the isolation of the USSR from the European community.” According to the Russian memorandum of conversation, “Woerner stressed that the NATO Council and he are against the expansion of NATO (13 of 16 NATO members support this point of view).” (See Document 30)

Thus, Gorbachev went to the end of the Soviet Union assured that the West was not threatening his security and was not expanding NATO. Instead, the dissolution of the USSR was brought about by Russians (Boris Yeltsin and his leading advisory Gennady Burbulis) in concert with the former party bosses of the Soviet republics, especially Ukraine, in December 1991. The Cold War was long over by then. The Americans had tried to keep the Soviet Union together (see the Bush “Chicken Kiev” speech on August 1, 1991). NATO’s expansion was years in the future, when these disputes would erupt again, and more assurances would come to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.

The Archive compiled these declassified documents for a panel discussion on November 10, 2017 at the annual conference of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in Chicago under the title “Who Promised What to Whom on NATO Expansion?” The panel included:

* Mark Kramer from the Davis Center at Harvard, editor of the Journal of Cold War Studies, whose 2009 Washington Quarterly article argued that the “no-NATO-enlargement pledge” was a “myth”;[4]

* Joshua R. Itkowitz Shifrinson from the Bush School at Texas A&M, whose 2016 International Security article argued the U.S. was playing a double game in 1990, leading Gorbachev to believe NATO would be subsumed in a new European security structure, while working to ensure hegemony in Europe and the maintenance of NATO;[5]

* James Goldgeier from American University, who wrote the authoritative book on the Clinton decision on NATO expansion, Not Whether But When, and described the misleading U.S. assurances to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in a 2016 WarOnTheRocks article;[6]

* Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton from the National Security Archive, whose most recent book, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush: Conversations That Ended the Cold War (CEU Press, 2016) analyzes and publishes the declassified transcripts and related documents from all of Gorbachev’s summits with U.S. presidents, including dozens of assurances about protecting the USSR’s security interests.[7]

[Today’s posting is the first of two on the subject. The second part will cover the Yeltsin discussions with Western leaders about NATO.]

National Security Archive
March 16, 2018
NATO Expansion: What Yeltsin Heard
Russian president led to believe Partnership for Peace was alternative to expanded NATO
Documents show early Russian opposition to “neo-containment;” more U.S. assurances to Russia: “inclusion not exclusion” in new European security structures
Text with documents:

Washington, D.C., March 16, 2018 – Declassified documents from U.S. and Russian archives show that U.S. officials led Russian President Boris Yeltsin to believe in 1993 that the Partnership for Peace was the alternative to NATO expansion, rather than a precursor to it, while simultaneously planning for expansion after Yeltsin’s re-election bid in 1996 and telling the Russians repeatedly that the future European security system would include, not exclude, Russia.

The declassified U.S. account of one key conversation on October 22, 1993, (Document 8) shows Secretary of State Warren Christopher assuring Yeltsin in Moscow that the Partnership for Peace was about including Russia together with all European countries, not creating a new membership list of just some European countries for NATO; and Yeltsin responding, “this is genius!”

Christopher later claimed in his memoir that Yeltsin misunderstood – perhaps from being drunk – the real message that the Partnership for Peace would in fact “lead to gradual expansion of NATO”;[1] but the actual American-written cable reporting the conversation supports subsequent Russian complaints about being misled.[2]

Christopher wondered afterwards (according to his memoir, pp. 280-281) whether the Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, had deliberately failed to alert Yeltsin about the inevitability of NATO expansion, or whether Yeltsin was just relieved that NATO expansion would not be immediate – or whether Yeltsin was just having “a bad day.” But Christopher had told Kozyrev himself earlier that day, according to the U.S. declassified cable (Document 7), that there would be “no predetermined new members” in NATO, and “we’re emphasizing the Partnership for Peace” is “open to all.”

The Strobe Talbott account of the October 22nd meeting with Yeltsin is more detailed and nuanced than Christopher’s, but also leaves the impression that Yeltsin heard only what he wanted to hear, somehow not letting the Americans explain that the real message was “PFP today, enlargement tomorrow.”[3] “Yeltsin welcomed us looking like a stunned bull” and delivered a “long, barely coherent boast” before interrupting Christopher’s presentation on NATO and PFP (“Without letting Chris finish…”). Christopher’s actual words to Yeltsin, at the end of the meeting, were that the U.S. would be “looking at the question of membership as a longer term eventuality.”

