Has the West been dishonest?
Moscow insists that when the Cold War ended, different Western leaders on different occasions assured the then Soviet and later Russian leaderships that there was no question of NATO expanding to ‘take advantage’ of Russia’s agreeing that Germany could be reunited. In those turbulent confused months after the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR disintegrated, different verbal assurances along these lines were given. However, as Moscow knows better than most, verbal assurances are not the same as written assurances or legally binding assurances.
Then in 1993 Russia’s President Yeltsin met Poland’s President Lech Wałesa in Warsaw during a visit to mark the final withdrawal of Russian forces from (formerly Warsaw Pact) Poland. Yeltsin was asked point-blank by Wałesa whether Poland could join NATO. He replied to the effect that as a free nation in a now undivided Europe, Poland could do what it liked. Yeltsin also issued a communique expressing ‘understanding’ for Poland’s NATO ambitions.
Years later as UK Ambassador to Warsaw I asked Lech Wałesa about this momentous meeting and Yeltsin’s apparently affable acceptance of Poland’s NATO aspirations. Had the Russian President been, perhaps, over-infused with Polish vodka? Wałesa said no: Yeltsin had genuinely not been bothered, one way or the other.
On his return to Moscow Yeltsin found himself compelled to put out another statement ‘revoking’ his apparent acceptance of Poland joining NATO. Awkward. But too late.
Meanwhile, many Western capitals were not enthused by the prospect of so many European ex-Warsaw Pact countries - and above all Ukraine - joining either NATO or the European Union. That would add multifarious costs and complications, not least in relations with Moscow. France disgraced itself for years by proclaiming that Ukraine did not even qualify as a ‘European country’, and so wasn’t eligible to apply for EU membership.
Time passed. Many former Warsaw Pact states and the three Baltic republics all applied to join both the EU and NATO, and were accepted in both in different waves of enlargement. Moscow gloomily went along with this, maintaining structured dialogue with both NATO and the EU. Yes, it was embarrassing that so many former countries under former Russian sway now wanted to join NATO and looked West rather than East for their future prosperity. But Russian leaders and experts knew perfectly well that NATO posed no military threat to Russia: its steadily diminishing forces were deployed in purely defensive postures.
It's also worth remembering why Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies wanted to join NATO. One big reason was that NATO membership came with commitments to modern Western standards of integrity and proper process in matters military. This meant that Russia’s nasty GRU military intelligence operatives and their deep networks of destabilising corruption could finally be cleaned out. How else to do it?
The other main reason? These NATO applicant states did not believe that Russia had given up its traditional violent imperial ambitions. And, as Ukraine has showed, they were right.