What did Bill Burns (now CIA Director) say about NATO expansion in his 2019 book?

The following is not cherry-picking a few half quotations. This is how Burns summarised the official diplomatic history in his 2019 book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. Writing early in the memoir, “What I really wanted to do was work in what seemed to me to be the most interesting place an American diplomat could serve in the early 1990s: Russia.”

The Back Channel, book cover


With President Bush’s support, Baker sold the concept to German chancellor Helmut Kohl and foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in early February, agreeing to use Two Plus Four negotiations to press for rapid German unification and full NATO membership, while reassuring the Soviets that NATO would not be extended any farther to the east, and would be transformed to reflect the end of the Cold War and potential partnership with the Soviet Union. In meetings a few days later with Shevardnadze and Gorbachev in Moscow, Baker won their initial support, and began the effort to ease their resistance to membership of a unified Germany in NATO. Baker maintained that Soviet interests would be more secure with a united Germany wrapped up in NATO, rather than a Germany untied to NATO and perhaps eventually with its own nuclear weapons. He also said that there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or forces “one inch to the east” of the borders of a reunified Germany. The Russians took him at his word and would feel betrayed by NATO enlargement in the years that followed, even though the pledge was never formalized and was made before the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was an episode that would be relitigated for many years to come.


I emphasized mounting Russian concern about expansion of NATO. I noted that Yeltsin’s tough public statements in the fall of 1994 about NATO expansion “were an unsubtle reminder of Russian angst about neglect of its interests in the process of restructuring European security institutions.”


I visited a retired Soviet diplomat late one afternoon that winter in his modest apartment in central Moscow. He was a widower, alone with his memories and photographs of foreign postings across the Cold War. As we slowly drained a bottle of vodka, the snow falling silently outside his sitting room window, he reminisced about his career. He was not especially nostalgic about the Soviet system, and acknowledged its many weaknesses and cruelties. “We brought this upon ourselves,” he said. “We’ve lost our way.” It might take another generation for Russia to recover its confidence and purpose, but he had no doubt that it would. It would be a mistake to leave the impression with Russians that we had taken advantage of them when they were down on their luck. “Remember Churchill,” he said. “In victory, magnanimity. You won’t regret it.” The embassy urged caution on NATO enlargement. Before thinking seriously about extending offers of formal NATO membership to Poland and other Central European states, we recommended considering other forms of cooperation with former Warsaw Pact members, and perhaps a new “treaty relationship” between NATO and Russia.


As we reported in a cable a month after Clinton’s visit, “nowhere are Russian sensitivities about being excluded or taken advantage of more acute than on the broad issue of European security. There is a solid consensus within the Russian elite that NATO expansion is a bad idea, period.” The cable concluded that “it is very clear that the Russian elite sees NATO expansion . . . and Bosnia as parts of a whole—with concerns about NATO’s role in Bosnia deepening Russian suspicions about NATO and its enlargement.”


The issue of expanding NATO’s membership to include Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies was a deeper challenge. Yeltsin and the Russian elite assumed, with considerable justification, that Jim Baker’s assurances during the negotiation of German reunification in 1990—that NATO would not extend its reach “one inch” farther east—would continue to apply after the breakup of the Soviet Union. That commitment, however, had never been precisely defined or codified, and the Clinton administration saw its inheritance as fairly ambiguous. While Clinton himself was in no rush at the outset of his administration to force the question of enlarging NATO, his first national security advisor, Tony Lake, was an early proponent of expansion. Lake argued that the United States and its European allies had a rare historical opportunity to anchor former Communist countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in a successful democratic and market economic transition. A path to NATO membership would offer stability and reassurance, a compelling answer to historical fears of vulnerability to a revanchist Russia, as well as a newly reunified Germany. Amid the chaos of the former Yugoslavia, this argument struck a chord with Clinton. Others in the new administration were less convinced. Talbott, and later Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, worried that starting down the road to formal enlargement of NATO would undermine hopes for a more enduring partnership with Russia, undercutting reformers who would see it as a vote of no confidence in their efforts, a hedge against the likely failure of reform. We shared similar concerns at Embassy Moscow. In a fall 1995 cable, we laid out the quandary: “The challenge for us is to look past the [government of Russia’s] often irritating rhetoric and erratic and reactive diplomacy to our own long-term self-interest. That demands, in particular, that we continue to seek to build a security order in Europe sufficiently in Russia’s interests so that a revived Russia will have no compelling reason to revise it—and so that in the meantime the ‘stab in the back’ theorists will have only limited room for maneuver in Russian politics.” … Nevertheless, momentum gathered over the course of 1994 toward enlargement, with Clinton declaring publicly in Warsaw in July that the question was not if but when.