Documents from the Russian side show opposition to NATO expansion across the political spectrum, dating back to a Yeltsin supporters’ meeting with NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner in the summer of 1991 (he assured them expansion would not happen), and forward to the large majority of Duma deputies from every political party joining the anti-NATO caucus in 1996. As the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow, James Collins, warned Secretary of State Christopher just before his trip to meet Yeltsin in October 1993 (Document 6), the NATO issue “is neuralgic to the Russians. They expect to end up on the wrong side of a new division of Europe if any decision is made quickly. No matter how nuanced, if NATO adopts a policy which envisions expansion into Central and Eastern Europe without holding the door open to Russia, it would be universally interpreted in Moscow as directed against Russia and Russian alone – or ‘neo-containment’….”

Yeltsin himself had set off wide discussion of possible NATO expansion with his public remarks in Warsaw in August 1993, where he acknowledged the Helsinki Final Act right of countries to choose their alliances, and “seemed to give a ‘green light’ to NATO expansion.” (See Document 5, Tab C “NATO Expansion: Eastern and Allied Views”)

The U.S. “green light” document notes that almost immediately, however, Moscow got “busy ‘refining’ its position.” Yeltsin’s letter to Clinton on September 15, 1993, (Document 4) expressed “uneasiness” over the discussion of “quantitative expansion” and strongly advocated “a pan-European security system” instead of NATO. Yeltsin warned, “Not only the opposition, but moderate circles as well [in Russia], would no doubt perceive this as a sort of neo-isolation of our country in diametric opposition to its natural admission into Euro-Atlantic space.” Yeltsin also argued “the spirit” of the German unification treaty “precludes the option of expanding the NATO zone into the East” (citing the provisions preventing non-German NATO troops from being stationed on the former East German territory). This paragraph was the only one in the Yeltsin letter highlighted for Strobe Talbott by a staff expert on Russia/Ukraine, Steve Pifer.

The declassified U.S. record includes new evidence on internal American thinking, such as a specific calendar for expansion in one early September 1993 document from the State Department (see Document 2), up to and including the ultimate admission of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia to NATO in 2005, after the Central and Eastern Europeans and the Baltics. But Yeltsin’s September 15 letter contributed to intense debates on the American side, including the Defense Department rejection of the State Department’s calendar, leading to the Partnership for Peace idea rather than explicit NATO expansion in the fall of 1993. One October 5, 1993, document (Document 5) summarized the debate as between the “State approach to NATO expansion” or the Office of the Secretary of Defense approach, “partnership for peace with general link to membership,” and the latter became Christopher’s presentation to Yeltsin on October 22: partnership for all, not membership for some.

In January 1994, President Clinton told Yeltsin in Moscow that the Partnership for Peace was “the real thing now.” On the way to Moscow, Clinton delivered the famous “not whether but when” speech in Prague, which would be seized on by NATO expansion proponents in the Clinton administration to win the internal debate.[4] The declassified memcons of Clinton’s Prague meetings with the leaders of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia show the American president arguing for the Partnership for Peace as a “track that will lead to NATO membership” and that “does not draw another line dividing Europe a few hundred miles to the east.” (See Document 11) Clinton candidly admitted to Vaclav Havel “there is no consensus now among NATO allies to extend formal security guarantees” because of uncertainty about which countries could contribute, and because “the reaction in Russia could be the reverse of what we want.”

Polish President Lech Walesa told Clinton (Document 12): “Russia had signed many agreements, but its word was not always good: one hand held a pen; the other a grenade. Yeltsin told the Poles in Warsaw last summer that Russia had no objection to Poland’s membership in NATO; he, Walesa, had a paper with Yeltsin’s signature to prove it. But Yeltsin had changed his mind. The Visegrad countries here represented, Walesa continued, kept their word; they had a Western culture. Russia did not.” Czech President Vaclav Havel immediately responded, “it was neither possible nor desirable to isolate Russia.”

