Despite it being more than a quarter century since the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, the U.S. and its allies have rarely shown appetite in building a good relationship with the Russian Federation. They have, to the contrary, only fostered a greater sense of insecurity in the minds of Moscow through the expansion of their military power, to the point that there is direct weaponry targeting Russia.

To put things in perspective, Russia views the erstwhile Soviet states in its immediate neighbourhood as a buffer between the Russian mainland and Western Europe. Researchers from the George Washington University-based National Security Archive have compiled 30 documents which prove Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was given “a cascade of assurances” that NATO would not march east. High profile officials and scholars at think tanks have repeatedly denied those assurances were ever made. It is not just the newly declassified information that lends credence to Russia’s version of events. Much of the information confirming Russia’s stance has been public for years. It just has not been made widely known. There have, however, been those who looked at the evidence with an impartial eye.

German magazine Der Spiegel concluded as far back as 2009, based on its own examination of the documents and conversations with those involved, that “.. there was no doubt the West did everything it could to give the Soviets the impression that NATO membership was out of the question for countries like Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia.”

To understand why this matters so much to Moscow and how it has contributed to recent tensions in Europe, it’s important to understand the historical context. As the Cold War came to a close, the question of whether a reunited Germany would align with the West or East rose to the fore. As the self-appointed winners of the Cold War, American policymakers decided that Germany should be aligned with the United States. In presenting this idea to the Soviets, US ambassador James Baker said he could make “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.” It was based on those assurances that negotiations continued: In exchange for Germany’s Western alignment, NATO would not be expanded.

Defenders of subsequent NATO enlargement have claimed that discussions of eastward expansion during German reunification negotiations in 1990 were limited only to the status of East Germany. But the GWU researchers have concluded that the talks were “not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory.”

Whether the American negotiators ever intended to stick to their word we can’t know. What we do know, is that the temptation to pull the entire Eastern bloc into the US’ own orbit very quickly proved too great. In the same year that Baker had promised “not one inch eastward” American policymakers were already quietly considering how they could bring Eastern Europe into NATO. At the same time, they were making plans to assure Moscow its security concerns would be taken into account and that any new European security structure would be inclusive of Russia.

But a common security structure which would include Russia was never truly on the cards. One can make their own assumptions as to why Washington has preferred to keep Russia on the sidelines. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO found itself with its thumbs twiddling. Its raison d’être was no more. The alliance could have disbanded then and there and begun negotiations with the Russian Federation for a new, inclusive security structure which would aim to prevent future tensions within Europe by paying attention to Russia’s security concerns. Instead, NATO opted to expand further and further right to Russia’s own backyard. A US-led military alliance at Russia’s doorstep was a far cry from the “not one inch further” that Baker had promised. The goal, of course, was to bring as many Eastern European nations as possible under a pro-Washington umbrella  from where they would never be able to question US foreign policy, allowing Washington to control the region with ease.

This is key to understanding Vladimir Putin’s worldview. Indeed, this history forms much of the basis of his general mistrust of the West today. As such, without understanding the historical context within which NATO was expanded, it is impossible to understand the recent conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, two deeply divided countries which have been on NATO’s future membership to-do list.

Washington is a fan of drawing “red lines” around the world which others may not be permitted to cross. It defends its own interests vociferously. For Putin, NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia has been a red line.

Western leaders and officials, for the most part, have refused to take any responsibility for leaving Europe in security limbo after the Cold War ended. Instead, they have tried to place the blame entirely with Moscow, aggressively promoting the idea that modern Russia is on a mission to regain lost glory by gobbling up Eastern Europe and that valiant NATO is the only thing in Putin’s way.

But the latest research by GWU should make it clear: The West, through its broken promises and untrustworthiness at a crucial moment in history, bears significant responsibility for current European tensions and the conflicts that have arisen from them.

Since 1999, NATO has expanded four times, taking in 13 countries. These include the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and other countries like Romania and Croatia and is still continuing today, with Montenegro the latest to join the military bloc. The Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria are hosting soldiers from all NATO member states. Further, at least 7,000 troops are deployed in countries bordering Russia. This constitutes the greatest military build-up since the end of the Cold War in 1991 to deter perceived Russian aggression. Moscow feels a threat to its sovereignty and has little option but to respond.

The GWU report makes for interesting reading. There can no longer be any denying that many Western leaders and officials gave assurances to the Soviets that NATO would not be expanded; that there would be no threat to its security. It was in this context that Gorbachev agreed to German alignment with the West. In his apparent naivety, Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union’s own future and integration with the West and Western institutions depended on it. He still believed in the dream of the “common European home” and felt there was no reason for the end of the Cold War not to be mutually beneficial.

But Western leaders had other ideas. Russia would never be permitted into the club. There was far too much to gain from perpetuating the belief in the West that Russia remained a threat but Russia is neither a threat to the West’s dominance nor a military evil knocking at its gates.

The world is in need of a new stabilising order, one that empowers the ‘many’, not ‘the few’. The formation of this new order requires not the expansion of military alliances like NATO and a new arms race  these bespeak a geopolitical approach that birthed the Cold War  but the forging of common pacts of cooperation such as the Paris Climate Agreement. It is unlikely that without the coming together of the two major powers one has the biggest economy and the other the biggest landmass such a vision would ever become reality. The last thing we need is another East-West schism leading to mass enrichment of the military-industrial-finance complex and the mass impoverishment of the 99%.

The source of all our mistakes is fear. Russia fears Anglo-Saxon encirclement.. In fear, great nations have been acting as cornered beasts, thinking only of survival. It is time for the West to overcome the fear of Russia and exorcise the threat perception against the country.


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