Promises Made, Promises Broken? What Yeltsin Was Told About NATO in 1993 and Why It Matters
Editor’s Note: This week, War on the Rocks is featuring some old favorites from the archives. This article was originally published in 2016.
Surely the Kremlin watched with no small amount of bitterness last Friday as NATO’s heads of state and government gathered for dinner at Warsaw’s presidential palace, the same building in which the Warsaw Pact — which formed the basis for the Soviet-led Cold War military alliance — was signed in 1955. The larger occasion was the NATO summit, which was hosted for the fourth time by either a former Soviet satellite state or republic. The incorporation of eastern European states into the alliance has been the source of tensions between Russia and the West since before the first round of NATO enlargement was announced in 1997. Today, Russia and the West — at odds over Ukraine and Syria — are engaged in significant military posturing in Europe not seen since the Cold War. As such, there has never been a more important time to review the terms of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, especially as it pertained to NATO, to understand the roots of the current standoff.
More than a quarter-century ago, in February 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev discussed NATO’s future role in a unified Germany. Baker told Gorbachev that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east” and agreed with Gorbachev’s statement that “Any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable.” Conversation over, right? Wrong. Gorbachev himself has acknowledged that their meetings were an early discussion in what became negotiations over the terms of German unification, rather than a broader conversation about NATO’s future role in Europe. Understanding the twists and turns of these negotiations is crucial to understanding today’s contested narratives.
This conversation and its meaning plague relations between Moscow and Washington to this day. Scholars and policymakers continue to debate whether the West, and in particular the United States, promised the Russians that NATO would not enlarge to include former Warsaw Pact nations. When politically convenient, many Russian elites have dredged up the notion of such a promise to argue that they were betrayed in the settlement that ended the Cold War in Europe, thereby justifying Russian pushback, including the invasion of Ukraine, against the U.S.-led security order.
That conversation between Baker and Gorbachev was not the last time that U.S. and Russian leaders had a conversation about NATO’s future in which the Russian side came away believing that NATO was not going to extend membership to countries of the former Soviet bloc. But if the Russians grew confused about U.S. statements in the early 1990s, it was not because senior leadership in the United States was deviously working up a plan to take advantage of Russian weakness. Rather, it was because within the U.S. government itself, there was tremendous uncertainty about the best path forward. U.S. officials wanted to foster greater security and stability across Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War while also fostering a non-adversarial relationship with Russia. These aims might not seem to be necessarily in conflict. Indeed, the person most responsible for the policy of NATO enlargement, President Bill Clinton, believed he could satisfy demands from Central and Eastern Europe to join the West while also placating his pal, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who wanted Russia to have its own place in Europe. Alas, it was not to be. Yeltsin was not placated, but he was too weak to push back. And the simmer in Moscow regarding what was seen as U.S. humiliation of Russia in the 1990s grew to a boil by 2008, when Vladimir Putin decided he had enough of the alliance’s push eastwards and went to war to prevent Georgia from moving closer to NATO membership.
The historical analysis of the supposed promise not to enlarge NATO has focused inordinate attention on the meetings of 1990, in large part because the quotes appear so unambiguous (e.g., not “one inch to the east”). But the key actors at the time would soon be gone from the stage. Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union, and thus his presidency, on Christmas Day 1991, and U.S. President George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid less than a year later.
While historians, political scientists, and policymakers have focused on the misperceptions created by the 1990 meetings, more important to the bad blood that emerged in the mid-1990s over NATO’s enlargement were the misperceptions resulting from meetings among Clinton, Yeltsin, and their closest aides. Encapsulating all of the ambiguities of that period more than any other meeting was a conversation that took place in Moscow in October 1993. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had traveled to Moscow to explain in advance of the January 1994 NATO summit that the United States would not support new members joining the alliance, but would rather develop a Partnership for Peace that would include all states of the former Warsaw Pact. Yeltsin’s relief was palpable. He thought he had dodged the NATO enlargement bullet at a time at which he was in a raging political battle against hardliners at home. A year later, when he discovered that enlargement was not only on the table but would in fact be proceeding, Yeltsin was apoplectic, and he railed against Clinton publicly at a meeting in Budapest.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we have the declassified memorandum of conversation (MemCon), which sheds much more light on what was said in October 1993 (and in what order) than do the memoirs of Christopher and Clinton’s chief Russia hand, Strobe Talbott. But it’s not just what was said at any given meeting that is central to understanding the trajectory of U.S.-European-Russian relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1990 and 1993 meetings symbolize the narrative of the entire decade: While desirous of a new relationship with Russia, the United States saw itself as the Cold War victor and had the power to shape the security dynamic across Europe. Yeltsin, meanwhile, believed he had been responsible for the overthrow of communism and wanted his country’s place in Europe recognized, but had no power to push back against U.S. initiatives that he believed only served to strengthen his more nationalist opponents within Russia.