The Americans kept trying to reassure Yeltsin. Quotations from President Clinton’s face-to-face conversations with Yeltsin in 1994, particularly September 27, 1994, at the White House, show Clinton “emphasizing inclusion, not exclusion …. NATO expansion is not anti-Russian; it’s not intended to be exclusive of Russia, and there is no imminent timetable…. the broader, higher goal [is] European security, unity and integration – a goal I know you share.”[5]

But the Russians were hearing in the fall of 1994 that new Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Richard Holbrooke was speeding up NATO expansion discussions, even initiating a NATO study in November of the “how and why” of new members. Yeltsin protested with a letter to Clinton on November 29, 1994, (Document 13) that emphasized Russia’s hopes for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as a “full-fledged all-European organization” and complained, “one completely fails to understand the reasons behind a new revitalizing of the discussion on speeding up the broadening of NATO.”

On December 1, Foreign Minister Kozyrev unexpectedly refused to sign up for the Partnership of Peace; and on December 5, Yeltsin lashed out about NATO at the Budapest summit of the CSCE, in front of a surprised Clinton: “Why are you sowing the seeds of mistrust? … Europe is in danger of plunging into a cold peace …. History demonstrates that it is a dangerous illusion to suppose that the destinies of continents and of the world community in general can somehow be managed from one single capital.”[6]

The dismayed Americans began to understand that Russia had concluded the U.S. was “subordinating, if not abandoning, integration [of Russia] to NATO expansion.” (See Document 17) Washington dispatched Vice President Al Gore to Moscow to patch things up, using the existing Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission’s scheduled meetings as the venue. Gore’s talking points for his meeting with Yeltsin (in the latter’s hospital room) (Document 16) and the Russian record of Gore’s meeting with Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin on December 14, 1994, (Document 14) show the Americans emphasizing there would be no rapid NATO expansion, only a gradual, deliberate process with no surprises, moving in tandem with the “closest possible understanding” between the U.S. and Russia, and no new NATO members in 1995, a year of Russian parliamentary elections.

Gore later told the Belgian prime minister that “Yeltsin was prepared to acquiesce to the basic truth that NATO would expand.” A March 1995 U.S. cable reports, “In a conversation with Yeltsin in his hospital room, the Vice President explained that the NATO-Russia relationship was analogous to the docking of the space shuttle with the Mir space station, which had to match orbits and speeds to come together. Yeltsin had agreed, but noted that in such delicate maneuvers, sudden motions could be dangerous.”[7]

Yeltsin showed only limited acquiescence when Clinton came to Moscow in May 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of victory over Hitler in World War II. The U.S. memcon of the one-on-one meeting at the Kremlin (Document 19) features repeated Yeltsin objections: “I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed …. Why do you want to do this? We need a new structure for Pan-European security, not old ones! …. But for me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding towards those of Russia – that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.” For his part, Clinton insisted that “gradual, steady, measured” NATO expansion would happen: “You can say you don’t want it speeded up – I’ve told you we’re not going to do that – but don’t ask us to slow down either, or we’ll just have to keep saying no.” Clinton also assured Yeltsin, “I won’t support any change that undermines Russia’s security or redivides Europe,” and urged Yeltsin to join the Partnership for Peace. At the end, the two leaders agreed that any NATO expansion would be delayed until after the 1996 Presidential elections (in both countries).

At the Clinton-Yeltsin meeting in June 1995 at Halifax, Nova Scotia (Document 20), Clinton applauded the Russian agreement finally to join PFP, and recommended more military-to-military cooperation and more Russia-NATO dialogue. The Russian leader had kind words for the American president: “I myself and the Russian leadership have no doubt about our partnership. We’ll build the partnership on the basis of our friendship, yours and mine, and we’ll do so for the sake of world peace.” Then Yeltsin reiterated, “we must stick to our position, which is that there should be no rapid expansion of NATO;” and he went on to argue, “it’s important that the OSCE be the principal mechanism for developing a new security order in Europe. NATO is a factor, too, of course, but NATO should evolve into a political organization.”

The Russian declassified documents from closed Duma hearings (Document 18) and internal memos in the 1990s (Document 25) detail the Russian objections that NATO expansion would (1) threaten Russian security, (2) undermine the idea of inclusive European security that Gorbachev and Yeltsin both sought, and (3) draw a new line across Europe. The record of early and vehement Russian objections, including Yeltsin’s multiple remonstrances to Clinton, tends to support Collins’ analysis from October 1993 and to undercut a claim in recent scholarly literature that Russian complaints about NATO expansion are more a function of today’s “memory politics” than “what really happened in 1990 and beyond.”[8]

