LONDON: “The strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must”, so said Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue nearly 2,500 years ago. How many times in world history has this been true? Working as a diplomat in Moscow 26 years ago, Thucydides’ wise words were forever present in my mind as the Soviet Union collapsed and a weakened Russia emerged on the world stage. The following 10 years were a golden opportunity to cement trust between NATO and Russia; instead, the West made promises which it quickly and flagrantly broke. Recent publication of documents from the George Washington University’s National Security Archives (GWUNSA) reveals the extent to which promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev were simply ignored. These documents consist of official records of meetings between Russian and Western officials, together with a number of private diaries of the participants.
Take a look at a map of Russia and it is not difficult to see why throughout history Russian leaders have been concerned at the vulnerability of its western flank, even though it has never been conquered from this direction. Attempts by the Poles in 1606, Swedes in 1708, French in 1812 and twice by the Germans in 1914 and 1941, all failed. Following the “Great Patriotic War”, as Russia calls it, they occupied the territory conquered from Germany in 1945, which then acted as a buffer between the “motherland” and the newly formed NATO, partially recreating the old Russian empire of Peter and Catherine. The Warsaw Pact, as the military alliance between these countries became known, formed in 1955 some six years after NATO, provided Moscow with a level of first line protection against any attack from the West. Known as the Cold War, it was in fact a time of military stability, each side knowing that any altercation could lead to Mutually Assured Destruction, which would be in nobody’s interest. The fall of the Soviet Union and with it the Warsaw Pact in 1991 changed all this.
President Vladimir Putin called the break-up of the Soviet Union “the major geopolitical disaster of the century”. Blaming the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, for undermining Russia’s security, Putin has watched NATO creep ever closer to Russia’s borders even though Russia is insistent that it was given assurances that there would be no expansion of NATO. Mikhail Gorbachev, no lover of NATO, confused matters by saying in his recent book that “the West kept all its binding commitments following from the reunification of Germany”. Technically correct, perhaps, but it is what was agreed in private between key players, which is so important so far as “trust” is concerned, and here the GWUNSA documents can reveal what was actually said at the time. Unquestionably, these documents give substantial credibility to the Russian claims of Western perfidy.
George Washington University’s National Security Archives (GWUNSA) reveals the extent to which promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev were simply ignored.
Take your mind back, if you are old enough, to the days immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The following year, the West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl was desperate to unify the 2 halves of Germany within NATO. GWUNSA documents reveal that top officials from the US, Germany and UK offered assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev and his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that NATO would not expand towards the Russian borders. It was clear that they meant no expansion to Eastern European countries and not just East German territory. These assurances were noted in private documents, but were never put into a legally binding form. At the time, the West German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher was charged with getting Soviet consent for his country’s unification and knew that only a guarantee of non-expansion of NATO would sway the Soviets to giving this consent. He said this to the German public and repeated it to the British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, who recorded the note, adding that “Britain clearly recognised the importance of doing nothing to prejudice Soviet interests and dignity”. The most damming words for Western credibility and subsequent action came from US Secretary of State James Baker, who is recorded as saying on 9 February 1990 to his opposite number, Eduard Shevardnadze “there would of course have to be ironclad guarantees that NATO jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward and this would be done in a manner that would satisfy Germany’s neighbours to the east”. On the same day, he repeated to Gorbachev, “If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces one inch to the east.” Baker made it absolutely clear that the West was offering this concession in exchange for Gorbachev’s agreement to allow a unified Germany in NATO. Gorbachev replied that “a broadening of the NATO zone is unacceptable”, to which Baker replied “we agree with that”. While these talks were underway, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Gates, was conducting talks with the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and put to him exactly the same proposals with the same response. As late as 5 March 1991, the diaries of my former boss, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who at the time was the British ambassador to the Soviet Union, record that the British Prime Minister John Major was still assuring the Soviet Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov that NATO would not expand eastward. At the same time, the NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner assured a Russian delegation, which reported back to President Boris Yeltsin, that 13 out of 16 NATO members were against expansion.
So, faced with all these assurances what actually happened? Germany was duly reunited in 1990; Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, followed in 2004 by the other former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States. If you believe in the phrase “my word is my bond”, it is not difficult to understand why President Putin is so cautious in dealing with the perfidious West.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.