NATO enlargement has provided enormous benefits to a part of Europe historically beset by insecurity owing to its location between Germany and Russia. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia have thrived since joining NATO, and their success as democratic market-oriented countries firmly entrenched in the alliance and the European Union is a major strategic achievement for all of Europe. Had they been left out of European institutions, they may well have faced the same insecurities and struggles that Ukraine and Georgia face today.
Yet while NATO enlargement spread security across a region more accustomed to insecurity or unwelcome domination, the failure to provide a place for Russia in the European security framework (for which Russia is responsible as well) left a zone of insecurity between NATO and Russia that continues to bedevil policymakers.
The United States and its partners believed that security in Central Europe (the region that gave rise to World War I, World War II and the Cold War) would create a stable environment for all countries, including Russia, which could become a “normal” country shorn of empire. By contrast, many in Moscow (especially since the ascension of Vladimir Putin to power) view the security of Russia as dependent on the insecurity of its neighbors.
The West does not need to back down from its view that the inclusion of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO and the EU promoted strategic interests and values. It does need to understand the roots of the sense of insecurity in Russia, not as part of a blame game, but to assist both sides as they seek to grope for a way forward to a more stable relationship between the West and Russia. What was conveyed by Christopher to Yeltsin in October 1993 illuminates a central challenge the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War: how to support freedom in Central and Eastern Europe and avoid recognizing Russia’s claims to a sphere of influence in the region, while at the same time not feeding Russian insecurities that the West seeks to humiliate and take advantage of Russia.
In the latest foray into this subject, Joshua Shifrinson argues that NATO enlargement violated the “spirit” of the 1990 conversations among U.S., West German, and Soviet leaders, and that Russia is therefore justified in complaining about what occurred later because that was the basis of the negotiation that followed over German unification. This is about the best one can do to give credence to the Russian position, given that historian Mark Kramer combed through the documentary evidence to argue as I did in 1999 that the 1990 conversation was limited to discussion about unified Germany’s status in NATO. There was no promise or even a discussion about countries like Poland and Hungary.
Part of the persisting confusion stems from that fact that what was said at the time sounds pretty clear in retrospect. On January 31, 1990, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher declared, “What NATO must do is state unequivocally that whatever happens in the Warsaw Pact, there will be no expansion of NATO territory eastwards, that is to say, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union.” In February, Baker then told Gorbachev in Moscow that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.” Gorbachev then stated “any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable.” Baker replied, “I agree.”
However, U.S. officials backed away from these statements during the negotiations that followed, and the discussions focused on what troops and infrastructure would be allowed in the former East Germany, not whether a unified Germany would be a full member of NATO. Even Gorbachev agreed later that the entire discussion was about Germany and the terms of unification, not about the rest of Europe.
Regardless, the endless discussion over the February 1990 conversations suggests that there will never be consensus among scholars or between U.S. and Russian policymakers regarding whether a promise was made or not by someone with the authority to make one. The different perceptions or even the hardening of positions after the fact about what those conversations meant underscore the real issue. The United States then sought to maximize its power in Europe and believed it was justified in doing so having won the contest with the Soviet Union, whereas Russia was determined to reemerge as a great power with a say in the future of the European security order.
The focus on the 1990 conversations has taken attention away from the fact that the key Russian decision-maker in the 1990s, however, was not Gorbachev. It was Boris Yeltsin, who was elected Russia’s president in 1991 and who emerged supreme after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December. What mattered most to Yeltsin was not what Gorbachev was told in 1990, but rather what he was told in October 1993: that the United States was pursuing a Partnership for Peace for all European countries rather than NATO membership for only some European countries. This was not a promise either, but it cemented for the Russians the narrative that regardless of what the United States claimed in conversations with their leaders, it would maximize the American position without regard for Russian interests.