Today’s posting includes, in translation, one of the earliest Russian compilations of Western assurances against NATO expansion during and after the German unification discussions of 1990, put together by new Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in January 1996, described in his subsequent memoir in 2006, and published in some detail in his 2015 book. (Document 22) Also published in English for the first time is Primakov’s summary for the head of the Duma in early 1997 about the threat of NATO expansion to Russian security interests, just prior to the NATO summit that would announce the invitations to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to join NATO. The Primakov documents speak to the fundamental Moscow understanding of the end-of-the-Cold-War arrangements, that Germany would unify in NATO in 1990 only with the inclusion of the USSR (and then Russia) in subsequent European security structures.[9]

The Primakov compilation of Western assurances to Gorbachev may have provided the catalyst for a forceful State Department rebuttal sent to all European posts in February 1996 (Document 23), after then-Ambassador Collins reported that a “senior Kremlin official” was complaining that NATO expansion would violate the “spirit” of the German unification treaty (just as Yeltsin had argued in his September 15, 1993, letter to Clinton). The February 23rd cable transmitted a memo written by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe John Kornblum, together with John Herbst, then at State’s office on the Newly Independent States (NIS) and a future ambassador to Ukraine, characterizing the Russian claims as “specious” and “unfounded.” This memo seems to have provided some basis for State and NATO talking points ever since in addressing Russian complaints about NATO expansion.[10]

The Kornblum-Herbst memo focused on the Two-Plus-Four negotiations that developed the German unification treaty, arguing that the treaty only applied to the territory of the former East Germany, and provided no precedent for limits on any new NATO members. The memo inaccurately described one comment by Hans-Dietrich Genscher as “unilateral” and only applying to the former GDR, when in fact State Department and British diplomatic cables at the time (February 1990) showed Genscher specifically and repeatedly referred both to the former GDR and to Poland and Hungary as countries that might want to join NATO. But otherwise, the memo did not address the high-level assurances about Soviet security (such as “not one inch eastward”) provided to Gorbachev by a wide range of Western leaders (James Baker, Helmut Kohl, Douglas Hurd, John Major, and George H.W. Bush, among others).[11]

The Kornblum-Herbst memo contained one confusing reference, supposedly citing the “senior Kremlin official,” to “legally binding declarations by Eastern European leaders” at the time. Neither State’s intelligence bureau nor its historian’s office could find such declarations, perhaps because the Russians were actually referring to Western leader assurances, or even to the famous Vaclav Havel speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in February 1990 calling for dissolution of both blocs (he soon changed his mind).[12]

Today’s posting does not address the undeniable benefits to the Central and Eastern European countries of integration into NATO – although some of these were articulated by their leaders in the memcons with President Clinton in January 1994 that are published here. Nor does the posting provide any net assessment of the gains and losses to American and European security from NATO expansion. Rather, the focus of this collection of documents is simply on what Russian President Boris Yeltsin heard from the Clinton administration about NATO expansion in the first half of the 1990s, and on the repeated Russian objections that were just as repeatedly discounted by Clinton administration officials.

Today’s posting is the second of two on the subject. The first part covered the Gorbachev discussions with Western leaders about NATO and the future of Europe.

National Security Archive
November 24, 2021
NATO Expansion – The Budapest Blow Up 1994
What Yeltsin Heard: From Cold War to “Cold Peace”
Clinton’s Two Tracks Collide – NATO Enlargement and Russia Engagement
Text with documents:

Washington, D.C., November 24, 2021 – The biggest train wreck on the track to NATO expansion in the 1990s – Boris Yeltsin’s “cold peace” blow up at Bill Clinton in Budapest in December 1994 – was the result of “combustible” domestic politics in both the U.S. and Russia, and contradictions in the Clinton attempt to have his cake both ways, expanding NATO and partnering with Russia at the same time, according to newly declassified U.S. documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The Yeltsin eruption on December 5, 1994, made the top of the front page of the New York Times the next day, with the Russian president’s accusation (in front of Clinton and other heads of state gathered for a summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, CSCE) that the “domineering” U.S. was “trying to split [the] continent again” through NATO expansion. The angry tone of Yeltsin’s speech echoed years later in his successor Vladimir Putin’s famous 2007 speech at the Munich security conference, though by then the list of Russian grievances went well beyond NATO expansion to such unilateral U.S. actions as withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the invasion of Iraq.

