Broken Promises

The recent effort by the Bush Administration to better explain U.S. policies in Eastern Europe will have no impact unless Washington is prepared to listen to Russian concerns and act accordingly.

Unfortunately, the whole history of Russia's relations with NATO is a history of broken promises, guarantees and obligations. In March 1999, NATO broke its obligation to coordinate its actions with Russia when it decided to attack Yugoslavia against opposition from Moscow. It was in clear breach of the Russia-NATO Founding Act, signed on May 28, 1997, in Paris. In this act, NATO also gave a guarantee that on the territory of the new member states of the alliance there would be no military bases, troop deployments or nuclear armaments.

Thus, when in December 2006 it became known that the United States plans to establish a military missile-defense base in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, it was taken in Moscow as yet another sign of broken obligations by the United States and its allies. Those missile defenses might be indeed aimed at neutralizing Iran, but given that NATO in the past had broken its obligations, Vladimir Putin had reasons to worry they were but the first steps in a system that in the future would be aimed at Russia's nuclear potential. All the more so that by mid-March it transpired that the U.S. administration plans to establish such radar stations in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan as well.

Another point to raise is that many of us trusted the numerous guarantees Moscow had received in 1989 and 1990 from Western leaders that, in return for allowing the unification of Germany to go forward, NATO would not move eastward. In this case NATO would not move an inch eastward outside of its present zone of action is how James Baker, then-U.S. secretary of state, assured Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze. NATO's then-Secretary General Manfred Woerner stated in a speech delivered in Brussels on May 17, 1990, that "the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee." When proposals began to be put forward that NATO should expand, I constantly stressed that NATO's decision over whether or not to enlarge to the east would shape the relationship between Russia and the West for the next period of world history. However, I got the impression that taking in the Eastern European states was more important for NATO leaders than integrating Russia.

The standard response to the arguments against NATO's eastward expansion was that Russia's neighbors felt unsafe. However, with the Cold War over and a democratic political regime in Moscow, Russia clearly posed no military threat either to the Poles, Czechs or Hungarians. Neither Warsaw nor Prague could point to any signs that Russia had aggressive designs towards Eastern Europe.

But proposals to extend security guarantees to these countries without expanding NATO were turned down by Washington and Brussels. Therefore, the decision to include those countries into NATO was seen in Moscow as a desire to use Russia's relative weakness in order to strategically push it out of Europe.

Throughout the 1990s, I often made the point that by expanding NATO eastward, Russia would be pushed out of the Euro-Atlantic community. From the geopolitical point of view it is as if the West were saying to Russia, "From now on, your security is of no interest to us. You are on your own." The answers I was repeatedly getting were amazing and extremely short-sighted: "What can you do to oppose the expansion? Move your troops to your Western borders? What practical measures can you take?" As for the guarantees given in 1989 and 1990, I was told that none of them had been codified in any formal treaty or agreement and that, even if Western leaders such as Helmut Kohl or John Major reiterated what Baker or Woerner had said, they were now of no consequence.

Besides, there seemed to be no limit to the eastward expansion of the alliance. From 1994-96, we Russians were led to believe that it would stop at Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. At that point our Western partners claimed that accepting the Baltic countries against Moscow's objections would be unthinkable. But three or four years later it became quite thinkable. "Fine", we were told then, "but this would be the end of it. No one in his right mind would plan to have either Ukraine or Georgia in NATO!" But three years have passed since the second wave of NATO enlargement, and now we hear that Ukraine and Georgia should be considered for membership!

No one seems to ask what the United States is likely to gain from including Ukraine or Georgia in NATO. Neither of those two countries is going to be instrumental in solving the big challenges to U.S. and Western security posed by Iran, North Korea and international terrorism. Besides, in the case of Ukraine, membership in NATO is supported by only 20-22 percent of Ukrainian voters-and there is strong resistance to the idea both in the eastern part of the country as well as in the Crimea. Is it worth risking partnership with Russia to drag Ukraine into NATO, almost against its own will? Or is the real reason for expansion, as more and more people think in Moscow, to weaken and marginalize Russia? But this, then, can clearly have nothing to do with any sort of real partnership. The recent effort by the Bush Administration to better explain U.S. policies is bound to fall flat. Visits by high U.S. officials to Moscow, like National Security advisor Steve Hadley's talks with Putin in February, will have no impact unless Washington is prepared to listen to Russian concerns and act accordingly.

Alexey Pushkov is a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He is the anchor of a weekly television program on politics (Postscript), a board member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policies and a contributing editor to The National Interest. This piece is excerpted from his "Missed Connections" essay which will appear in the May/June issue of The National Interest.