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US 'violating' assurance to Gorbachev: NATO not to expand jurisdiction to eastern Europe

By Bharat Dogra* 

At a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine has faced a lot of well-justified criticism, a different yet related question also needs to be raised. Would Ukraine have become such a serious crisis point if the USA had sincerely adopted a policy of peace towards Russia during the last 35 years or so?
Revisit Russia of three decades back. There was confusion at the rapid break-up, a lot of uncertainty. A sincere hand of friendship by the superpower would have been enough for Russia to accept a less than equal position in the arrangement, as long as it was treated honorably. Unfortunately, the USA and allies adopted a policy of hostility, which came to the fore at the time of decisions relating to the eastward expansion of NATO.
An important understanding reached between Gorbachev and Bush in 1989 was that the USA will not expand NATO membership eastwards close to Russian borders. Jack F Matlock, then US ambassador to the Soviet Union and a leading expert on Soviet policy for years, had a ringside view of crucial talks. He recalled recently (February, 15 2022, "Responsible Statecraft"), Gorbachev was assured, though not in a formal treaty, that if a unified Germany was allowed to remain in NATO, there would be no movement of NATO’s jurisdiction to the east, not one inch.”
However the USA started drifting away -- fast -- from this assurance. 1997 was a landmark year for this going back on an important assurance. At this critical juncture, on June 26 1997 to be precise, as many as 50 prominent foreign policy experts, including former senators, retired military officers, diplomats and academicians sent an open letter to President Clinton, outlining their opposition to NATO expansion (see full statement at the Arms Control Association, Opposition to NATO Expansion).
They wrote, “We, the undersigned, believe that the current US led effort to expand NATO, … is a policy error of historic proportions. In Russia NATO expansion, which continues to be opposed across the entire political spectrum, will strengthen the non-democratic opposition, undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West, bring the Russians to question the entire post- cold war settlement, and galvanize resistance in the Duma to the START II and III treaties.”
This letter of 50 experts concluded: “We strongly urge that the NATO expansion process be suspended while alternative actions are explored.” The alternatives suggested by these experts included “supporting a NATO-Russia relationship.”
Around the same time in 1997 Ambassador Matlock was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He stated that NATO expansion would be the most strategic blunder since the end of the Cold War.
Ignoring such sane advice from many senior diplomats and foreign policy experts, the US government went ahead with several waves of adding new NATO members -- eastward ho! At the same time, the USA was also withdrawing from important arms control treaties. During the nineties western interests were associated with pushing economic policies of the Yeltsin years which impoverished a large number of Russians, leading to a deeply worrying, steep fall of life expectancy.
The expectations of many Russians for economic help and accommodation of essential security concerns were neglected and instead they saw repeated violation of their economic and security interests. In addition sanctions were also imposed. In 2014 the USA intervened decisively in Ukraine, playing an important role in installing an anti-Russian regime.
In 2019 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a study titled ‘30 Years of US Policy Toward Russia—Can the Vicious Circle be Broken’ which expressed regret at the many problems created by hostile US policy. 
In 1997 Ambassador Matlock stated that NATO expansion would be the most strategic blunder since the end of the Cold War
To break the impasse, the study concluded, the USA will have to, for its part, make several key adjustments to its Russia policy, including -- halting NATO expansion eastward, clarifying to Ukraine and Georgia that they should not base their foreign policy on the assumption that they will be joining NATO (while establishing robust security cooperation in other ways), reviewing and restraining sanctions policy towards Russia and leaving Russia’s internal affairs to itself (not interfering in them).
These and other suggestions have been ignored by US policy makers who continued to indulge in provocations. Just before war broke out, Matlock posed a question (see “Responsible Statecraft",  February 15, 2022: "I was there—NATO and the origins of the Ukraine Crisis”): Was the crisis avoidable? His answer was –Yes.
He explained, “Since Putin’s major demand is an assurance that NATO will take no further members, and specifically not Ukraine or Georgia, obviously there could have been no basis for the present crisis if there had been no expansion of the alliance following the end of the Cold War, or if the expansion had occurred in harmony with building a security structure in Europe that included Russia.”
So while the invasion of Ukraine deserves the criticism it is getting, the genuine concerns of Russia also deserve attention. In the longer-term and a wider context, USA led west and the already troubled world will gain nothing and lose a lot from a policy of encircling and threatening a big nuclear weapon power like Russia. 
A century earlier Germany in difficult times, trying to find a rightful place of honor, was pushed and shoved too much, and the rest is very unfortunate history. The situation now in a world of weapons of mass destruction is of course much more risky.
Surely USA and western decision makers have the wisdom to see the bigger picture. The talk in the street is of the USA arms companies getting more business, Germany and Japan being pushed towards acquiring more destructive weapons in cooperation with the USA, fuel market of Europe getting more tied to USA interests despite clear advantages of getting better and cheaper supplies much nearer from Russia. Surely western and US policy makers should be able to rise above such narrow concerns.
Clearly a different path exists, a path based on peace and sincerity, and by making this the basis of its Russia policy the USA can contribute much more to its self-interests and even more to world peace. This can also contribute very quickly to resolving the ongoing crisis, and in the longer-term to creating a safer world for this and future generations.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril” and “Protecting Earth for Children”

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