The new documents, the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the National Security Archive, include a series of revelatory “Bill-Boris” letters in the summer and fall of 1994, and the previously secret memcon of the presidents’ one-on-one at the Washington summit in September 1994. Clinton kept assuring Yeltsin any NATO enlargement would be slow, with no surprises, building a Europe that was inclusive not exclusive, and in “partnership” with Russia. In a phone call on July 5, 1994, Clinton told Yeltsin “I would like us to focus on the Partnership for Peace program” not NATO. At the same time, however, “policy entrepreneurs” in Washington were revving up the bureaucratic process for more rapid NATO enlargement than expected either by Moscow or the Pentagon,[1] which was committed to the Partnership for Peace as the main venue for security integration of Europe, not least because it could include Russia and Ukraine.[2]

The new documents include insightful cables from U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Thomas Pickering, explaining Yeltsin’s new hard line at Budapest as the result of multiple factors. Not least, Pickering pointed to “strong domestic opposition across the [Russian] political spectrum to early NATO expansion,” criticism of Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, as too “compliant to the West,” and the growing conviction in Moscow that U.S. domestic politics – the pro-expansion Republicans’ sweep of the Congressional mid-term elections in November 1994 – would tilt U.S. policy away from taking Russia’s concerns into account.

Pickering was perhaps too diplomatic because there was plenty of blame to go around on the U.S. side. Clinton wrote in his memoir, “Budapest was embarrassing, a rare moment when people on both sides dropped the ball….”[3] Actually, the drops were almost all in Washington. White House schedulers led by chief of staff Leon Panetta tried to prevent Clinton from even going to Budapest by constraining his window there to eight hours, which meant no time for a one-on-one with Yeltsin. Clinton himself thought he was doing Yeltsin a big favor by even coming and expected good press from the substantial reduction in nuclear arsenals that would result from the signing of the Budapest memorandum on security assurances for Ukraine (violated by Russia in 2014). National Security Adviser Tony Lake gave Clinton a prepared text that “was all yin and no yang – sure to please the Central Europeans and enthusiasts for enlargement, but equally sure to drive the Russians nuts….” The author of that phrase, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, wasn’t even in Budapest, paying attention to the Haiti crisis instead (“never again” he later wrote, would he miss a Yeltsin meeting).[4]

The new documents include a previously secret National Security Council memo from Senior Director for Russia Nicholas Burns to Talbott, so sensitive that Burns had it delivered by courier, describing Clinton’s reaction to Budapest as “really pissed off” and reporting “the President did not want to be used any more as a prop by Yeltsin.” At the same time, Burns stressed, “we need to separate our understandable anger on the tone of the debate with [sic] Russia’s substantive concerns which we must take seriously.” Similarly, the Pickering cables recommended using Vice President Al Gore’s previously scheduled December trip to Moscow for meetings with Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin to also meet with Yeltsin, calm down the discussion, and get back on a “workable track.”

Mending fences would include Gore’s description to Yeltsin of the parallel NATO and U.S.-Russia tracks as spaceships docking simultaneously and very carefully,[5] and Gore and then Clinton assuring the Russians (but not in writing, as Kozyrev kept asking for) that no NATO action on new members would happen before the 1995 Duma elections or the 1996 presidential elections in Russia.

The final assurance was Clinton’s agreement (despite Russia’s brutal Chechen war and multiple domestic pressures) to come to Moscow in May 1995 for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the victory over Hitler. In Moscow, Yeltsin berated Clinton about NATO expansion, seeing “nothing but humiliation” for Russia: “For me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding towards those of Russia – that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.” But Yeltsin also saw Clinton would do whatever he could to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and that mattered the most to him. Only after that Moscow summit would Yeltsin order Kozyrev to sign Russia up for the Partnership for Peace.

The new documents only reached the public domain as the result of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the National Security Archive against the State Department, seeking the retired files of Strobe Talbott. Thanks to excellent representation by noted FOIA attorney David Sobel, State set up a schedule of regular releases to the Archive over the past three years. The full corpus of thousands of pages covering the entire 1990s will appear next year in the award-winning series published by ProQuest, the Digital National Security Archive, which won Choice Magazine’s designation as an “Outstanding Academic Title 2018.” The Archive also benefited from State’s assignment of veteran reviewer Geoffrey Chapman to the task of assessing the Talbott documents for declassification. Chapman ranks among the most thorough, expert, and professional declassifiers in the U.S. government.