How NATO expansion happened in the '90s

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NATO Headquarters, flags, Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)
NATO Headquarters, flags, Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new question about NATO expansion.

"A membership in NATO is a very delicate subject. Because we don’t want to end up drawing lines across Europe just at the time when we managed to knock down ... the one line that divided Europe for so many, many years."

Former Defense Secretary Les Aspin there in 1993.

But it was only a few years later that the Clinton Administration did decide to draw new lines across Europe.

"NATO enlargement itself was a perfectly justifiable policy. The problem was how it happened," Mary Elise Sarotte, a post-Cold War historian, says. "In other words, it happened in a way that maximized friction with Moscow at a time when Moscow was most in need of friends."

Today, On Point: We'll hear how domestic politics, not necessarily international alliances, drove the Clinton Administration's decision to support NATO's last major expansion.


Mary Elise Sarotte, post-Cold War historian. Professor of the history of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. Author of Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. (@e_sarotte)

Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. Director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the first Bill Clinton administration. Author of Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

Interview Highlights

On the genesis of the Partnership for Peace

Mary Elise Sarotte: “The Partnership for Peace was an answer to the question of how to enlarge NATO, and I think that's an important point to take away here from this history. NATO's enlargement was not one thing. There were multiple possibilities for enlargement known at the time. And as Secretary of Defense Les Aspin said, the goal was to find the one that would give relatively less heartburn to Moscow. Now, the reason for that is not just altruism.

“The reason for that is that this time period that you're focusing on, rightly focusing on, was not only an era of NATO's enlargement. It was also the moment of the greatest cooperation between Moscow and Washington ever, in the field of reducing nuclear confrontation. They were engaged in a cooperative effort to basically dismantle or destroy former Soviet missiles pointed at America. And so the reason to not give heartburn to Moscow was to promote that process, which was unprecedented in nuclear history.”

What was your impression of the president's opinion about Ukraine and NATO expansion at that time?

Charles Kupchan: “I think the administration went through a great deal of debate there, and this is a debate that we will never resolve. Mary, and I and everyone else who weighs in on NATO expansion will be debating this until the end of time. And we will never resolve the issue. There are some who think it was a strategic mistake. Others who think it was a great strategic coup. And this debate will continue. And that's the way it was in the Clinton administration.

“There was a strong group of people, myself included, who strongly supported the Partnership for Peace. And did not believe that it was wise to proceed with formal NATO enlargement. And the Partnership for Peace effectively bought time. It was a way of kicking the can down the road. And there were two alternative ways it could unfold. One, that if everything went well, if Russia became a stable democracy, then NATO and the Partnership for Peace and this other pan-European organization called the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, they would eventually merge, and you'd have a pan-European collective security organization.

“The other alternative, the other outcome would be that Russia goes dark. Russia goes in a bad direction, and then Partnership for Peace becomes the gateway to formal NATO enlargement. That's kind of the way the debate was emerging until the later part of 1993. I think that Tony Lake was forward-leaning on the issue. The president was forward-leaning on the issue. More in my mind for ideological reasons than because of domestic pressure.

“This was the end of the Cold War. This was our moment. It was time to universalize the liberal democratic order. And there were some key moments along the way. There was the Holocaust Museum open in April of 1993, a very moving day. Elie Wiesel spoke. Václav Havel and Walesa were there, key figures from the Czech Republic and Poland. They were saying to Clinton, bring us in, get us on the right side of history.

"And then I would say the key point, as you've already discussed, was the NATO summit in '94, which blessed the Partnership for Peace. But then in Prague a few days later, Clinton said a key phrase. He said, Its expansion is now not a question of whether, it's a question of when. And that really changed the debate.”

On Ukraine’s independence

Mary Elise Sarotte: “When Ukraine became independent and that happened in December 1991. And by the way, the 30th anniversary of that event is one of the reasons why Putin has taken action. He is particularly sensitive to anniversaries. Also, the anniversary, the 30th anniversary of Soviet collapse. So if your listeners are wondering why now, why is Putin attacking Ukraine now? That's a big part of the answer. So when Ukraine became independent, because of the amount of Soviet arsenal on its territory, it was born nuclear. It was born the third biggest nuclear power in the world.

“And that attracts attention around the world. And that actually helped promote cooperation between Washington and Moscow, because both wanted to denuclearize Ukraine. And they cooperated to try to basically get the portions of the arsenal on Ukrainian soil returned to Moscow. It's important to add that Moscow always had command and control because that's how it had been set up in the Soviet Union. But the Ukrainians were in physical possession of the weapons and that was very worrying to Washington and Moscow.

“So Ukraine was a feature of this discussion very early on. And that then leads back to your question on the Partnership for Peace. Because Clinton didn't want to leave Ukraine out in the cold. I was shocked in my research just how early on he realized that would be a problem.

"And he realized that it would be very hard to make Ukraine a NATO member, even though Tony Lake, his national security advisor, was in favor of it. And so he thought, if we have this Partnership for peace, this intermediate organization ... post-Soviet states like Russia and Ukraine can join, that will give them a berth in Europe, that will help us to work with Ukraine and help promote its denuclearization.”