The Russians were not the only ones in the early 1990s who did not like the idea of NATO enlargement. Despite the pleas for NATO membership made by key Central European leaders such as Czech president Vaclav Havel and Polish president Lech Walesa in a meeting with President Bill Clinton, the majority of officials in the U.S. government did not favor such a move. Officials such as chief Russia adviser Strobe Talbott expressed concern about Moscow’s reaction at a moment when Russia’s transition to democracy was in doubt and the United States was working with Moscow to remove strategic nuclear weapons from Ukraine, among other post-Soviet legacy issues. For their part, Pentagon officials were not only concerned about harming the new relationship with Russia, but were also mindful of the fact that NATO membership came with an Article 5 security guarantee that would require additional resources at a time when talk of a post-Cold War “peace dividend” was in the air.
A meeting of Clinton’s national security cabinet officials in Washington just prior to Christopher’s October trip to Moscow resulted in a compromise. The United States would not push for enlargement at the January 1994 NATO summit, nor even “associate” member status for some countries. Rather, Washington would promote a Partnership for Peace to include all members of the former Warsaw Pact, including Russia, and it would focus on building military-to-military ties to enhance support for democratic reform throughout the region. Moving forward on Partnership for Peace instead of enlargement addressed the concerns of officials throughout the State and Defense Departments. In my book, Not Whether But When: the U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO, I identify National Security Adviser Anthony Lake as one of the key proponents of enlargement within the administration. Despite being unable to convince his colleagues in 1993, Lake ensured that the meeting left open the possibility for enlargement down the road, something viewed merely as a throwaway line at the time by those opposed to enlargement.
Lake was not the official who went off to brief Yeltsin after the meeting. It was Secretary of State Warren Christopher, accompanied by Talbott, who went to Moscow to deliver what they knew would be seen as good news by Yeltsin.
When they wrote on the subject later, Christopher and Talbott both gave the impression that Yeltsin misunderstood what he was being told. In his book, In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era, Christopher writes that when he told Yeltsin about the Partnership for Peace, Yeltsin called it a “stroke of genius.” Christopher then reports that he explained that a NATO enlargement process would be “long-term and evolutionary” and Yeltsin responded, “This really is a great idea.” Similarly, Talbott in his memoir, The Russia Hand, says that when Christopher explained that the United States was not going forward at that time with enlargement but instead the Partnership for Peace, Yeltsin didn’t even let him finish, calling it “brilliant.”
The MemCon from the meeting makes clear why Yeltsin later felt betrayed. The elements of the Christopher and Talbott recitations are there, but not in quite the same order as implied, and in ways that are fairly misleading.
October 1993 in Moscow
Christopher met Yeltsin at the latter’s dacha in Zavidovo for 45 minutes on October 22. Yeltsin was joined by Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, Foreign Affairs Advisor Dmitri Ryurikov, and Presidential Assistant Viktor Ilyushin. Christopher took with him Talbott and U.S. ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering.
Christopher began by conveying President Clinton’s appreciation for Yeltsin’s steadiness during the previous month, and the Russian president in turn expressed tremendous gratitude that Clinton had stuck by him. (Yeltsin had just dissolved the Russian Congress of Peoples Deputies by decree on September 21 and then engaged in a bloody confrontation with his parliamentary opponents on October 3.) Christopher said Clinton admired Yeltsin’s restraint in the aftermath of the events of September 21 and stated the American belief that his response had caused the least loss of life.
Christopher conveyed that Clinton accepted Yeltsin’s invitation to visit Moscow in January after the NATO summit. He then turned to Yeltsin’s recent letter to Clinton on NATO, noting that the U.S. president had just made a decision on what to propose at the NATO summit: “In this respect, your letter came at exactly the right time and it played a decisive role in President Clinton’s consideration.”
Christopher then laid out a policy that was music to Yeltsin’s ears. Nothing would be done to exclude Russia from “full participation in the future security of Europe.” The United States would be recommending a “Partnership for Peace” open to all members of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. This new body would serve as a mechanism for dialogue with all former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states. Christopher told Yeltsin “there would be no effort to exclude anyone and there would be no step taken at this time to push anyone ahead of others.”
Yeltsin interrupted to make sure he understood correctly that all countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union would be treated equally and that there would be “partnership and not a membership.” Christopher replied, “Yes, that is the case, there would not even be an associate status.” Yeltsin responded, “This is a brilliant idea, it is a stroke of genius.”
A relieved Yeltsin told Christopher this would remove all the tension that existed in Russia regarding NATO’s response to Central and Eastern European alliance aspirations. The idea of partnership for all rather than membership for some was, said Yeltsin, “a great idea, really great. Tell Bill I am thrilled by this brilliant stroke.” Christopher noted, “We will tell him that you bought his recommendation with real enthusiasm.”
