Did NATO betray Russia by expanding to the east?

The Kremlin claims that the Western world broke a promise it made in the 1990s not to expand NATO and is now using this claim to justify threats to invade Ukraine.

One of Russia’s consistent demands has been that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should stop expanding to the east and promise never to include Kiev in the security alliance. But NATO has long insisted that it has an open door policy for all countries that meet its membership criteria.

The United States and NATO rejected Moscow’s security requirements as non-starters in a written response to the Kremlin delivered last week by the US ambassador to Russia.

While the current conflict between Russia and the West is based on many complaints, the story of Western treason has been a prominent place in Moscow’s rhetoric for decades.

In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Vladimir Putin accused the Western powers of violating a solemn promise by significantly expanding NATO – especially with the Baltic countries’ accession to the Alliance in 2004 – and asked: “What happened to the assurances made by our Western partners? after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? ”

NATO has not stopped expanding since the fall of the Soviet Union and grew from 17 countries in 1990 to 30 today, several of which were once part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

The Origin of the Betrayal Claim To understand Russia’s allegations of betrayal, it is necessary to review the assurances made by US Secretary of State James A. Baker to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting on February 9, 1990. In a discussion on the status of a reunited Germany, the two men agreed that NATO would not extend beyond the territory of East Germany, a promise repeated by NATO Secretary General in a speech on 17 May the same year in Brussels.

Russia and the West finally concluded an agreement in September that would allow NATO to station its troops beyond the Iron Curtain. However, the deal was only for a reunited Germany, with further expansion to the east was unthinkable at the time.

“The Soviet Union still existed and the countries of Eastern Europe were still part of the Soviet structures – such as the Warsaw Pact – that were not officially dissolved until July 1991,” said Amélie Zima, Ph.D. “We can not talk about betrayal, because a chain of events that would reorganize the security configuration in Europe was about to take place.”

In short, at a time when Westerners were offering the “guarantees” that Vladimir Putin was talking about, no one could have foreseen the collapse of the Soviet Union and the historical upheavals that followed.

>> The fall of the Soviet Union, 30 years later

“In addition, these promises were made orally and were never signed into a treaty,” recalled Olivier Kempf, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research. “The turning point for NATO enlargement came much later, in 1995, at the request of the Eastern European countries.”

That year, NATO published a study on its enlargement before membership negotiations began two years later with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all of which would become members in 1999. The addition of these new members has long sparked debate within NATO, undermining Russia’s myth of treason. orchestrated by the West. “Even within the US administration, some felt that NATO should not expand because it would make it less efficient, dilute its capabilities and become a financial burden,” Zima explained.

Ukraine’s strategic importance For many years, the issue of NATO enlargement has fueled tensions between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. In August 2008, Georgia’s NATO and EU ambitions helped Moscow support pro-Russian separatists in Georgia’s self-proclaimed autonomous republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia also looks with great suspicion at the alliance’s anti-missile shield – established in 2016 in NATO member Romania. A similar NATO base is located in Poland.

In the face of these Russian concerns, Western governments consistently emphasize the defensive nature of the NATO alliance.

“The Russians have a hard time accepting NATO enlargement, but they forget that in 1997 they signed a document called the NATO-Russia Founding Act, through which they become partners and commit to guaranteeing peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area and the territorial integrity of all member states. , “noted Zima.

Today, Moscow is reviving its rhetoric in connection with the Ukraine crisis by transforming Kiev’s possible future NATO membership into a new red line that must not be crossed.

Ukraine currently has “partner country” status with NATO. In reality, Kiev still has a long way to go before it can qualify for full membership.

“One of the main rules of the alliance is that the member states must have resolved all their border issues in order not to integrate a new crisis factor into the organization. With the continuing conflict [with Russia over] Crimea, it is unlikely that Ukraine could join NATO, says Kempf.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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