Russia attributes to 1990 conversations with Gorbachev a scope they did not have. It was Russia that promised in 1994 to respect the existing borders of Ukraine.
by Massimo Introvigne
One of the most tenacious myths about the Russian invasions of Ukraine of 2014 and 2022 is that they are a response to the Western breach of a promise not to expand the NATO eastward. Ukraine was not about to join NATO, something that requires a very long process in 2014, nor in 2022, but the issue I want to discuss here is the alleged “promise” of 1990, and who, if anybody, has breached international agreements.
Even respectable media have presented during the 2022 war, as if it were breaking news, the publication by the National Security Archive of transcripts of conversations between Western leaders and Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the Soviet Union, in 1990 and 1991. The National Security Archive is a private archival institution at the George Washington University that collects, publishes, and comments declassified American and other documents. This publication happened in 2017, not exactly yesterday, and the documents have now been widely analyzed and discussed in scholarly articles and international conferences.
The National Security Archive certainly deserves credit for having published documents that clarify who said what to whom, and help correcting pre-2017 reconstructions merely based on recollections by Gorbachev and others.
The issue being discussed was the unification of Germany, and the conversations between the leaders of the Soviet Union, West Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and NATO lead to the signing of the Treaty of Moscow of September 12, 1990, also known as the Two Plus Four Treaty. By signing this historical treaty, the Soviet Union, whose consensus was needed because of the treaties that had followed World War II, agreed to the unification of Germany. Article 6 of the Treaty stated that the unified Germany will have the right to decide to which international alliances it will belong to, meaning the Soviet Union will not oppose its NATO membership. However, under Article 5, it was agreed that no foreign troops and no nuclear weapons will be stationed in the part of unified Germany that had previously been East Germany.
Persuading Gorbachev to sign this treaty, which many in the Soviet Union opposed, was no easy task. The documents published in 2017 show that in their conversations with Gorbachev the Western leaders tried to persuade him that he should not perceive the new European order being built after the fall of the Berlin Wall as threatening. It was in this context that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker told Gorbachev on February 9, 1990 in the Kremlin that NATO would not expand “one inch to the east” (although often reported as “not one inch eastward,” according to the transcript Baker actually said “not one inch to the east.”)
In 1996, in a very different political situation with respect to 1990, Yevgeny Primakov (1929–2015) became Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, when proceedings were in progress that would lead to Poland and Hungary joining the NATO in 1999. Primakov had heard the “not one inch eastward” story, and asked his staff to search the old Soviet archives, where he found traces of what Baker had told Gorbachev in 1990. He also collected similar statements by other Western leaders and compiled a memorandum, whose content we partially know through Primakov’s memoirs, which he published in 2015 shortly before he died.
The memorandum prepared by Primakov (who, by 2015, was persuaded that Russian policies had contributed to alienate Eastern European countries and lead them to join the NATO) was never published, but was likely known to the Americans, who reacted with a counter-memorandum, now declassified, sent to all their European embassies, where they stated the position they have maintained to this day. According to the State Department, Baker and Gorbachev only discussed the expansion of NATO troops into one particular East, East Germany, and the “no one inch to the east” comment referred only to Germany.
The documents published in 2017 show that, while this interpretation is possible for the famous “no one inch to the east” by Baker, it does not apply to statements by (West) German Minister for Foreign Affairs Hans-Dietrich Genscher (1927–2016) and other European leaders in their conversations with Gorbachev. One document shows that Genscher told British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd on February 6, 1990, that “the Russians must have some assurance that if, for example, the Polish Government left the Warsaw Pact one day, they would not join NATO the next.” Likely, he told Gorbachev the same.
Declassified documents were not even needed for this, as Genscher had taken the same position in public speeches, as did NATO’s German Secretary General Manfred Wörner (1934–1994). As Primakov recalled in his memoirs, French President François Mitterrand (1916–1996) went one step further, both publicly and in conversations with Gorbachev, as he believed one day in Europe both the Warsaw Pact and the NATO would disappear.
