Western leaders apparently promised Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastwards and threaten Soviet security interests. Leaders named include Baker, Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major, and Woerner. Of course, today's NATO goes all the way to Russia's border.

I'm wondering how these leaders justified NATO's expansion. Even if they are no longer their country's leaders, many of them are still alive (or was alive when NATO expanded). Surely someone would have asked them why they are breaking their promises. How did they respond? I'm asking about these named leaders who made the promises only.

There is some sporadic discussion of this in Wikipedia's History of NATO page, but I didn't see anything that explicitly addresses NATO expansion in the context of the promises made.

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    Seems like the obvious answer is that the promise was to the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, and thus no longer has security interests.
    – user15620
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 13:24
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    To be clear, the dude has written a couple of history works. I note that the negative reviews of them tend to mention political bias. Which is exactly the problem I'm seeing in his blog. I mean, his blog, his politics, that's fair. But know what you are getting into.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 13:43
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    Another question Did NATO promise Gorbachev not to accept membership applications from former Warsaw Pact nations? deals with this issue as well.
    – justCal
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 13:45
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    @RodrigodeAzevedo - I'm not sure I can put the problem better than this reviewer did: " The trouble with this book is that it's written by a politician, and it's the nature of the politician to try and convince others of their ideas." In other words, the priority he has when writing is not to tell you what happened, its to convince you of his worldview. When those two conflict, its the former that seems to win out.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 13:53
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    @jamesqf presumably because Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union. In the same way after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Russia became the new permanent member of the UN security council without much drama, took over all USSR embassies worldwide, etc: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Succession_of_states#Soviet_Union
    – Allure
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 3:30

7 Answers 7


There are several issues raised in the question:

  1. The legal issue is quite clear and was addressed in other answers.

  2. "... how these leaders justified NATO's expansion. Surely someone would have asked them why they are breaking their promises. How did they respond? I'm asking about these named leaders who made the promises only."

This question also has a very simple answer: Except for Helmut Kohl, none of them was a leader of their respective country when the NATO expansion took place (and Kohl was out during the 2nd round of expansion). As for future leaders, oral promises made by their predecessors are not binding in any sense (legal, political or moral).

  1. As for debates within NATO on wisdom of enlargement(s), these are amply covered for instance in the book

"Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War" by Peter Conradi.

Here are few relevant fragments from the book:

“IN THE YEARS SINCE 1999 THERE has been much discussion about NATO enlargement and whether the West broke a promise by pressing ahead with it. Each stage in the deterioration of relations between East and West has been marked by new claims of pledges made and broken. Attention has focused in particular on a conversation between Gorbachev and James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state, in February 1990, during which Baker pledged that if Soviet forces were withdrawn from Eastern Europe, NATO would not move in to replace them. The ‘military presence or jurisdiction of NATO would not be expanded even one inch in an easterly direction’, Baker had told Gorbachev, according to transcripts of the conversation. Helmut Kohl, the West German leader, gave similar assurances. This idea of NATO’s ‘broken promise’ became a cornerstone of Russia’s post-Soviet identity. NATO itself has conceded that some statements by Western leaders, especially those by Baker and by Hans-Dietrich Genscher, his German counterpart, ‘can indeed be interpreted as a general rejection of any NATO enlargement beyond East Germany’. John Major, the British prime minister, was even more explicit, telling Dmitri Yazov, the Soviet defence minister, in March 1991, that he did not himself foresee circumstances now or in the future where East European countries would become members of NATO’, according to the then British ambassador, Rodric Braithwaite, who was present at the meeting. Yet, despite the opening of countless records and releases of archival material, it is clear that the assurance “remained just that. No legally binding written guarantee has ever emerged. In any case, such statements were made in the context of the negotiations on German reunification, and the Soviet side never specified their concerns. Nor was the issue raised during the crucial ‘2+4’ negotiations that finally led Gorbachev to accept a unified Germany in NATO in July 1990. At that time the Warsaw Pact still existed, and Poland, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia, among others, were still members. As Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, 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 negotiators at the time.

