Westerners ever defected to North Korea

History Reloaded - What history teaches us

Ending the Cold War: Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush sign a treaty in the White House in 1990. Photo: Peter Turnley (Getty)

During the festive season, too, Vladimir Putin's military machine caused a stir in Western strategy staff, or at least in the media: the Americans had discovered suspicious "Russian activities" on deep-sea cables connecting Europe with America. Meanwhile, the Russian cyber and propaganda tricks remained a constant topic. And since Russia's jet fight in Syria, since the not very discreet guerrilla war in Ukraine, since the annexation of Crimea, it seems to be clear to everyone that the Kremlin is quite aggressive.

But the picture can be turned around. The Russians see themselves as the oppressed side - if a bloc is notoriously expansive, then it's the West, NATO, the Americans. Top politicians like Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov like to cite the “betrayal of 1990” as a typical, clear and authoritative example. The story goes like this: When it came to unifying Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the governments of the USA and the FRG made a promise in the Kremlin: NATO will remain what it is. One will hold back.

In fact, US Secretary of State James Baker had told Kremlin chief Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 that the West would not push an inch eastwards if the Soviet Union allowed reunification.

"Not one inch eastward": The sentence was quoted many times later. But from a western point of view, these were just a few thoughts in long negotiations. In the end, no such restriction was contracted anywhere. So that the Russians could soon only watch, wringing their hands, as NATO began to expand to the east. After 1999, twelve Eastern European countries joined the Western military alliance, and today US tanks are right on the Russian border, for example in the Baltic States. Formally completely correct.

"... nothing like this will happen"

But now, just before Christmas, other documents came to light, compiled by the National Security Archive of George Washington University. And these papers set different accents. They show that the top Western politicians by no means dropped just a few hints - a few subordinate clauses that soon fell off the negotiating table. Rather, they made it quite categorically clear to the Kremlin leadership that NATO would restrict itself if the Soviet Union allowed the unification of the FRG and the GDR.

Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher had opened the ranks in a speech in Tutzing: There would be no expansion of NATO territory to the east, “that is, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union”: He announced that in January 1990. Then James said Baker not only made his "no inch east" slogan en passant - he repeated it several times, according to the new documents.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl then followed with similar suggestions: "We think that NATO should not expand its sphere," he told Gorbachev, for example. François Mitterand, Margaret Thatcher and, later, their successor, Prime Minister John Major, made similar statements. After his visit to the Kremlin, the British ambassador described Defense Minister Dmitri Yasov's NATO concerns - and then noted: "Major makes sure that nothing like this will happen to him." - "Major assures him that nothing of the sort will happen."

«We think that NATO should not expand its scope»: Memorandum of the meeting between Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev, February 1990.

So together the documents tell a new story. The historians of the National Archives, who published the papers the week before last, come to a rather dubious conclusion: there was more than just an idea, more than just a misunderstanding, more than just a negligence on the part of the Russians. Rather, under the guidance of the Americans, the Kremlin men were deliberately weighed in a false belief. Or to put it in a somewhat more undiplomatic way: you were ripped off.

Russian fears were confirmed

Mikhail Gorbachev later played down the case himself, but there was a reason: His compatriots blamed it on him as a grave mistake not to have recorded the NATO restriction as an agreement. But this is only a superficial point. Every Russian knows that the country has been repeatedly attacked from the West - whether by the Poles in 1605, the Swedes in 1708, by Napoleon in 1812 or twice by the Germans in the last century. By ruling out NATO expansion to the east, the politicians around George H. W. Bush and Helmut Kohl appeased these basic fears. And when their successors then dismissed it coldly, what had already been suspected was confirmed for Moscow.

There are themes in history that do not disappear over the years, but actually intensify. And so the “betrayal of 1990” reverberates diplomatically louder today than in the first few years. Joshua Shifrinson, a security expert at Dartmouth University, drew a logical conclusion from the back and forth: It was a promise that helped end the Cold War in 1990. A new promise of restraint - for example in Ukraine or Georgia - might offer another chance to re-establish relations with Russia.