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Setting the Record Straight on NATO Enlargement | Interview with Robert Zoellick, US Lead Negotiator in 2+4 Talks on German Reunification

Date & Time

Jan. 31, 2022
2:00pm – 3:00pm ET




The ongoing crisis on the Russian-Ukrainian border has brought new attention to how Washington and Moscow navigated the end of the Cold War thirty years ago. Today, Russian officials justify aggression against Ukraine by claiming that NATO had reneged on an assurance President Bush had provided to Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward.

Wilson Center President and CEO, Ambassador Mark Green hosted a discussion with the Honorable Robert Zoellick, who was a direct participant in these talks, to explore what was and was not promised in 1991, and the consequences of any attempt to revisit the post-Cold War settlement.

Key Takeaways

  • James Baker’s hypothetical to Gorbachev in Feb. 1990 about NATO moving “not one inch eastward” has been at the center of recent negotiations over Ukraine. Zoellick reminds us that in the final Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), all parties agreed that all countries are free to join their own alliance.
  • Because the Kremlin wants to subvert Ukraine’s political and economic systems, Zoellick suggests that the US could gain leverage by boosting their strength via a broad economic support package, conditioned on Ukraine implementing needed reforms.
  • Zoellick speculates that Putin will not distract from the Winter Olympics in Beijing by invading Ukraine, but what happens after depends on the state of negotiations. The Russian effort will likely focus on undermining Ukraine’s political system through espionage and cyber attacks, and may escalate to military actions in separatist regions.

Selected Quotes

How do you make sure that an independent, democratic Ukraine survives?

"Effective diplomacy often will require testing ideas. So often the way that it is covered in the press, you have officials state their position and if the other side doesn't agree, well, they'll state it even more loudly or more slowly or something. And what you saw in the 89–90 period, and where Baker was obviously an extraordinary skillful advocate and negotiator, was that as you said, this is very difficult to foresee, you had these extraordinary events after 40 years of the Cold War and Baker was trying to find some way to accomplish the objectives the United States wanted: the united Germany and NATO. But also to try and recognize Soviet interests and concerns. And frankly trying out ideas—and I know from my own experience—and you certainly know that, is what you do if you're really trying to find solutions. So that's what happened in the process.

The reason I referenced that is you know we’re in a phase now with Ukraine where there are ideas out there that the United States and NATO have put forward to the Russians to say, 'Look if you're concerned about security we could do missiles.' Actually this CFE treaty that I mentioned (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) that's another vehicle that one can recall to try to figure out recruit movements and other issues. You have to try out these ideas.

The part today that I think, Mark, we may be missing a bit, is if our real objective is to try to make sure that Ukraine preserves its independence as a democracy you can see that a lot of the Russian efforts really seemed designed to subvert the political and economic system. You know they're trying to put pressure on it even short of an invasion, you see the cyberattacks, the intelligence reports about trying to find somebody pro-Russian and depose the president. I think one of the missing parts of the US strategy should be ways that we gain some leverage by focusing on the economic and political strength of Ukraine. So, if you look at our diplomacy, tends to be more reactive. The Soviets basically, you know, have the initiative—in addition to sending the military officers—which I think one needs to do so that Ukraine can defend itself. I noticed the Europeans are starting to put some economic support in and this would be the moment that the United States should go to the Congress—those Senators that visited Kyiv—and say: well let's put up a broad economic support package conditioned on Ukrainians working together as opposed to splitting up politically; and some of the reforms and anti-corruption measures that have been needed. And so, it's in some ways that almost harkens back to the Marshall Plan, you know the Marshall Plan was designed to bring Europe together economically and politically to withstand the then Soviet threat, and so this is I think an area where the United States could take an initiative and regain some leverage and it focuses on the heart of the issue: how do we make sure that an independent democratic Ukraine survives?"

Watch Clip

Did NATO countries renege on a promise not to expand Eastward?

"Let’s kind of review the context—I mentioned that the Wall opened in November of '89, as you may recall events were moving very quickly on the ground and this created a momentum that the diplomats and the heads of governments had to address. In February of '90, Baker goes to Moscow and his prime purpose was to try to convince Gorbachev and the Soviets that we needed an external process to match what looked like was happening on the ground: the internal unification. And that's what led to the so-called 2 + 4 and the logic there was you had the two Germanys in the front, and we wanted to emphasize that because we didn’t want to block unification. But the four were the four powers coming out of WWII in the Potsdam Accords the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. And the reason you needed some group like that was you still had the four-part rights from World War II, including over Berlin, then you had 380,000 troops in the East and so we needed an external mechanism that sort of matched what we hoped would be the internal mechanism.

