The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened the prospects for German unification. The question quickly arose about NATO membership in the new Germany. Soviet leader Gorbachev was initially vehemently opposed, but backed down after promises of massive financial support and assurances that no foreign NATO forces would be stationed in the former East Germany.
Not an inch in the east
It was US Secretary of State James Baker who spoke to him in 1990 the historic words that NATO would move “not an inch” eastward. At the time, this was especially true for East Germany. Expanding NATO to other countries was out of the question, and Gorbachev heard this reassuring message repeatedly from various Western interlocutors of those days.
But the geopolitical reality was changing at lightning speed. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance of the Eastern Bloc, opened new horizons for the former Eastern Bloc countries, which were soon eager to join the NATO umbrella in any way. This endeavor gained strength after the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. The attempted coup and the nuclear explosion made the neighboring countries tense.
The possibility of membership in former Soviet republics such as the Baltic states and Ukraine was seriously suggested at first. Gorbachev later said that while the West made no firm promises about enlargement, it took advantage of the end of the Soviet Union and the weakness of new Russia to declare itself the winner of the Cold War.
The dramatic events in Russia in the turbulent 1990s also helped. A quasi-civil war on the streets of Moscow left 145 people dead in 1993; President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to his rebellious parliament. The following year, Russia invaded the breakaway republic of Chechnya, in the first of two consecutive bloody wars that killed tens of thousands of people.
Yeltsin and Clinton
Although Yeltsin had a good personal relationship with US President Bill Clinton – and perhaps for this reason – he found it difficult to tolerate NATO’s expansion plans. Both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl preferred not to rush to anger the Russians, but this was not heard in Washington.
In early 1996, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in Prague that further NATO expansion was inevitable, angering Moscow. In the end, Yeltsin capitulated with his resignation, “We agree we disagree.”
His successor, Putin, was not satisfied with that. He described the end of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. In 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, he expressed his dismay that the West had in fact committed treason by violating the promise that NATO would not expand. According to Putin, these “guarantees” were given after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, which is not realistically correct.
Earlier in this video we explained why Putin does not want to expand NATO:
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