According to the MemCon, it was only then that Christopher said that the United States would be “looking at the question of membership as a longer term eventuality.” We do not know whether Yeltsin or other Russian officials in the room reacted to this point, nor do we know how clearly Christopher delivered this message. In the MemCon, this specific point is not in quotation marks as is the case with a number of the other comments that were reported. Countries that wished to could pursue the possibility over time, but only later.
Christopher added that he sent the Partnership for Peace idea to his NATO colleagues on October 19, and it was well received. “I am delighted with your approval and now I predict widespread acceptance of the idea.” Yeltsin said he had complete trust in the United States and Clinton.
Unlike the 1990 meeting, which was focused on the status of Germany in NATO, this meeting was specifically about NATO’s future relationship with Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Yeltsin had just gone through an extraordinarily trying time at home, using force in his battle with opposition forces. Although he expressed hope regarding the upcoming Russian parliamentary elections, he and the West would be shocked by the December 1993 showing of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who would capture nearly a quarter of the popular vote. Christopher had delivered a welcome message in October: At its January 1994 summit, NATO would move forward with a Partnership for Peace for all, rather than a membership track for some. As it turned out, Russia joined the Partnership on June 22, 1994, the anniversary of Hitler’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
But it was not just Yeltsin who felt he had dodged a bullet. Those who did not support moving forward with enlargement for fear of antagonizing Russia — including Talbott (who in early 1994 became Deputy Secretary of State) and Deputy Secretary (soon to be Secretary) of Defense Bill Perry — believed that they had put off the enlargement question as a “longer term eventuality.” After all, when Clinton went to Moscow in January 1994, he said that while NATO “plainly contemplated an expansion,” the Partnership for Peace was “the real thing now.”
Yet Moscow and Brussels were not the only trips Clinton made that month. Lake urged the president to say in Prague (where the Central Europeans wanted to hear something more favorable) that “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how.” As I describe in my book, proponents of expansion took the opening that these and other statements provided to continue to promote the idea of enlargement. By the end of 1994, the “longer term eventuality” of NATO membership for some was upon them.
At a private lunch in late September 1994, Clinton told Yeltsin that NATO would expand, but he argued there was no timetable. “We’re going to move forward on this,” Clinton said, “but I’d never spring this on you.” He continued:
NATO expansion is not anti-Russian…I don’t want you to believe that I wake up every morning thinking only about how to make the Warsaw Pact countries a part of NATO—that’s not the way I look at it. What I do think about his how to use NATO expansion to advance the broader, higher goal of European security unity and integration—a goal I know you share.
Clinton explained that Russia (at the time seemingly on a path to democracy) could potentially become a member of NATO if it so desired, something that Yeltsin and even Putin initially spoke of positively although one presumes neither they nor Western officials who repeated the “open door” mantra, believed it could or would occur.
It had been less than a year since Yeltsin was told “Partnership for all, not NATO for some.” He made clear his displeasure at a December 1994 meeting in Budapest of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which was being upgraded to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a pan-European security framework. Yeltsin shocked his American and European colleagues by stating, “Europe, even before it has managed to shrug off the legacy of the Cold War, is risking encumbering itself with a cold peace.” He continued:
NATO was created in Cold War times. Today, it is trying to find its place in Europe, not without difficulty. It is important that this search not create new divisions, but promote European unity. We believe that the plans of expanding NATO are contrary to this logic. Why sow the seeds of distrust? After all, we are no longer adversaries, we are partners.
Nearly 22 years later, the United States and Russia are not partners, but adversaries. It is easy for many to blame NATO enlargement for this state of affairs. Certainly, the conversation that Christopher had with Yeltsin in 1993 helped foster later mistrust, but Christopher and Talbott believed (and were themselves relieved by) what they were saying at that time: any enlargement would come much later. For a variety of reasons that I describe in my book, that timetable was moved up considerably by those such as Lake who favored moving forward. Lake was able to convince Clinton of the wisdom of enlargement for both political and policy reasons. Clinton, for his part, believed he could allay Yeltsin’s concerns about NATO.
Despite Clinton’s efforts, Yeltsin’s remained upset about enlargement but could do nothing to prevent it (as was similarly the case with the Kosovo War in 1999). Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev in mid-1994 had said, “The greatest achievement of Russian foreign policy in 1993 was to prevent NATO’s expansion eastward to our borders.” As it turned out, this achievement was to be short-lived. But the problem for the U.S.-Russia relationship was not so much enlargement per se, but rather that neither the West nor Russia ever found a place for the latter in what Gorbachev had called the “Common European Home.”