According to this argument, the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact in February 1991 and the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of the year created a completely new situation: freed from Soviet control, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were finally able to choose their destinies again. Given that they were all set on integration with the West, refusal by NATO to accept them would have meant a de facto continuation of Europe’s Cold War division and a denial of the provision, enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki charter, for a country’s right to choose its own alliance.

Within Russia, criticism has inevitably focused on Gorbachev himself and his failure to secure a binding guarantee that ruled out any eastward expansion of the Alliance. So many other minor issues that came up during negotiations were addressed in formal documents. Why did he not demand the same for something as important as enlargement? The charge clearly rankles with the former Soviet leader. In the years since, Gorbachev has condemned enlargement as a blunder and contrary to the spirit of the undertakings that he was given. Europe’s long-term security would have been better served by the creation of new institutions that would have united the Continent rather than preserved its division, he claims. Yet he has also dismissed as absurd any suggestion that he was outwitted by the West. ‘German reunification was completed at a time when the Warsaw Pact was still in existence, and to demand that its members should not join NATO would have been laughable,’ Gorbachev wrote in his book The New Russia, published in 2016. ‘No organisation can give a legally binding undertaking not to expand in the future. That was a purely political question, and all that could be done politically in the condition of time, was done.’


Regarding the first stage of NATO enlargement. A summary is that the issue was not taken lightly, but the concerns were not about any "broken promises" (the principals of the conversation were no Spring chickens and understood very well what these promises were worth), but political ramifications.

Russia remained alarmed at the prospect of the Alliance’s advance towards its border. So, too, was Jacques Chirac, the French president: determined to create a European position that differed from that of the Americans, he argued that NATO should not press ahead with enlargement without Moscow’s approval. During a meeting with Talbott in January 1997, Chirac accused America of mishandling the issue and failing to appreciate Russian sensitivities. He suggested that he and Helmut Kohl should negotiate with Yeltsin. But the German leader rebuffed him; he was keen to have Poland in NATO since it would mean his own country would no longer lie on the Alliance’s eastern border. Clinton was also becoming jittery. At a cabinet meeting on 17 January 1997, he asked what was in it for Yeltsin. He was told Russia would be offered membership of a joint consultative body with NATO and some modification to the terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Clinton was sceptical. ‘What the Russians get out of this great deal we’re offering them is a chance to sit in the same room with NATO and join us whenever we all agree to something, but they don’t have any ability to stop us from doing something that they don’t agree with,’ he said. ‘They can register their disapproval by walking out of the room. And for their second big benefit, they get our promise that we’re not going to put our military stuff into their former allies who are now going to be our allies, unless we happen to wake up one morning and decide to change our mind.’

Commentators weighed into the battle. Old Cold Warriors such as Kissinger and Brzezinski came out in support of enlargement. ‘Now that Soviet power has receded from the centre of the Continent, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization needs to adapt itself to the consequences of its success,’ said Kissinger. Others in America were warier, warning of the danger of provoking Russia and questioning why the proposal had not been the subject of congressional hearings. Just because former Soviet bloc countries wanted to join NATO didn’t mean it was in the Alliance’s interests to admit them, they argued, nor would it necessarily enhance America’s own security. The West was about to ‘make perhaps the biggest mistake of the post-Cold War period: rushing to expand NATO without satisfactorily resolving our relationship with “Russia first’, Susan Eisenhower, chairwoman of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, wrote in the Washington Post in March 1997, four months before the summit at which invitations were to be issued to the newcomers. On the other side of the Atlantic The Times also joined the critics, attributing Clinton’s enthusiasm for enlargement to his desire to please the Polish constituency in Michigan. ‘European and American leaders are but months away from implementing a plan that risks undermining the credibility of NATO, weakening the hand of reformers in Russia, and reducing – not enhancing – the real security of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe,’ it thundered.