The best comments on these conversations, which might not always have been about Germany only but clearly had German issues at their center, have been published by a leading historian of modern Germany, London School of Economics’ Kristina Spohr. Disagreeing with the interpretation of some documents by the personnel of the National Security Archive (those who publish a document are not necessarily the best interpreters of it), Spohr writes that “to be clear, the talks in February 1990 were never about NATO expansion into Eastern Europe” and only concerned East Germany. “It should also be borne in mind, Spohr writes, that the Warsaw Pact was still in place at that time and there was therefore no reason at all to exchange ideas with the Soviet Union about future NATO eastward expansions or even to get involved in possible territorial restrictions.” In 1990, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact still existed. Western, particularly German, leaders did not believe they would collapse so soon. What they discussed with Gorbachev was premised on the existence of the Soviet Union and became moot once the Soviet Union disappeared.
According to Spohr, Yeltsin later invented the narrative of a broken NATO’s promise of not accepting as members countries that had been part of the former Soviet Union or the former Warsaw Pact for his own internal politics purposes. Putin later picked it up, and “this knowingly false statement has become a central propaganda motif of the Russian state media since the late 1990s. However, the historical records in East and West prove that such narratives of broken promises are not true.”
This would be enough, but there is a legal aspect some may miss. It is a general principle not even of international law but of all forms of law that an executed agreement supersedes all previous oral conversations. When you buy a car or a home, whatever the car salesperson or the real estate agent told you beforehand is irrelevant if it is not included in the agreement you sign. This is equally true for international agreements. Whatever American or German or other diplomats might have told Gorbachev to sugar the pill of German unification is legally irrelevant if it was not included in the Two Plus Four Treaty. This treaty does include an agreement of not stationing foreign troops and nuclear weapons in former East Germany, but says nothing about other countries joining NATO, which would also have been contrary to the general principle of international law that sovereign states have a right to decide their own alliances. Putin continues to mention the “broken promises of 1990,” but the only promises that were legally binding (because they were written down in the treaty) concerned East Germany, and they have not been broken.
It is also surprising that many pro-Russian commentators who insist on the oral representations of Baker and Genscher in 1990 completely forget that there were much more important promises that have really been broken. These promises are part not of private conversations recorded in classified documents but of a duly signed international agreement. And they were made by Russia, not the Soviet Union.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many nuclear bombs remained in Ukraine, making the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal the third largest in the world. It was true that Ukraine had the weapons but not the codes needed to operate them, which remained in Russian hands. However, Russian experts were aware that Ukraine, perhaps with the help of other nuclear powers, might crack the codes and gain operational access to the weapons. Russia, thus, wanted the bombs back.
After a long negotiation, on November 19, 1994, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, which was also signed by the United States and the United Kingdom. Ukraine agreed to return to Russia the nuclear weapons and to remain a “non-nuclear-weapon state” in the future. In exchange, according to article 1, “the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine… to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
Unlike the private conversations of 1990, the Budapest Memorandum was filed with the United Nations as part of the United Nations collection of international treaties. Since it was unlikely that the U.S. or the U.K. would attack Ukraine, everybody understood that the core of the agreement was the Russian undertaking to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders” of Ukraine (which included Crimea and Donbass) against Ukraine’s delivery of the nuclear weapons.
Obviously, Russia blatantly breached the agreement in 2014, not to mention in 2022. As protests mounted, in 2016 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov tweeted that “Russia never violated Budapest memorandum. It contained only 1 obligation, not to attack Ukraine with nukes.” This was of course false, as easily proved by a simple reading of article 1 of the agreement. In March 2022, Putin argued that Ukraine had breached the Budapest agreement first by moving towards acquiring nuclear weapons, but offered no evidence of this bold claim. In turn, many Ukrainians read in the agreement that the American and British commitment towards the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine should have lead the U.S. and the U.K. to supply direct military assistance in 2022, if not in 2014.
Leaving aside the latter point, that Russia both in 2014 and 2022 breached its commitment to respect the independence, sovereignty, and “existing borders” of Ukraine is beyond dispute. Yet, Russia’s fellow travelers continue to see the mote of some 1990 obscure private conversations in the eye of the West without seeing the beam of the Budapest Memorandum in Putin’s eye.