As someone who supported enlargement as a vehicle for helping to ensure the security of a historically insecure region, I tell this story not as part of what has been a quarter-century “gotcha” game and certainly not to feed into Russian justifications of their 2014 invasion of a sovereign country. Rather, I hope to remind us of the key contours of the immediate post-Cold War world: The United States believed it had won the Cold War and sought to ensure the terms of settlement were favorable to American interests. Yeltsin believed he and the Russian people had overthrown communism and wanted the terms of settlement to recognize their interests in being major players in Europe. Given the power disparities, the differences would be hard to reconcile. Bill Clinton sincerely wanted to help Russia build a democracy and market economy (particularly because he wanted to shift resources from defense to his domestic priorities), and he threw his support unconditionally behind Yeltsin, even when the latter acted undemocratically, as in October 1993. Clinton did ensure that no concrete move on NATO enlargement would occur until after his friend Boris was safely reelected in July 1996. He invited Yeltsin to join the Group of Seven Advanced Industrialized Countries, creating the G-8, and he promoted the NATO-Russian Founding Act to provide the idea of partnership during the first phase of NATO enlargement.
But for many Russians, most importantly Vladimir Putin, the 1990s were a decade of humiliation, as the United States imposed its vision of order on Europe (including in Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch. In 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine, Putin made clear there were red lines he would not allow NATO and the European Union to cross.
The most important moral of the story is that neither the United States and the Europeans nor Russia found an acceptable role for the latter in European security after the Cold War. Partnership for Peace proved short-lived as a possible solution. Enlargement provided security for most of Central and Eastern Europe (and that security enabled the European Union to enlarge as well), but Russia never had a place in that process despite the creation of the Founding Act and the NATO-Russia Council. The countries of the former Soviet Union between Russia and NATO continue to be beset by enormous insecurity, much of it deliberately fostered by Russia. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which included all members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact, was too weak to ever have much of a chance to prove central to European security, particularly once its penchant for serious election monitoring and oversight of human rights abuses clashed with Moscow’s approach toward elections and human rights.
The United States should be proud of what it helped foster in Europe’s east after the Cold War in partnership with Europeans from the Atlantic to the Black and Baltic Seas. Last week’s NATO summit in Warsaw was yet another useful step in solidifying the alliance’s determination to stand firm against Russian aggression. There is simply no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in egregious violation of international law. But as alliance leaders in Warsaw once again reassured NATO’s eastern members that they are protected, it is clear that they have yet to find a solution to the insecurity of those countries lying between NATO and Russia. Partnership for Peace was not the answer, particularly once enlargement became the prize for most of the countries in the region. Today, the United States finds itself in an uneasy standoff with Russia reminiscent of the Cold War in Europe, one that leaders on both sides were trying to put behind them in their conversations in 1993, and one with no end in sight.
There are those who blame this state of affairs on the West for breaking promises, misleading Russian counterparts, and enlarging NATO, and others who find fault with Russia for being unable to work with NATO rather than against it and who are appalled by the invasion of Ukraine. I find myself in the latter camp, but believe the United States has erred throughout this period, particularly in the 1990s, in assuming it could eventually convince Russia that NATO’s persistence and enlargement were good for Russian interests by creating security and stability throughout the region. Gorbachev and Yeltsin wanted Russia to find its place in Europe, but not as a junior partner to the United States, and Putin has sought to reverse what he saw as pure humiliation.
Russia historically only found a place in Europe through empire, and the United States and its European partners sought to rid Europe of that imperial presence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The current war-footing and hostile rhetoric emanating from both sides reminds us that while the West moved the dividing line in Europe hundreds of miles to the east after the Cold War, that line still persists. The dream that Christopher presented to Yeltsin in October 1993 – that there would be partnership for all not membership for some – is gone, as last week’s NATO summit reminded us once again.
James Goldgeier is a Robert Bosch senior visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, and a professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University, where he served as dean from 2011-17. In 2018-19, he held the inaugural Library of Congress Chair in U.S.-Russia relations. He is the author or co-author of three books on the 1990s: Not Whether But When: the U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO; Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy toward Russia after the Cold War (with Michael McFaul) and America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (with Derek Chollet). You can follow him on Twitter: @JimGoldgeier.