Opponents of enlargement also found a powerful champion in George Kennan, the doyen of US foreign policy, whose Long Telegram, written in February 1946, set out the principle of the Cold War strategy of ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union. By then in his nineties, Kennan did not mince his words. ‘Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,’ he wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times, entitled ‘A Fateful Error’. “Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East–West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Kennan’s article, which appeared on 5 February, on the eve of a visit to Washington by Viktor Chernomyrdin, had considerable impact. Talbott had been tipped off about it by Kennan before it appeared and a clipping of it was lying on Clinton’s desk in the Oval Office when Talbott joined a meeting there. ‘Why isn’t Kennan right?’ Clinton demanded. ‘Isn’t he a kind of guru of yours going back to when we were at Oxford?’ Talbott was unfazed, pointing out that the veteran diplomat, despite his reputation as a Cold War warrior, had been opposed to the creation of NATO in the first place. So why take his comments seriously? Clinton, he felt, was convinced. ‘Just checking, Strobe. Just checking,’ the president smiled.”

“The stage was set for a difficult summit. Clinton’s strategy was to make it clear that enlargement was going to happen but to look for ways to sweeten the pill and make it easier for Yeltsin to sell the results at home; he aimed to do so by setting a target date for Russian accession to the World Trade Organization and turning June’s Denver G7 Summit into something more like a G8. ‘We’ve got to use this thing to get . . . [Yeltsin] comfortable with what he’s got to do on NATO,’ Clinton told Talbott.


The summit ended with the inevitable: a grudging acceptance by Yeltsin of enlargement, though not before the Russian leader had made one last attempt to persuade Clinton to agree that NATO would not ‘embrace’ any of the former Soviet republics. This need not be something formal, Yeltsin suggested: a secret ‘gentleman’s agreement’ would suffice. Clinton insisted, however, that there could be no question of a veto on any country’s eligibility for NATO, especially not in the form of a secret deal, details of which were bound to leak out to the press. He did not want to stand accused of agreeing to a modern-day version of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact under which Hitler and Stalin had divided up Central Europe. Once they were alone, Yeltsin revealed to Clinton that he was concerned about a backlash at home. ‘Boris, do you really think I would allow NATO to attack Russia from bases in Poland?’ Clinton asked. ‘No,’ Yeltsin replied, ‘I don’t, but a lot of older people who live in the western part of Russia and listen to Zyuganov do.’ Clinton realised that Yeltsin was deadly serious. As he later explained to Tony Blair, who became British prime minister that May, it was important to understand the Russian mentality. ‘They are still affected by Napoleon, Hitler and the way the Cold War came to an end, and about the way the Soviet Empire collapsed,’ he said.

... Clinton had squared the Russians, but now he faced the equally difficult challenge of getting the NATO allies on board. While enlargement was widely backed within the Alliance, there was no agreement on how many countries should be invited to join in the first wave. Washington wanted to limit it to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, not just because they were the most prepared, but also because the more members there were, the more complicated the problem of assimilating them would be. But a majority of NATO members wanted a larger number: Chirac, having swung round to accept enlargement, lobbied hard for the inclusion of Romania. Others wanted Slovenia or Slovakia. An insight into Clinton’s thinking came from a conversation he had over lunch with Blair in Downing Street that May. During it, he dismissed as a ‘silly argument’ suggestions by critics of enlargement in Congress that it could provoke a nationalist backlash in Russia. When Sandy Berger, Clinton’s newly appointed national security adviser, noted that polling data showed NATO was not a ‘grass roots’ issue “for Russians, Blair chipped in, saying: ‘What a surprise – they are just being normal and caring more about the economy.’ Clinton was adamant, however, that the first wave of enlargement should be limited to three countries. ‘Our first concern is that the first shall not be the last – we have said that all along,’ he told Blair. ‘If there are five, no one will believe in a second round and we will be under pressure to reassure them [the countries not admitted] publicly . . . The open door must be credible.’ A larger group would also ‘turn up the heat on the Baltic issue’ – the even more contentious matter of NATO membership for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – ‘and we are not prepared to handle that yet. This is a problem that needs time to sort itself out; we need to give it a few years.’ The issue came to a head at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Sintra, Portugal on 30 May, the day after Clinton’s meeting with Blair. Although backed by just Britain and Iceland, Washington ultimately prevailed, not only because of its undue weight within NATO but also because of the principle of consensus on which the Alliance worked. Invitations were extended only to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, but the communiqué established the principle of the ‘open door’, a process for the consideration of future applicants.