While there, Baker was also making the argument that the Soviets should agree to a united Germany in NATO. Now again, we've sort of assumed over 30 years this is an acceptable idea—at the time this was seen as very controversial if you look at the editorial opinion. And Baker posed a hypothetical to Gorbachev, he said: ‘Would you prefer to have a united Germany—sort of, independent, neutral, not linked to the West—in the heart of Europe; or would you prefer to have a united Germany in NATO with the jurisdiction not one inch further?’ Now, what he was trying to do was he was trying to force Gorbachev to face a difficult choice. Of course Gorbachev didn’t want a united Germany in NATO given the Cold War history but how did he like the idea of recreating a powerful Germany at the center of Europe that wouldn't… that might have to worry about its security and its borders and others. So, in a sense, Baker was harkening back to the experience of the twentieth century.

Now it's that hypothetical that Putin goes back on, but then one has to look at what happens during the rest of 1990, so that's February. In March, we have the elections in East Germany, it’s overwhelmingly support for whole and the idea of unification. In June, Gorbachev comes to Washington and this is really the key moment where he accepts the idea of the united Germany and NATO. And the logic there really undermines Putin’s argument because I had discovered that in the CSCE principles, that's the Helsinki Final Act, there is language that all the parties had agreed to and Gorbachev actually was a big supporter of the CSCE principles: that countries should be free to join their own alliance. So President Bush says to President Gorbachev: ‘Mr. President, we believe Germany should be in NATO. We both agree that under CSCE principles, Germany should be free to decide.’ And then Gorbachev says ‘yes,’ to the surprise of everybody. And I remember, on the other side of the table, you can almost feel the Soviets starting to physically distance themselves away from Gorbachev. Bob Blackwell, who was on the NSC staff, sends me a note saying ‘Did you hear this? Should we ask the president to repeat?’ Yes, and so we give the note to President Bush, who repeats it and then Gorbachev sort of agrees again.

Now, nothing's ever final until you put the words on paper. One further step we took was that a couple of days later, they had a joint press conference—Bush and Gorbachev—and we had the Bush opening statement, which we we repeated the same idea about having Germany under CSCE principles decide its alliance and we show that to the Soviets and there was no objection. So, that's a big hole for Putin because if the basis was Helsinki principles then what happens to other countries that may want to join NATO? But, the critical part of course, as you know from your international experience, is this all had to be worked out in that 2 + 4 agreement. And that's what gets done during the course of 1990. And there is language in the agreement that limits the notion of NATO in the former East Germany and it is quite specific: until the Soviets leave, there’s no foreign forces. After 1994, when they leave, Germany can have its NATO forces but there would be no non-German NATO forces in the Eastern states, except they wouldn’t be able to be stationed or be deployed there.

So, there’s nothing in the treaty that precludes Poland or others joining NATO and indeed you know I have to smile if anybody’s watched Soviet or Russian diplomacy, the idea that the Russians would say ‘Oh yeah you posed a hypothetical to us and that’s good enough, we don’t have to get it in writing,' it’s a little crazy given if you watch how the Russians act. It’s interesting to note that Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister and Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister both say that there was no promise. But I have another interesting little anecdote which is on the last night before the treaty was signed in Moscow in September, we were quarreling over the definition of deployed. What does deployed mean? That you couldn’t have non-German NATO forces deployed? And I’m thinking to myself you know someday Poland may want to come into NATO and the US may need the ability to move forces across the former East Germany and I don’t want that blocked. Now I didn’t put that hypothetical out on the table, but I wanted to make sure that the language permitted it. And there was a big kerfuffle overnight that historians have written about which we finally agreed the next morning to say that the definition of deployed would be up to the united Germany in taking account these issues, which I thought was safe enough since Germany would be a NATO member.

So those are all factors that, at the end of the day, you have to look at the treaty language, you have to look at the basis of how Gorbachev came to the decision, but as we both said, Putin will use any leverage he can."

Watch Clip

This event is part of the Wilson Center's Hindsight Up Front | Ukraine initiative.







Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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