Myths & Pretexts: NATO and Origins of the Ukraine Crisis

In his address on 18 March 2014, in which President Putin justified the annexation of Crimea, he underlined the humiliation Russia had suffered due to a series of hostile actions and broken promises by the West, including the eastward expansion of NATO. NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe is perceived in the Kremlin as an anti-Russian project aimed at encircling Russia, and as a central cause of the Ukraine crisis and the renewed tensions between Russia and the West. Did NATO provoke Russia’s incursion into Ukraine by violating its commitments?

Russian arguments against NATO expansion have revolved around two assertions; firstly, that the entry of former Warsaw Pact member states into NATO has violated a pledge given by the Alliance earlier not to spread eastward, and secondly, that the West has sought to ‘drag’ Ukraine into NATO. But is there any truth to these claims? 

Firstly, the assertion that the West has promised to Russia not to expand NATO eastward requires examining. Russian officials have maintained that the governments of the United States and West Germany made a solemn pledge to the USSR during the German reunification process in 1990 that if the Soviet Union agreed to Germany’s full NATO membership after the country’s reunification, NATO would not enlarge to encompass any other Eastern European states. These assertions have sparked a wide debate also in the scholarly literature. While some commentators such as Robert McNamara, James Blight and Leon Sigal argue that NATO has humiliated Russia by breaking the promise not to expand to the east, others such as Mark Kramer and Michael Rühle believe that NATO never provided such assurances and that the no-NATO-expansion pledge to Russia is nothing but a myth, which “perpetuates the false notion of Russian victimhood that provides Moscow with a convenient pretext to justify its policies”.

There is no written record of a pledge in 1990 not to extend NATO beyond Germany. The content of the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany that was signed in September 1990 by East Germany, West Germany, the USSR, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, shows that the negotiations on German reunification were solely about the future of the reunified Germany and did not involve discussion about the future composition of NATO, apart from in relation to eastern Germany. The only commitment codified in the treaty pertaining to NATO was the provisions in Article 5 that when the reunified Germany joined the Alliance, the territory of the former East Germany would be given a special military status, guaranteeing that non-German NATO troops would not be stationed in eastern Germany. Nothing about the issue of NATO enlargement into other Eastern European countries was included in the treaty.

Furthermore, American and Russian politicians who were directly involved in the German reunification process have confirmed that no such commitment was made. For example, James A. Baker who held the office of US Secretary of State in 1990 has denied that he had the intention to rule out the admission of new member states to NATO. Mr. Baker pointed out in a phone interview with The New York Times in 1997 that the entire assertion of a no-NATO-expansion pledge is defeated by the fact that the West insisted on integrating East Germany into NATO, “thereby moving NATO eastward.” Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev who served as President of the Soviet Union in 1990 has denied that the issue of NATO enlargement came up at all in the early 1990s. Mr. Gorbachev stated in an October 2014 interview with Russia Beyond The Headlines that, “The topic of “NATO expansion” was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a singe Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either.”

On the basis of these findings, it can be concluded that NATO leaders never made a commitment not to enlarge the Alliance into former Warsaw Pact countries. This supports the argument made by scholars such as Mark Kramer and Michael Rühle that the no-NATO-expansion pledge to Russia is merely a myth used by Moscow as a pretext to justify its new assertiveness.

Dragging Ukraine into NATO?

Secondly, the assertion that the West has sought to ‘drag’ Ukraine into NATO needs to be examined. This argument was made by President Putin, who justified Russia’s aggression against Ukraine by maintaining that if Russia did not act, Ukraine would have been “drawn into NATO”. This view is shared by Realist scholar John J. Mearsheimer, who writes in his Foreign Affairs article entitled ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’ that NATO expansion is “the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West”.

NATO membership was a central strategic goal of Ukraine during the Kuchma and Yushchenko administrations. Euro-Atlantic integration first became a formal goal of Ukraine in May 2002 when the then President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma publicly stated that Ukraine aimed to pursue NATO membership. Viktor Yushchenko who succeeded Kuchma as president in 2005 also made clear his aspiration to NATO membership for Ukraine by signing an application for NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in April 2008. In an interview with Times of London in November 2008, Mr. Yushchenko stressed his commitment to strengthening cooperation between NATO and Ukraine by saying that “I am sure that the ball is not on the Ukrainian side of the field, Ukraine has done everything it had to do. We are devoted to this pace. Everything else is an issue of political will of those allies who represent NATO.” NATO, however, chose not to offer Ukraine a MAP at the Bucharest Summit on the basis of “questions still outstanding pertaining to [Ukraine’s] MAP application”. This demonstrates that NATO did not seek to ‘drag’ Ukraine into the Alliance. On the contrary, Ukraine approached NATO.

The administration of President Viktor Yanukovych that came to power in 2010 overturned the pro-Western policies pursued by the preceding Yushchenko government. In June 2010 the government of Viktor Yanukovych adopted a bill excluding the goal of joining NATO from the country’s national security strategy and committing Ukraine to a non-aligned policy. NATO respected Ukraine’s decision and carried on working with it on reforms in the existing framework of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, in accordance with the wish of the Ukrainian government. On his visit to Ukraine in February 2011 the then NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stressed that NATO does not press Ukraine to join any military-political block and respects the country’s non-allied status.

NATO enlargement is not designed as an anti-Russian project

In sum, the roots of the Ukraine crisis do not lie in NATO’s alleged lies and provocations. Firstly, contrary to Russian assertions, the West has not broken a promise not to expand NATO, as such a promise was never made. Secondly, according to the available evidence, NATO has not pushed Ukraine to join the Alliance. During the Kuchma and Yushchenko presidencies demand for closer NATO-Ukraine cooperation came from the Ukrainian side, and when the Yanukovych administration decided to exclude the goal of joining NATO from Ukraine’s national security strategy in 2010, NATO respected that decision. These findings support the argument made by Michael Rühle, according to which NATO enlargement is not designed as an anti-Russian project but rather as an open-ended “continental unification project”. As such, it has no ‘end point’, which could be morally justified in consideration of the 1975 Helsinki Charter that enshrines the right of sovereign states to choose their alliance.


About the author:

Anna Roininen holds a MA in International Relations & World Order from the University of Leicester and currently works as a Research Assistant Intern at the IIR.



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