Regarding the second stage of the NATO expansion:

...NATO enlargement was even more divisive. Since his summit with Clinton in June 2000, Putin had continued to send out mixed signals about the Alliance. In July 2001, during his first press conference as president, he had urged that NATO be disbanded, dismissing it as a relic of the Cold War. ...

In the aftermath of 9/11 attacks:

... in a reflection of the changed international situation since 9/11, Putin again raised the subject of Russian membership of NATO during a private meeting with Robertson at Alliance headquarters in Brussels. ‘Mr Secretary General. When are you going to invite us to join NATO?’ he asked his host. Robertson replied that no country was ever ‘invited’ to join the Alliance. They had to apply. Putin was not impressed. ‘Russia is not going to stand in a queue with other countries that don’t matter,’ he said. Robertson suggested they ‘stop the diplomatic sword dance about membership and build the relationship between us’. ‘And that’s what we did,’ he says. It was the last time Putin spoke about joining NATO....

Much more can be said, but, I think, this answer is already too long.

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    Having been in NATO at the Mil/Pol level in the late 90's, this answer resurrects some of my frustrations with the stalled progress that had been made through the PfP program and the active engagement with Russia during that period. Sigh what might have been ... Commented May 7, 2020 at 2:11
  • I slightly amended the question. While the people named are no longer the leaders of their countries, many of them are still alive. If they said anything about NATO expansion in the context of the promises made, I'd like to know what they said.
    – Allure
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 2:13
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    @Allure: The sentence "Surely someone would have asked them why they are breaking their promises," should be edited as well. By 1996 "they" (except for Kohl) could not break any promises since they were either dead or out of office. Incidentally, is there any evidence that anybody asked Helmut Kohl in mid-90s? The rest, as retired politicians, were free to ignore any questions they did not like. (Even active politicians tend to ignore unpleasant questions.) Commented May 7, 2020 at 18:08

We can read a NATO perspective on this.

Basically, personal conversations regarding the reunification of Germany did not constitute commitments for what would happen a later with the Russian Federation. Nothing was ever written down, but it sounds like there were vague informal promises made on repeated occasions with the intention of soothing Soviet concerns about NATO expansion. More detail in this question. These promises were then broken by NATO enlargement. But whether you think it's okay or not that these promises didn't hold in a different geopolitical and security landscape a decade later is up to you.

"These statements were made in the context of the negotiations on German reunification, and the Soviet interlocutors never specified their concerns [about future NATO enlargement]. 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."

Respecting the former USSR's sphere of influence would have been in itself unjustifiable. Countries such as the Estonia or Latvia, despite their proximity to Moscow, are sovereign entities with the right to decide their own fates and their own alliances. As put in the linked article:

"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."

On top of what is contained in that article there are a few more points to make:

It's worth noting that eastern European countries that joined NATO have enjoyed a much more peaceful and stable relationship with Russia than those who didn't. The experiences of both Georgia and Ukraine suggest that having more non-aligned states in the gap between NATO and Russia (especially those with Russian minorities like Estonia) could actually be a bad thing for European stability.

Some would also argue that engaging the post-Soviet states in international cooperation with the western democracies (NATO) was a good way to encourage democracy and disfuse nationalism in these countries. But that point is very open to debate.

  • The experiences of both Georgia and Ukraine suggest that having more non-aligned states bordering Russia (especially those with Russian minorities like Estonia) might not be fantastic for European security. Can you clarify/reword? Are you saying that it's good for European security to have say Ukraine in NATO? Or the opposite? Commented May 6, 2020 at 17:06

When the promise was given in the the 1990s, there was an explicit or implicit assumption that Russia would not invade neighboring countries.