In a later private conversation with Clinton, Yeltsin was equally direct about his concerns. “For me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding toward those of Russia,” he said, “would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.” “Hostility to early NATO expansion,” we reported just after the Budapest outburst, “is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”


Yeltsin’s candidacy was also bolstered not so subtly by American advice and support, prompting a 1996 cover of Time that read “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.” Vladimir Putin would later hold up that episode as evidence of American hypocrisy and political meddling, part of a bill of particulars that he would use to justify his own efforts to manipulate American politics. After his reelection in November 1996, Clinton followed through on NATO expansion, with formal invitations extended to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the summer of 1997. An elaborate NATO-Russia agreement was later reached, which helped address some of Yeltsin’s concerns. Nevertheless, as Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage, a gathering storm of “stab in the back” theories slowly swirled, leaving a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades. No less a statesman than George Kennan, the architect of containment, called the expansion decision “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post–Cold War era.”


Sitting at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-1990s, it seemed to me that NATO expansion was premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.

Applied to this first wave of NATO expansion in Central Europe, Kennan’s comments struck me as a little hyperbolic. It damaged prospects for future relations with Russia, but not fatally. Where we made a serious strategic mistake—and where Kennan was prescient—was in later letting inertia drive us to push for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, despite Russia’s deep historical attachments to both states and even stronger protestations. That did indelible damage, and fed the appetite of a future Russian leadership for getting even.


A second problem was the question of NATO expansion, this time to Ukraine and Georgia. There had been two waves of NATO expansion since the end of the Cold War: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were offered membership in the second half of the 1990s, and then the Baltic states and four more Central European states a few years later. Yeltsin had gnashed his teeth over the first wave, but couldn’t do much about it. Putin offered little resistance to Baltic membership, amid all the other preoccupations of his first term. Georgia, and especially Ukraine, were different animals altogether. There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard against any steps in the direction of NATO membership for either state. In Washington, however, there was a kind of geopolitical and ideological inertia at work, with strong interest from Vice President Cheney and large parts of the interagency bureaucracy in a “Membership Action Plan” (MAP) for Ukraine and Georgia. Key European allies, in particular Germany and France, were dead set against offering it. They were disinclined to add to mounting friction between Moscow and the West—and unprepared to commit themselves formally and militarily to the defense of Tbilisi or Kyiv against the Russians. The Bush administration understood the objections, but still felt it could finesse the issue.


Completing the trifecta of troubles was the vexing issue of missile defense. Anxious about American superiority in missile defense technology since the Soviet era, the Russians were always nervous that U.S. advances in the field, whatever their stated purposes, would put Moscow at a serious strategic disadvantage. Putin had swallowed the U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty early in the Bush administration, but resented it deeply as another example, in his eyes, of the United States throwing its weight around at Russia’s expense. By 2007, the United States had begun fielding missile defense capabilities in Alaska and California, aimed at the emerging North Korean threat. More worrying for Putin were American plans to build new radar and interceptor sites in the Czech Republic and Poland to counter a potential Iranian missile threat. Putin didn’t buy the argument that an Iranian threat was imminent; and even if it was, his specialists told him (not unreasonably) that it would be technically smarter to deploy new missile defense systems in the southeast Mediterranean, or Italy, and that Aegis shipborne systems could be an effective ingredient. No amount of argument about the technological limitations of systems based in the Czech Republic and Poland against theoretical Russian targets, however soundly based, swayed Putin and his innately suspicious military. Their longer-term concern was not so much about the particular technologies that might be deployed in new NATO states in Central Europe as it was about what those technologies might mean as part of a future, globalized American missile defense system.