On the factors that caused a shift in expansion strategy

Mary Elise Sarotte: “There's obviously a bunch of factors that combine to shift the narrow expansion strategy to one of giving out Article 5. Again, important to remember, there were multiple ways of enlarging NATO. NATO enlargement was not one thing. And so you've rightly identified the key factors in this shift. First you have Clinton coming into office.

"Then you had the creation of the policy, the Partnership for Peace, which I think had useful ambiguity attached to it, and also provided a berth for Russia and Ukraine. But because of primarily three factors the Russian invasion of Chechnya, the fact that Ukraine denuclearizes, and so taking care of Ukraine becomes less important. And then finally, what you've just described, the Contract with America.

“And more importantly, the Republican victory in the mid-term congressional elections of November 1994. All of that helps to doom the Partnership for Peace. I should say that the partnership still exists, but it ceases to be the primary vehicle for NATO's enlargement. Clinton has to pay attention to the success of the Republicans because he wants to be reelected in 1996. And he needs exactly those voters with whom the Republicans are doing well in November 1994, such as American citizens of Central and Eastern European origin in the Midwest, which, by the way, includes my relatives.

“So he is you know, he's looking at all these things, President Clinton, and he's hearing people like his national security advisor, Tony Lake, and others saying, you know, we don't need this ambiguity. These countries have waited too long for Article 5. They've suffered too much. And his Russia adviser, Strobe Talbott, in particular by '95, is saying, you know, we really should keep going with NATO enlargement. It won't be complete until it gets to the Baltics.”

On considering Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership

Mary Elise Sarotte: “It's important to remember that there are domestic politics both in Washington and in Russia. Obviously, here we're focusing on the United States and on Clinton. But there's also domestic political missteps by Yeltsin as well. Corruption rises in Russia on his watch and the democratic reform[s] unravel. So it's really a story of the interaction. There's agency on both sides. And I mentioned that as preface to talking about legacy for today. So for the current president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, what we've been talking about isn't just in living memory. This is lived memory for him.

“He was, of course, in divided Germany in 1989 as a junior KGB officer. He witnessed the collapse of Soviet power firsthand. And this is a searing memory for him. And he argued at the time to him that Moscow should use violence. He actually wanted to shoot peaceful protesters who came to the KGB outpost, and he called Soviet forces for reinforcement.

"And the person who answered the phone said, I'm not going to do that without explicit authorization from Moscow. And Moscow is silent. Moscow is silent. And Putin has said consistently that that was a huge mistake. And certainly Moscow was not silent today. And so Putin remembers these things and has a grievance about how the post-Cold War order left Russia in the lurch.

“Now, of course, this doesn't justify the brutality he's showing in Ukraine, and I have to express my admiration for the people who are fighting there. But he does spin this narrative based on these grievances that emerged. And then in particular, concerning 1997, which is, as you said, it was 25 years ago this year.

"He has this mistaken sense that somehow in 1997, Russia should have had a veto over NATO's ability to give Article 5 to Central and Eastern European countries. In part, this is because Boris Yeltsin, out of frustration in '97, simply started saying in public that he, Boris Yeltsin, had gotten a veto. This was not accurate, but he started saying it to assuage his domestic opponents.

“And that created this popular sense that in 1997, Russia got a veto, which somehow the West is now violating. Again, to emphasize, that didn't happen. And American diplomats at the time were writing behind the scenes to Yeltsin's aides, saying, why is Yeltsin saying this? This isn't true. And his aides, the Russian aides responded to Americans were trying to tell him this, but he just won't understand. You have to remember that Yeltsin was a man with a very serious drinking problem. And a man who was suffering from severe heart disease and was simply absent much of the time because of illness.”

Is it happening in the wrong way now with Finland and Sweden?

Mary Elise Sarotte: “Now we're in an entirely different context. Cold Wars are not short lived affairs. So thaws are precious. And the 1990s were a thaw. And what we did and what Russia did in that area carried outsized importance. And so that's why the fact that there were all these misunderstandings over how NATO was expanding created friction and scar tissue. That's why that's so important. Now we're on a war footing and now if Sweden and Finland want to join NATO, then I think that would be a positive development in light of the horrors currently unfolding in Ukraine.”

Related Reading

New York Times: "Putin’s War in Ukraine Is a Watershed. Time for America to Get Real." — "During his recent speech in Warsaw, President Biden said that Vladimir Putin 'cannot remain in power,' only to clarify a few days later that he was merely expressing outrage, not announcing a new U.S. policy aimed at toppling Russia’s leader."

Financial Times: "Russia, Ukraine and the 30-year quest for a post-Soviet order" — "Why has the post-cold-war order broken apart in a violent fight over Ukraine? It is now beyond question that that order has crumbled, and that Europe will once again, as in 1989, bear a line of division between Moscow-centric and Washington-centric blocs."

This program aired on April 27, 2022.


Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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