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Russia’s NATO Fears

In a muscular speech on March 18th before a joint session of the Russian parliament announcing the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked a deep sense of grievance about the West’s treatment of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, Putin returned repeatedly to the theme of NATO expansion. “They have lied to us many times,” Putin said, “made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders.”

Arguing that there had already been discussions about Ukraine joining NATO, Putin stated that this would create a “perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia” and that “NATO remains a military alliance and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory.”

While there has been an unfortunate tendency in the American press to demonize Putin, his fear of NATO’s expansion to Ukraine is both real and legitimate. In 2008, Ukraine applied to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), a precursor to actual NATO membership. More recently, during the recent campaign, Yulia Tymoshenko called for Ukraine to join NATO. With president-elect Petro Poroshenko pushing to strengthen ties with Europe, Ukraine will soon have to decide whether its future lies with NATO. It doesn’t, and the proof of that lies in the nation’s short history.

In two separate meetings in Moscow in February 1990, US and Soviet leaders established the terms for German unification and the future of NATO. US Secretary of State James Baker initially told Gorbachev that in the event of a unified Germany in NATO “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the East.” The following day, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl also emphasized to the Soviet leader that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” to the east, and his Foreign Minister Hans-Dieter Genscher reassured his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze that “for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand itself to the East.”

Unfortunately for Gorbachev’s successors, however, the former Soviet leader ended up settling for what was essentially a vague verbal understanding about NATO expansion with his Western counterparts. The final Treaty on German unification signed in September 1990 allowed NATO to extend into East Germany, and the Treaty certainly contained no language related to NATO expansion further east. But Jack Matlock, former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991, explained that while Eastern Europe was “not specifically mentioned, one could argue that a commitment was implicit in the assurances given regarding Eastern Germany.”

As a result, a unified Germany joined NATO, and then, over furious objections from the Russians, the alliance expanded to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999. NATO took Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia into its fold in 2004, and with the admission of Croatia and Albania to NATO in 2009, twelve new countries in Eastern Europe had joined NATO since the break-up of the former Soviet Union.

Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, has interviewed many of the key leaders from the 1990s, and discovered that senior US officials were already actively discussing the possibility that NATO might eventually expand to Poland and other East European countries.: “There is a myth that no one on the US side was thinking about NATO expansion into Eastern Europe in 1990. That is simply incorrect,” said Sarotte. Echoing what she wrote in a previous article, Sarotte added that “Throughout 1990, Baker aides such as Dennis Ross and Robert Zoellick were already considering how to leave the door open to future NATO expansion into Poland and Eastern Europe. Even Baker, when I interviewed him, said that he was thinking of NATO expansion relatively early on. However these discussions only happened in the context of internal US and German preparations for their future meetings with the Soviets and never occurred in the presence of Gorbachev or Shevardnadze.”

While conversations from almost a quarter of a century ago may seem like ancient history, to a country that has suffered numerous invasions from the West – and lost 27 million of its citizens during World War II – the perceived betrayal of NATO expansion is a lesson that the West cannot be trusted and Moscow must therefore act proactively to protect its interests.

“I can’t read Putin’s mind”, said Matlock, “but my guess is that a critical issue for Putin was the prospect that the Maidan government would act to close the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, perhaps in conjunction with NATO. In that sense, the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine, for Putin, was something equivalent to Soviet missiles on Cuba for Kennedy.”

Once Russia’s historical perspective is understood, it becomes clear that the only viable solution for Ukraine is neutrality. Poroshenko himself has indicated that he is opposed to the consideration of NATO membership for Ukraine, and so a formal commitment to neutrality could be enshrined in a new Ukrainian constitution. This type of powerful assurance would ease Moscow’s existential fear of Ukraine joining an anti-Russian military alliance, and the West should push Kiev to make this concession. While Ukraine’s nationalists might protest that Poroshenko should not provide Putin a veto over Ukraine’s decision regarding NATO, Russia does and should have such a veto, and there is no use in pretending it does not.

Furthermore, a Ukrainian commitment to neutrality would not just enhance Ukraine’s security externally but internally as well. According to a Gallup poll, 46% of Ukrainians in the East of the country saw NATO as a threat before the current crisis erupted, while only 3% viewed NATO as a security boon. The rest were neutral. Given these numbers, angling to join NATO would just give Russian speakers in the East another reason to feel estranged from Kiev.

Neutrality worked quite well for both Finland and Austria during the Cold War, and there is no reason not to consider something similar for Ukraine. Doing so would send a powerful signal to Moscow that the West respects Russia’s security interests due vis-à-vis Ukraine, and that 2014 is not 1990 redux. The Russian wounds from 1990 may never totally heal, but perhaps events from that fateful year do offer policymakers guidance for resolving the current crisis.