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Did Putin invade Ukraine because of NATOs "broken promise"?

In the search for an explanation for the unexplainable, the motivation for Russia’s brutal aggression on Ukraine has been linked to NATO’s eastward expansion after the end of the Cold War. The argument is simple: Russia had (and has) legitimate security interests in Eastern Europe that the West should have acknowledged and respected. Yet, this narrative is dangerous and historically debatable.

NATO’s first eastward expansion in 1999, which brought former Warsaw Pact countries (Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic) into the alliance, was not unopposed. At the time, a key figure in US Cold War policy, George F Kennan, voiced his condemnation in an article published by the New York Times in 1998:

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake…It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia…”

So, was Kennan right? Are we simply seeing the explosion of Russian resentment, which has been brooding over the last few decades, exacerbated by successive NATO expansions and a worsening of relations between Russia and the West?

Not really. NATO did, yes, expand eastward, but the historical context must not be forgotten. Kennan spoke as a Cold War man, perhaps incapable of grasping the transformations that the end of the Cold War entailed. The 1990s brought to the forefront the debates on humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect against war crimes and genocide. At the time there was real cooperation with the ‘new’ Russia, from the broad coalition of the first Persian Gulf War, to nuclear arms control treaties, to Russian backing of NATO interventions in the Balkans. Cooperative mechanisms within the transformed alliance were put in place to try to foster an authentic dialogue with Russia, from NATO’s Partnership for Peace to the NATO-Russia Council. A brief look at NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept reveals that the alliance of the 1990s was not the same, essentially anti-Soviet, anti-Russia alliance of 1949 at the start of the Cold War.

Yet, some might say that Russia, struggling to secure a transition to democracy within, nonetheless still perceived NATO as a threat. And perceptions, in international politics, are often as important as reality. Further efforts to envision cooperative security measures and a create a more stable post-Cold War order could have been made.

However, arguing that a defensive alliance was inherently threatening means misunderstanding the nature, scope and evolution of the alliance. It also fails to grasp what the alliance represented (and still represents) for the countries of Eastern Europe: not only a security guarantee, but a choice for democracy and freedom that had been denied to them during the years of Soviet domination.

Should NATO have denied entry to countries striving to join out of courtesy and respect for Russia? Hardly possible. This would have gone against the legal basis of the alliance, which has an open-door policy, while sidestepping the very values and principles that define NATO as a community of like-minded nations. It is, sadly, those values and principles that Russia fears, not NATO expansion itself.

Finally, those pointing the fingers on NATO expansion turn to the alleged promise made by members of the George HW Bush administration to Soviet leader Mickael Gorbachev: the alliance would not expand, “not one inch” beyond German unification. While historians still debate the extent of that promise, a futile debate in my opinion, the “promise” made to Gorbachev – a leader that the US knew, admired, and respected – at a time when neither side anticipated the rapid and transformative events that followed, hardly seems something to which one could be held accountable. Nevertheless, the alleged promise has provided a powerful tool in the hands of certain Russian elites (first and foremost Vladimir Putin). We, in the West, broke a “promise” and successive Russian behavior is in one way or another conducible to such devious Western conduct.

This is, of course, nothing but a dangerous distortion of reality. Rather than dwelling on that supposed broken promise, it would be more important to highlight another, much more real and concrete promise made in the 1990s.

Following Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, the country had in its possession about one third of what had been the Soviet nuclear arsenal. In exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States, and the UK, in 1994 Ukraine renounced its nuclear weapons, acceding to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state. This agreement – the Budapest memorandum – committed these countries to guarantee the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine. But this commitment was broken in 2014 by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and by the US and UK who failed to effectively react.

There has, therefore, been a “broken promise” in this complex story. But not the one used by Russia to justify unjustifiable actions. The narrative surrounding Western alleged promises to Russia is dangerous, and totally unacceptable. It is taken out of context and, ultimately, risks implicitly condoning an act of war.

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Barbara Zanchetta

Barbara Zanchetta

Senior Lecturer

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