The Perfidious West: Why Putin’s suspicion is justified

The Perfidious West: Why Putin’s suspicion is justified

By John Dobson | 23 December, 2017
President Vladimir Putin called the break-up of the Soviet Union ‘the major geopolitical disaster of the century’.

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.


There are 6 Comments

This narrative of “the perfidious West” is nonsense. At the time of negotiations the Warsaw Pact was still in existence and the assurances of not expanding NATO eastward related to the territory of East Germany only. No one at the time could predict the later collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

So what you are saying, Martin, is that it’s OK to give assurances provided the matter is unlikely to happen! I find this very odd logic!

Your comment about lack of prediction has been used many times in the past, Martin. It is simply not supported by the facts (I shall not be rude and say your comment is nonsense). At the time of the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989, Eastern Europe was in turmoil, with the Warsaw Pact unlikely to survive. This was particularly true when Gorbachev refused to use troops to quell the crowds. Putin is on record as saying he was in disbelief that the tank regiment, barracked close to where he worked as a KGB Lt Col in Dresden, was not used. From that moment on it was clear to every analyst that the survival of the WP was unlikely. Note that these were the days when the 'promises' listed in the article above were being made.which is why you are so wrong. On the Soviet Union, there was plenty of evidence for those who needed it that the SU had little time to survive. This is why Gorbachev tried so hard to make reforms, including the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Even in this case, it was a question only of when and not if. I agree that we didn't anticipate the events of August 1991, but our predictions were only out by a year or so. So, this article is entirely accurate in that promises were given by the West when it was known that the turmoil was indeed likely to lead to the expansion of NATO. Perfidy indeed.

Very hypocritical of Russia to complain about the "Perfidious West", after Russia itself failed to honour the 1994 Budapest Memorandum affirming their commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.

Vladimir, the origins of the myth of the “broken promise” lie in the unique political situation in which the key political actors found themselves in 1990, and which shaped their ideas about the future European order. Former USSR leader, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies had long spun out of control, the Baltic countries were demanding independence, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were showing signs of upheaval. The Berlin Wall had fallen; Germany was on the road to reunification. However, the Soviet Union still existed, as did the Warsaw Pact, who’s Central and Eastern European member countries did not talk about joining NATO, but rather about the “dissolution of the two blocks”. Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the “2+4 Treaty” ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe. It is these conversations that may have left some Soviet politicians with the impression that NATO enlargement, which started with the admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999, had been a breach of these Western commitments. Some statements of Western politicians – particularly German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher and his American counterpart James A. Baker – can indeed be interpreted as a general rejection of any NATO enlargement beyond East Germany. However, these statements were made in the context of the negotiations on German reunification, and the Soviet interlocutors never specified their concerns. In the crucial “2+4” negotiations, which finally led Gorbachev to accept a unified Germany in NATO in July 1990, the issue was never raised. As former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze later put it, the idea of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact dissolving and NATO taking in former Warsaw Pact members was beyond the imagination of the protagonists at the time. Yet even if one were to assume that Genscher and others had indeed sought to forestall NATO’s future enlargement with a view to respecting Soviet security interests, they could never have done so. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 later created a completely new situation, as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were finally able to assert their sovereignty and define their own foreign and security policy goals. As these goals centered on integration with the West, any categorical refusal of NATO to respond would have meant the de facto continuation of Europe’s division along former Cold War lines. The right to choose one’s alliance, enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Charter, would have been denied – an approach that the West could never have sustained, neither politically nor morally.

The purpose of my op-ed, Martin, was to examine the events of nearly 30 years ago in the light of recently-available GWUNSA primary source documents. It is clear from these that the only myth is the mantra used many times, which I note you support, that the West gave assurances when they could not know that the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union would collapse. You will know that at a meeting on 25 February 1991 it was agreed to dissolve the WP, yet the Braithwaite diaries clearly show that the West continued to supply assurances that NATO would not extend eastwards long after that date. These documents totally destroy the West's pathetic excuse and illustrate its perfidy. It is not surprising that Putin feels content to break promises about Ukraine or Crimea; he is simply following the example provided by the West!

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