Justification is simple and evident: all Eastern European countries (except Finland Belorussia and possibly Moldowa) strongly and unambiguously expressed their desire to join NATO. Since there is no official signed document with this “promise”, there was no reason to refuse them.

Another justification is that Russia of 1990s (to which the promise was given) is not the same as Russia after 2000. Since 2000 it shows a strong intention to recover its former empire, and and does this by military aggression. Which was not the case when the “promise” was given: in the 1990s nobody expected that Russia will wage wars with its neighbors again.

The primary purpose of NATO was to contain Russian aggression. In the 1990s it seemed that this problem is not on the agenda anymore. Now it is back.

  • Are there any quotes from the named leaders giving this justification?
    – Allure
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 14:19
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    Re "The primary purpose of NATO was to contain Russian aggression.", this is incorrect. The purpose was to contain SOVIET aggression. With the end of the USSR, the liberation of its Warsaw Pact puppet states, and essentially the collapse of world communism, there was considerable hope that the new Russia would not engage in aggression.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 16:58
  • @jamesqf, many historians come to conclusion that the entire Russian communism was a covert for Russian imperialistic expansion. Hence, "SOVIET aggression" is barely different from Russian aggression. Commented May 5, 2020 at 23:06
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo Your perspectives should be posted in its own answer, if you can construct it to be relevant to the question as asked, rather than pushed in the comment sections of other answers.
    – Semaphore
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 8:40
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo: Many historians are just plain wrong.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 16:07

Question: How did Western leaders justify NATO's eastwards expansion after promising the Soviet leadership it won't happen?

Western ministry level bureaucrats might have had informal discussions with Mikhail Gorbachev, however; that's not how countries make formal lasting security agreements. It's more viewed as a snap shot of current feelings. The way nations make binding formal agreements are through treaties, not the spoken statements. The west never had and never would have ever agreed to a treaty on eastern Europe remaining in a Soviet sphere of interest. Facts are the entire reason France and UK declared war on Germany was the invasion of Poland. It never sat well with the West that Stalin ultimately absorbed that country after the war. Especially given he promised to support Democracies in Eastern Europe and Poland specifically in writing at Yalta Feb 1945.

Ultimately though the Soviet Union blinked out of existence in December 1991. Informal promises are never binding, not over a prolonged period of time and especially when one party blinks out of existence (Dec 1991).

@ Rodrigo

Do you suggest that, after paying a bill in the millions of corpses, Zhukov retreat to Minsk? If the Allies wanted Poland, they could have paid the bill. They had plenty of opportunity to invade Germany in late 1939. –

Yes that's exactly what the allied expected. After All that's pretty much what the allied did who suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. That's what Stalin "Formally" agreed to in writing at the Yalta Conference. Specifically "reform the communist government which the Soviet Union had installed in Poland along democratic lines and allow free and fair elections".

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    @RodrigodeAzevedo: What does it have to do with Zhukov? The question is about relatively recent IR issues. The answer explains the issue from the legal standpoint. Commented May 5, 2020 at 18:41
  • France and the UK declared war on Germany due to national interest, not out of concern for Poland. They realized that Germany couldn't be reasoned with, and that it had gained strength from absorbing Czechoslovakia. Look at how little was done to come to Poland's rescue in September/October. Does that look like an overriding concern for Polish territorial integrity. Commented May 6, 2020 at 17:09
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Symantical point. France and UK gave Poland a pledge of unconditional support if Poland was attacked. When Poland was attacked they declared war. Period. Poland was literally the reason the UK and France declared war. Yes Hitler had demonstrated he wasn't trustworthy.. as for the rest their was very little France and Britain could do to aid Poland Directly. Poland being invaded by both the Soviet Union and Germany and surrendering within 5 weeks. It is true that France and the UK were not ready for war with Germany Sept 39 when Hitler invaded Poland.
    – user27618
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 18:06
  • hmmm, hmmm. France had spent the better part of the 20s and 30s trying to draft in allies to contain Germany. Do you think that was for its own reasons or for altruistic goodwill towards Eastern Europe? The defense pact with Poland was careful to have a secret clause targeting only Germany. And the Soviet invasion of Poland didn't trigger anything from the Allies. We'll agree to disagree. The rest of your answer is on more solid ground, but that bit's really a stretch. Commented May 6, 2020 at 18:57

