NATO’s complex history of eastward expansion

The World’s host Carolyn Beeler speaks with NATO historian Mary Sarotte about the timing of the Putin-Modi meeting and other key details surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Washington is hosting a NATO summit this week, marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Western military alliance.

The challenge for NATO in 2024 is to assert its credibility for the future by showing that it’s up to its central task of deterring military aggression against each of its 32 member states. There’s also a lot of attention on one country that is not a member state.

“I would say the key issue there is what the Alliance does and does not do in support of Ukraine,” Ian Brzezinski, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Associated Press.

During an appearance on Monday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also talked about NATO’s top priorities in Europe.

“Today, we’re facing a massive, global security challenge after [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s unprovoked, all-out invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago,” Austin said. “Together, with our allies, we move to strengthen our defenses, upgrade our posture and deter further Russian aggression. And we’ve taken steps toward building a credible bridge to Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO.”

President Joe Biden speaks during the opening session of the NATO Summit in Washington, July 10, 2024.Evan Vucci/AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy touched down in Washington on Monday night. That was just after Russia had launched a daytime salvo of missiles on cities across Ukraine.

Leaders at the summit in Washington were expected to finalize a joint declaration to make Ukraine’s pathway to NATO membership “irreversible.” That’s something the government
in Kyiv had been hoping for.

As the NATO summit got underway in Washington, Russia’s Putin was hosting India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Moscow. Photos of the two of them hugging circulated as NATO leaders sat down to talk.

The World’s co-host Carolyn Beeler spoke with NATO historian Mary Sarotte about the situation.

Carolyn Beeler: What did you think about the timing of the Putin-Modi meeting?
Mary Sarotte: I suspect Putin is trying to show that he is welcome in foreign capitals, even as he is, obviously, not welcome in NATO capitals. Putin has, in the past, attended NATO
summits, and, obviously, that’s not happening now. So, I think this is a certain amount of
counterprogramming. There’s also truly stomach-turning, counterprogramming in the form of the bombing of the children’s hospital in Kyiv for the start of the summit.
Workers try to salvage intact medical equipment in the hospital yard at the site of Okhmatdyt children’s hospital hit by Russian missiles in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 9, 2024.Anton Shtuka/AP
And so, what message would you think that Putin is trying to send with this
especially deadly wave of missiles aimed at Ukraine on Monday?
Putin likes to mark significant events with violent demonstrations or demonstrations of his importance. He likes to show his significance on key dates by generally violent displays, and that includes both cyberviolence as well as real-world violence. And I think this is part of that pattern. As a historian, for example, when I looked back into the past, I noticed a disturbing trend of Putin receiving violent tributes on his birthday.

So, for example, your fellow journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a brave woman who was one of the few who was willing to report from Chechnya during the war there, she was walking home carrying groceries one day, shot to death from close range. The day was Oct. 7, 2006. That’s Putin’s birthday.

Fast-forward 10 years, the drop of emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign by Russian military intelligence, Oct. 7, 2016, Putin’s birthday and so forth. I could just keep going through a list.
So, we’re talking about Putin and antagonism of NATO. We can trace that back
to the ’90s, as the Soviet Union and the West were negotiating over the reunification of
Germany. And there was talk about the limits to expansion of NATO eastward. There is some debate among historians about what exactly was promised. What has your research found about what the final agreements contain?
As part of the unification of Germany, basically, the West had to convince the then-Soviet Union, which was occupying East Germany, to withdraw its troops. And the question was, “What would Moscow want in exchange?” And at an early phase in the negotiation, there was speculation, not a promise, but speculation that NATO could offer a nonexpansion pledge. But what happened in the end was actually the opposite.

It turned out there was a strategy that [Robert] Gates, the former defense secretary, at that point, he was a young policymaker, called “bribing the Soviets out.” And that was what happened. So, in the end, the treaty and German unification, explicitly, allows NATO to expand eastward. And Moscow signed this treaty, ratified it and cashed the associated check.

Putin ignores all of that. He’s cherry-picking history and, basically, going back to an early round of the negotiations to try to justify what he’s doing in Ukraine, which I do not believe is justified. I believe what he’s doing is a series of war crimes.
And what Putin says is that the West promised Moscow not 1 inch of eastward NATO expansion, correct?
Yes, that’s what he said. And to be exact, I’m a historian, so I work with the documents, those words were spoken in an early negotiation round. But that was, I repeat, a speculative offer in the course of months of negotiation.

What actually is in the treaty at the end is the opposite. NATO is allowed to expand its Article 5 territory eastward. Article 5 is the heart of the NATO treaty. It’s that clause of the treaty that says “an attack on one will be treated as an attack on all” and the treaty on German unification explicitly allows that to move eastward.

This is what Putin ignores. He is cherry-picking history and going back to the earlier speculative comments made by US Secretary of State James Baker.
Still, with the agreement itself being quite clear, as you’re saying, there has
been this history of antagonism between Russia and NATO. Are there alternative paths that the West and East might have taken to balance the interests of NATO members in Russia’s security concerns that might have landed us in a different place today?
I think what really mattered was actions inside Russia because Russia became
a democracy and then it rapidly de-democratized. In particular, former Russian President
Boris Yeltsin decided to use violence again as a tool of domestic politics.

In October 1993, he ordered tanks to shoot at his own parliament, killing 100 people and sending 800 to the hospital. And that’s what made countries in the West think, oh wait, maybe we can’t actually be partners with Russia. And it became worse when he then invaded Chechnya in December 1994.

So, I personally think there was a window in the early ’90s where better cooperation could have been possible, that it was happening in the terms of strategic nuclear disarmament. But then, the domestic developments, the de-democratization and, of course, the rise of Putin to power basically put [an end] to that.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Click above to listen to the entire discussion.

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