Today, on October 3, Germany celebrates Unity Day. Over the past 26 years Germany has experienced economic growth and peace and taken its rightful place in Europe and the world.
At a speech I gave to the Foreign Policy and United Nations Association of Austria last week, a questioner put forward what has become a persistent view on NATO. The accusation is that the US is more to blame for the present crises in Europe than Russia, having enlarged NATO contrary to alleged promises made at the time of German unification.
But there is no doubt, German unification is not responsible for Russian use of military force in Europe and the Middle East. Nor is NATO.
Russian military action in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea upended the illusion of perpetual peace and in our lives. Russia and the West have competing narratives to explain Putin’s action. Putin and those seeking to “understand” him often argue that the United States has violated a deal made with Russia about not expanding NATO.
On the contrary, current Russian military aggression is not based on German unification and perceived promises not to enlarge NATO. The two key facts are these: there are no agreements or treaties that prohibit NATO from accepting new members, and there also were no secret assurances not to expand NATO eastward.
The basis for Russian use of force is to restore the Russian sphere of influence in countries that became independent after the fall of the Soviet Empire. President Putin has described the fall of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
NATO is a defensive alliance that has accepted new members committed to democracy and the rule of law, at their own request. Some scholars suggest promises were made in 1989-1990 not to extend NATO and cite declassified reports of talks between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and U.S. Secretary James A. Baker III with Soviet Union President Gorbachev. This legend — that alleges promises were made not to extend NATO to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by Chancellor Kohl and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in 1989-1990 – is a revision of history.
James A. Baker, speaking at the American Academy in Berlin on October 7, 2014, dismissed the claims of promises on NATO extension beyond East Germany as baseless. On October 16, 2014, Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed Baker’s assertion, saying that the “topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed…not brought up in those years.” Likewise, Hans Dietrich Genscher, former German foreign minister, also affirmed Baker, “this was never the subject of negotiations, and most certainly not a negotiation result.” The Warsaw Pact still existed and the subject of discussion was Germany’s decision to remain a NATO member after unification.
There were deep concerns shown in the declassified reports. U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Kohl and Gorbachev shared their common concerns – and resolve – about three developments in the 1989 revolution that would lead to German unification. They were:
- The disintegration of the East German SED regime;
- The Soviet leader’s stance on a united Germany in NATO;
- Uncertainty about the status of the 380,000 Soviet soldiers in the GDR.
The understanding reached with Gorbachev was that only the Bundeswehr, not foreign forces, would be stationed in the territory of the former GDR after unification.
More important, in the negotiations leading up to German unification, Soviet leaders re-iterated the right of former Soviet satellite nations to decide their alliances themselves, restoring sovereignty to those countries. During the revolution in 1989-1990, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze fought against a catastrophic Soviet military intervention that would deny East Germans the right to decide their own fate, as Gorbachev had promised. At issue was Germany and eventually, Gorbachev agreed to German unification and its membership in NATO.
The West made a concerted, 25-year effort to have Russia included in international institutions, and to have Russia join the WTO, associate with NATO, and become a partner in the global order. That effort has failed. President Vladimir Putin’s worldview is premised on a perceived need to restore Russia to its former position of influence and greatness, especially in Russia’s “near abroad” and – by extension – in the world. In that vision, NATO is a hindrance to this exercise of power in the former Soviet States as they are now NATO members.
Sadly, President Vladimir Putin, already in Munich in 2007 said: “No” to the world order, calling the collapse of the Soviet Union a geopolitical catastrophe. President Putin’s pursuit to return Russia to nationalist great power politics is reminiscent of the early 20th century and not instigated by German unification. This rejection of the Charter of Paris was unprovoked.
Putin’s Russia has used force to violate borders, to create disorder, and to produce unstable states with frozen conflicts in Europe and in Europe’s neighborhood in Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine. His “Balance- of- Power” strategy has brought Russian military aggression in Europe into conflict with the transatlantic relationship’s strategic restraint.
The West responded to Russian aggression not with military force, but rather with sanctions and with an offer to lift them after the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreement. The West considered supplying weapons to Ukraine and decided to defer such a decision.
The transatlantic partnership has responded with a search for alternative ways to work toward adjusting President Putin’s strategic calculus, so that he and Russia see possibilities of a constructive Russian role in international institutions that serve Russian interests, but only after Russian military power plays are thwarted.
Putin’s justification for use of force met a measured response when NATO members at the Warsaw Summit in July agreed to send rotating deployments of 4 military battalions to the Baltics and Poland so as not to violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Germany will be in command of the battalion in Poland. The American president will quadruple funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to US$3.4 billion, up from US$789 million this past fiscal year. This reinvestment in the U.S. military presence in Europe is significant, particularly after decades of reduction of US military forces and aid in Europe: cumulatively some 80% after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, this return to a practical ‘Realpolitik’ is not to be equated with a Western move to ‘Machtpolitik’. NATO, with new members, nevertheless remains a defensive alliance committed foremost to common values.
Blaming purported promises about NATO’s extension during negotiations for German unification is no basis for Russian military action, and is a divergence from the efforts to work with Russia on other issues. The NATO deterrence strategy will open other ways for the Kremlin work to with transatlantic partners to tackle other conflicts, if President Putin wishes to acknowledge them.
Two of the most difficult security challenges today – the rise of terrorism in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian Civil War — demand cooperation with and from Russia and other states in the region, including Iran and Syria. Interest politics, despite adversarial relations among the states, dictate that we must try to work with Russia. Cooperation is possible as seen in the Afghanistan War, in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, and in destroying Assad’s chemical weapons.
The proper celebration of German unification this October 3 is to recommit foreign policy to the Charter of Paris and its vision for Europe with Russia as well.
by Prof. James D. Bindenagel,
Henry-Kissinger-Professor and Director of the CISG