American President Bill Clinton, who was President during the biggest phase of NATO expansion, wrote an article today on why he expanded NATO.

Clinton says he wanted to work for the best but prepare for the worst. He writes that he viewed renewed conflict as a possibility, but one that would depend more on Russia than on NATO. In particular, if Russia were to stay on the path of democracy and cooperation, then there'd be no problem, but if Russia were to become more authoritarian and imperialist, a bigger NATO would bolster Europe's security.

Clinton further says that he tried very hard to help Russia become a democracy. He says he offered money for Yeltsin to pull Russian soldiers back from the Baltic states, let Russia join the Partnership for Peace program with NATO, allowed Russia to join peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo, and supported Russia's entry into the G7. He also says that they had an agreement with Russia to pull NATO & Russian forces back from borders, but Putin declined to go ahead with the plan when he became president.

Clinton says that NATO expansion was very successful, since it provided peace and security to Europe for more than two decades. He further says it has provided prosperity by increasing GDP per capita (naming the Czech Repulic, Hungary, and Poland as examples), and that the prospect of NATO membership is what stopped some Eastern European countries from fighting over old disputes.

Finally, Clinton says that Russia's invasion of Ukraine proves that his policy of NATO expansion was the right one, and that the invasion was not about NATO but about Ukraine's shift towards democracy which threatens Putin's authoritarian rule. He says that if NATO hadn't expanded, the war wouldn't be in Ukraine, it would be in central Europe (East Germany).

Interpret as you will.

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    Not sure if you realise, but: this does not answer the question? Q is "How did they (then)", A is: "Bill now in hindsight says it was as great an idea as he himself is…"? At best, Bill's late post-facto rationalisation has some congruence to what he thought/how he saw it back then, but how do we know from this A how much congruence it now has to what he did say back then? A lot of the above is imo more about how he says he 'sweetened the 'deal'', and what happened since, not how what was communicated, or how it was "justified" why 'that promise' was effectively nullified. Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 20:28
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    @LаngLаngС Yeah, it doesn't fully answer the question. But I think it's the closest of the answers so far. The question might not be very well-posed either, since the named leaders weren't actually leaders when NATO expanded (per Moishe Khan's answer). Clinton was US president during the first phase of NATO expansion, so his explanation is arguably more relevant than anyone else's.
    – Allure
    Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 23:59

There is a dispute if an informal promise was made or if a possibility was raised during the negotiations. Negotiators often explore avenues of possible agreement which do not end up in the final treaty. If it was a clear agreement, why isn't it in the treaty texts? But sometimes nations don't want to put things into writing, especially if it screws over smaller nations. Compare the agreement on basing in East Germany, which was put into writing.

The idea that either NATO or Russia could prevent the eastern European nations from making a NATO membership request smacks of "spheres of influence" -- how is one sovereign nation to dictate another sovereign nation that way? (Of course NATO could have signed a treaty that they would never accept membership applications from members in some geographic area. Same result.)


Vae victis !

At the moment we are talking about it was clear to both sides that Soviet Union definitely and irreversibly lost the Cold War. Defeat was primarily ideological, because very few people both in Soviet Union and in Warsaw Pact countries believed in socialism as it was until that point. Gorbachev himself started Perestroika, but all this reforms could achieve was to prove that socialist model could not survive in any shape or form, so rapid transition to capitalism started. Of course, as socialist economic model broke down Soviet Union lost Cold War in this (economic) sector, and only thing that was left was military might, as long as it lasted.

