James A. Baker III’s words on NATO loom’s deadlock in Ukraine

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WASHINGTON – When officials from Russia and the United States sit in Geneva on Monday for high-level talks with another war in Europe at stake, an American diplomat who won’t even be in the room will hover over the talks.

Almost 30 years after James A. Baker III resigned as Secretary of State, the current confrontation over Ukraine rests in part on a long-standing debate about his commitments, the if so, to Moscow at the end of the Cold War and whether the United States respected them.

President Vladimir V. Putin and other Russian officials have claimed that Mr. Baker ruled out NATO expansion in Eastern Europe when he was President George HW Bush’s top diplomat. The West’s failure to stick to this deal, in this argument, is the real cause of the crisis now hitting Europe as Mr Putin demands that NATO give up Ukraine’s membership as a price cancellation of a potential invasion.

But the record suggests that this is a selective account of what really happened, used to justify Russian aggression for years. While there were indeed discussions between Mr. Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the months following the fall of the Berlin Wall over limiting NATO jurisdiction if Germany’s l East and West were united, no such provision was included in the final treaty signed by the Americans, Europeans and Russians.

“In the end, that’s a ridiculous argument,” Baker said in an interview in 2014, months after Russia captured Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine. “It is true that at the start of the negotiations I said ‘what if’, then Gorbachev himself supported a solution which extended the border which included the German Democratic Republic”, or East Germany, within NATO. Since the Russians signed this treaty, he asked, how can they build “on something that I said a month or so before? It just doesn’t make sense.

In fact, while Mr. Putin accuses the United States of breaking a deal it never made, Russia violated a deal it did in Ukraine. In 1994, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia signed an agreement with the United States and Britain called the Budapest Memorandum, in which the newly independent Ukraine gave up 1,900 nuclear warheads in exchange of a commitment from Moscow “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from resorting to the threat or use of force” against the country.

Russia trampled on Ukrainian sovereignty by annexing Crimea and sponsoring proxy forces to wage war against the Kiev government in eastern Ukraine. And it once again threatens the use of force by rallying 100,000 Russian troops along its border to secure guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO.

The dispute dates back to the last years of the Cold War, when East and West negotiated the framework of what Mr. Bush would call the New World Order. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 led to negotiations on the unification of the two Germans formed after World War II.

The Bush administration was determined to anchor a Combined Germany in NATO, but Western officials sought to allay Soviet concerns about their security. On January 31, 1990, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the West German Minister for Foreign Affairs, declared in a speech that there would be “no extension of NATO territory to the east, that is. that is, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union. “

He was talking about whether NATO troops would be stationed in the territory then constituting East Germany, and not whether other countries would eventually be considered members of the alliance. Nonetheless, Mr. Baker echoed Mr. Genscher’s formulation during a February 9 visit to Moscow.

To encourage acceptance of German unification, Baker offered what he called “rock-solid guarantees that jurisdiction or NATO forces would not move east,” says declassified memorandum recording the discussion.

“There would be no extension of NATO jurisdiction for NATO forces an inch to the east,” Baker told Gorbachev, revisiting the formula three times during the conversation.

Back in Washington, National Security Council staff grew alarmed. The word “jurisdiction” could imply that NATO’s collective defense doctrine would apply only to part of German territory, limiting German sovereignty. For American officials, it was one thing to agree not to move troops east right away, but all of Germany had to be part of NATO.

“The NSC contacted him fairly quickly and said the language could be misinterpreted,” recalled Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s Soviet adviser and later secretary of state under President George W. Bush, in an interview for a biography of Mr. Boulanger.

Mr. Baker got the message and began to go back on his words by removing the term “jurisdiction” from all future discussions. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany also rejected Mr Genscher’s formulation.

“I might have been a little ahead of my skis on this, but they changed it and he knew they changed it,” Mr Baker recalled of Mr Gorbachev. “In the months that followed, he never raised the issue of expanding NATO jurisdiction to the east again. He then signed documents in which NATO extended its jurisdiction.

When Mr. Baker returned to Moscow in May, he offered what were called the Nine Assurances, including a pledge to allow Soviet troops in East Germany to stay for a period of transition and not to extend NATO forces in this territory until their departure. It was hardly a promise not to expand the alliance east, but he insisted to the Soviets that it was the best the United States could do.

Mr. Gorbachev finally agreed. The final treaty unifying Germany later in 1990 banned foreign troops from the former East Germany, but German troops assigned to NATO could be deployed there once Soviet forces withdrew from here. late 1994. Nothing in the treaty addressed NATO expansion beyond that.

“Now remember, it’s not clear that the Soviet Union is going to collapse at this point,” Dr Rice recalled. “It’s not even clear that the Warsaw Pact is going to collapse. It is about the unification of Germany. She added: “NATO expansion was just not on the table as a problem in 1990-91. “

No less a witness of agreement than Mr. Gorbachev. “The subject of ‘NATO enlargement’ has not been discussed at all, and it has not been touched upon during these years,” he told an interviewer after the intervention. from Russia to Ukraine seven years ago. The problem was with foreign troops in East Germany. “Baker’s statement ‘on not an inch’ was made against this background,” Gorbachev said. “Everything that could have been and had to be done to consolidate this political obligation has been done. And fulfilled.

That said, Mr. Gorbachev admitted that NATO enlargement was needlessly provocative. “It was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances given to us in 1990,” he said.

It turns out that one of those who suggested a different approach was Mr. Baker. In 1993, when NATO was considering admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, it proposed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that the alliance consider another possible member: Russia itself.

The idea would be to force democratic change before being able to join, while making it clear that Russia was not an enemy. “For our relations with Russia, this can both encourage reform and protect our bets against a return to authoritarianism and expansionism,” Baker wrote. This obviously never happened.


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