I had done my best over the previous two and a half years to signal the brewing problems in the relationship and what might be done to head them off. I knew I was straining the patience of some in Washington, who chafed at my warnings of troubles to come when they were consumed with the challenges that had already arrived. I decided, however, that I owed Secretary Rice and the White House one more attempt to collect my concerns and recommendations in one place. On a typically dreary Friday afternoon in early February 2008, with snow falling steadily against the gray Moscow sky outside my office window, I sat down and composed a long personal email to Secretary Rice, which she later shared with Steve Hadley and Bob Gates. While more formal diplomatic cables still had their uses, classified emails were faster, more direct, and more discreet—in this case a better way to convey the urgency and scope of my concerns.


It’s equally hard to overstate the strategic consequences of a premature MAP [Membership Action Plan] offer, especially to Ukraine. Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests. At this stage, a Membership Action Plan offer would be seen not as a technical step along a long road toward membership, but as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Today’s Russia will respond. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go into a deep freeze. . . . ​It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. On Georgia, the combination of Kosovo independence and a Membership Action Plan offer would likely lead to recognition of Abkhazia, however counterproductive that might be to Russia’s own long-term interests in the Caucasus. The prospects of subsequent Russian-Georgian armed conflict would be high.

I pushed my luck a little in the next passage. If, in the end, we decided to push Membership Action Plan offers for Ukraine and Georgia, I wrote, “you can probably stop reading here. I can conceive of no grand package that would allow the Russians to swallow this pill quietly.


Rice was appreciative and encouraged me to keep pressing my views. Both she and Gates shared at least some of my concerns on MAP [Membership Action Plan], but I sensed that the debate in Washington was still tilting toward a strong, legacy-building effort to engineer a MAP offer for Ukraine and Georgia at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. There was similar fin-de-administration momentum behind the missile defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic, now that Kosovo’s independence was a done deal.


Then Putin moved on to MAP [Membership Action Plan]. “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia. Even President Chubais or President Kasyanov [two of Russia’s better-known liberals] would have to fight back on this issue. We would do all in our power to prevent it.” Growing angry, Putin continued, “If people want to limit and weaken Russia, why do they have to do it through NATO enlargement? Doesn’t your government know that Ukraine is unstable and immature politically, and NATO is a very divisive issue there? Don’t you know that Ukraine is not even a real country? Part of it is really East European, and part is really Russian. This would be another mistake in American diplomacy, and I know Germany and France are not ready anyway.”

On other issues, Putin was mostly dismissive. Looking perturbed and waving his arm, he said the United States wasn’t listening on missile defense. “Unfortunately, the U.S. just wants to go off on its own again.


THE BUCHAREST NATO summit had moments of high drama, with President Bush and Secretary Rice still hoping to find a way to produce MAP [Membership Action Plan] offers. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy were dug in firmly in opposition. In the end, the curious outcome was a public statement, issued on behalf of the alliance by Merkel and Rice, that “we agreed today that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.

Putin came the next day for a charged NATO–Russia Council meeting, and vented his concerns forcefully. In many ways, Bucharest left us with the worst of both worlds—indulging the Ukrainians and Georgians in hopes of NATO membership on which we were unlikely to deliver, while reinforcing Putin’s sense that we were determined to pursue a course he saw as an existential threat.


The expansion of NATO membership stayed on autopilot as a matter of U.S. policy, long after its fundamental assumptions should have been reassessed. Commitments originally meant to reflect interests morphed into interests themselves, and the door cracked open to membership for Georgia and Ukraine—the latter a bright red line for any Russian leadership.