As relations between the United States and Russia move from bad to worse, despite President Donald Trump's efforts to maintain good personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is worthwhile to review a critical piece of post-Cold War history. Back at the time of German reunification, there was a handshake agreement between the United States, Russia, Germany and NATO that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO, so long as Russia accepted the integration of East Germany into the Federal Republic and Germany's continued membership in NATO. Ambassador Jack Matlock, who represented the United States in the Soviet Union and Russia during the transition period, verified the deal, as did General Harald Kujat, former head of the German armed forces and then chairman of the NATO Defense Committee. Others on the Russian side have confirmed similar accounts.
Not only was there a pledge to halt any eastward expansion of NATO. It was clearly understood that Ukraine would be a permanent buffer state between NATO and Russian borders. During the early days of the Clinton Administration, the U.S. launched the Partnership for Peace, which was presented as an alternative to NATO expansion. Russia was promised membership in the new security structure.
While some American officials, including military flag officers, called for the dismantling of NATO at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, others argued that NATO had an important mission: To assure that there was no new outbreak of war on the European continent. NATO was the only treaty organization under which the United States maintained a presence in Europe. There was legitimate concern that, after two world wars in the 20th century broke out in Europe, it was appropriate to maintain a watchful eye that no new conflict erupted among the contending European states. Given the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s, this was not an outlandish concern. Ultimately, according to the logic of those promoting a continuation of NATO, Russia could be incorporated in a new security architecture. In effect, under a revived American-Russian cooperation, war in Europe would be a permanent thing of the past.
This narrative may seem absurd by today's circumstances. But there is now a growing body of declassified documents that confirm that there was a gentlemen's agreement that there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO, and that the Partnership for Peace would be the anchor of a new Eurasian security architecture to prevent the outbreak of future wars, and to build new cooperative relations in the economic and political spheres as well.
The National Security Archive, hosted at George Washington University (firstname.lastname@example.org) has recently obtained and posted a number of documents from U.S. and Russian files from the early 1990s, recounting this story. They can be found under the headline "NATO Expansion: What Yeltsin Heard." They are well-worth reading for anyone looking for a way out of the current madness New Cold War rhetoric coming from Washington, Berlin, London, Paris and Moscow.