Ever since Russia incorporated Crimea, the old debate whether there has ever been a promise not to enlarge NATO has flared up again. Turns out it seems that the US indeed did make such a promise – albeit not a contractual one. One has to wonder whether the West was either naive or cold-blodedly ignored geopolitical realities.
The NATO enlargement can be seen from different angles: Russia views international politics through geopolitical and (neo-)realist lenses. Simply put: As there is no global sovereign possessing the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, all States, regardless of their domestic constitution, pose a threat to each other – Hobbes‘ theory of the state of nature transplanted on the international level. To Russia, it thus does not matter whether the former Warsaw pact States themselves freely decided to join NATO (because they themselves felt that they needed protection). If NATO stations troops or military bases in Russian vicinity, it feels threatened. For this reason it asked NATO to „stay out of its backyard“right after the Cold War.
This promise seems to have indeed been made back in the days even although the US and the Soviet Union or Russia did not actually sign a contract. As Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson (oh what a name) aptly describes it in an article in Foreign Affairs:
The skeptics are correct that the two sides never codified a deal on NATO’s future presence in the east. But they misinterpret the precise implications of negotiations that took place throughout 1990. After all, scholars and practitioners have long recognized that informal commitments count in world politics. This was particularly true during the Cold War: as the historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown, the Cold War settlement itself emerged from European, Soviet, and U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the late 1950s and 1960s that were not formalized until nearly a decade later.
However problematic its recent behavior, then, Moscow has reason to argue that the West broke a promise. As declassified U.S. documents show, the George H. W. Bush administration and its allies worked hard to convince Soviet leaders that Europe’s post–Cold War order would be mutually acceptable, as the Soviet Union would retrench and NATO would remain in place. Yet U.S. policymakers may not have intended to make this vision a reality. And although there are many reasons to criticize recent Russian behavior, Russia may not be lying when it claims that a promise was broken. In the end, the United States overturned the system it promised to bring about.
It thus seems highly likely that the West did not keep its promise as it felt powerful enough to move ever closer to Russia’a borders during the 1990s. In recent years, however, Russia has gained more military strength a result of military reforms after the failure during the 2008 War with Georgia. It used this new muscle to draw a red line in Ukraine which is – because of the Russian population in the East, the warm-water port in Sevastopol/access to the Black sea, and its function as a buffer zone (see, on this subject-matter, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography which includes a finely written chapter on Russia) – of obvious crucial geopolitical importance. The same holds true for Syria, its latest access point to the Near and Middle East (see Mead, ‚Russia’s Syrian Bet Explained‘).
On both occasions, Western policy makers either have forgotten or ignored the hard realities of geopolitics. It is easy to put the blame solely on Russia and portray Wladimir Putin as an aggressive autocrat. Seen through the eyes of a (neo-)realist, however, he acts just like any other major power would do. One thus cannot help but wondering whether the current escalations could have been avoided.