Western politicians suffer a convenient memory loss

Did NATO promise not to ever expand further eastward, beyond the Elbe River as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been claiming?

NATO claims they didn’t.

One of the two sides must be lying.

Shockingly to many who see him as devil incarnate, it’s not Putin.

German newsmagazine Der Spiegel has published a document found in Great Britain’s National Archive that confirms Western powers did agree, on several occasions, to keep NATO east of the Elbe River.

American political scientist Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson found and published the record of foreign ministers’ meeting in the then-German capital, Bonn, March 6, 1991, with representatives of the U.S., Great Britain, France and Germany participating.

The file was classified YEO (your eyes only) originally, but would be de-classified 20 years after it had been written.

On the agenda

Five months after the reunification of both Germanies, the foreign ministers debated the security of Poland and other Eastern and Central European countries. They were following up on interest in joining Western-based security organisations expressed officially at the time by governments of Poland and Hungary.

According to the newly-found document the Brits, Yankees, Germans and the French were all of one mind: Eastern and Central Europe, all former communist countries, would be “unacceptable” for NATO membership.

While the fear of former communists still enjoying positions of power in those countries remained unmentioned, it was there: whom would they be loyal to?

Jürgen Chrobog, representing Germany, found a better diplomatic way of putting it: “While negotiating the 2 + 4 formula, we have clearly agreed that NATO will not be expanding across the Elbe River. Therefore, we cannot offer NATO membership to Poland and other Eastern (and Central) European countries.”

The 2 + 4 talks involved negotiations between the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the capitalist NATO member, Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) on one side, and the four Second World War victorious Allies, Great Britain, the former Soviet Union (then still existing), the United States and France.

The Putin timing

Putin joined Russia’s power elites in 1998. That’s when he became the boss of the Federal Security Service. Less than a year later, he would become Prime Minister (with his Security Service job overlapping with his Prime Ministership for about three weeks).

After a couple of turns in the Prime Ministerial seat, he ended up replacing Boris Yeltsin as acting President in 1999, becoming full-time chief five months later.

Why this excursion into chronology?

Because Russian government have expressed their dismay with NATO’s sudden change of plans in 1993: plans to expand the organisation, in order to include the post-communist countries, contravene the 2 + 4 negotiations and their resulting agreement.

Judging by the newly found documentation, the Russians were referring to official assurances made in 1991 by then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his then-Foreign Affairs Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP).

Raymond G. H. Seitz, America’s representative at the March 6, 1991 Bonn talks, was very specific: “We have clearly assured the Soviet Union, during the 2 + 4 talks, as well as on other occasions, that we will not get any advantage from the removal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. NATO must not expand eastward, neither formally or informally.”

On the other hand, since the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989), western powers have never signed any legally binding agreement with the Soviets that would rule NATO expansion eastward out completely.

Experts who studied the newly released document agree that records taken during the talks seem to indicate all participants acted in good faith.

A new approach

Then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told the west his country would undergo major civilising reforms, both political and economic. He went so far as to suggest that he might consider joining NATO.

That would lead Germany’s Kohl and Genscher, with support from several other NATO leaders, to start working on a plan to change the body from an outright military group into a political organisation. In fact, Genscher consulted the plan with his American counterpart, James Baker, in the presence of then-Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze.

The ambitious plan would never make it beyond the end of the year 1991.

But the promises of non-expansion still remained. When NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rejected Putin’s statement about it out of hand, he could have been correct about it only in a very narrowly legalistic way: it wasn’t actually NATO that promised non-expansion eastward, it was its political bosses.

Point of order

Here’s the controversy: when NATO accepted Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as new members in 1999, it claimed the decision didn’t contravene its agreements with the Soviets made in 1989.

The Alliance started out in 1949 with a dozen founder-countries (in alphabetic order): Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The group has grown into a 30-member organisation since then: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020).

According to Article 10 of NATO’s rules, membership is open to any “European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.”

The invitation to join the Alliance must come from the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal political decision-making body, on the basis of consensus among all Allies.

Russian adverse reactions to NATO’s expansion eastward are nothing new.

Here’s the problem: with Russia (and her President) now the outside world’s favourite bogeyman, who in their right mind will dare hint that the former KGB spy may be correct, after all?

In this war of Pinocchios (and their disinformation departments), the stakes can hardly be much higher.

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