Now, Soviet military was one thing West feared (as they now fear Russian military). This goes specially for nuclear forces, as conventional military, mighty on paper, had some serious moral issues at that time (ideologically shaken, low pay, doubtful maintenance ...) In case of conventional war, it was very likely that militaries of East European countries would simply switch sides, and even Soviet military was not reliable as it was before. Only thing that remained was nuclear forces (both tactical and strategic) that could potentially ruin life for everyone. Both Soviets and Western countries knew this, so Gorbachev tried to use them as bargaining chip, while NATO leaders did their best to eliminate this threat.

It must be stated, even when the West was at height of its power in 1990's, they never wanted Russia to be strong and potentially allied country. Ideas that Russia should be divided into separate independent countries occasionally pop up in Western intellectual circles. Even if officially Western governments do not support them, it must be said that West prefers Russia led by weak and incompetent buffoons (Boris Yeltsin) they could bribe and sway to give up on Russian national interests without getting much in return. Same thing applied to Gorbachev few years before that. Essentially, he was promised that Russia would not be attacked (unlikely to happen anyway, because of aforementioned nuclear forces), reduction of military forces for both sides, that the West would invest in Russia (essentially buying up Russian natural wealth for pennies on the dollar) and that NATO would refrain from spreading to the East.

Out all of these promises, only last one was real concession to Russia. Nuclear war was of course not in anyone's interest, but reduction in forces actually benefited West more then Russia. Military cost money, and it is true that Russia saved some by reduction of force levels, but so did the West. But, unlike Russia, West could relatively easy buy new equipment, and Russia even today tries to modernize some of Soviet era stuff (for example Tu-160 bomber) and does miss some of material destroyed during 1990's and late 1980's. Western investments in Russia were mostly in extraction industry and they payed off handsomely with Russians seeing little benefit. This would also apply to investments in technological sectors, where Western companies simply cheaply bought some things developed during Soviet times.

This leaves was with the last promise, and that is NATO refraining from spreading to the East. It is quite clear that such thing, especially without formal agreement, would serve to lull Russians into false sense of security, and served only to persuade them to peacefully withdraw their troops from Eastern Europe (which finally ended in 1994) . With this fulfilled, West had no more interest to keep their end of the bargain. Former Warsaw Pact countries were offered NATO membership as some kind of entry card into exclusive club of developed Western countries. This of course never materialized (East Europe even today lags behind the West and serves as source of cheap labor), but Russia was surrounded by hostile military forces. When Russia rebounded from economic shock in early 2000's they started rebuilding their military which leads us to the situation we have to today of again having Russian bogeyman in Western media.

  • I seriously doubt that the West fears the Russian military, in any conventional sense of the word, any more than it could be said to fear say the Iranian military. Yes, it could be annoying, but any stand-up confrontation would be rather like Britain vs Argentina in the Falklands war.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 3:30
  • Pointing to the Tu-160 (introduced 1987) as a sign for how far behind the Russian millitary is backfires somewhat when you consider the US is still employing B-52's (introduced 1955), or that Germany is planning to replace their 1979-introduced Tornados in another ten years or so.
    – DevSolar
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 8:52
  • @jamesqf West fears Russian nuclear forces. Conventional ground forces are at least good excuse to keep bases near Russian borders. Iranian military recently surprised US with very accurate strikes on its airbase, and Russians are far more capable. Falklands war has nothing to do with this, Argentina didn't produce any military equipment, while Russia is self-sufficient.
    – rs.29
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 16:20
  • @DevSolar Both Russia and US use old planes (Tu-95 i B-52) . But Russia could hardly afford to replace them, while US does have another options. Germany is not in the same league as Russia, so comparison is moot.
    – rs.29
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 16:23
  • 1
    Interesting how Russia is at the sad end of disarmament here, but you painted a rather more rosy assessment of its military capabilities on another occasion. Commented May 6, 2020 at 19:03

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