Put It in Writing

How the West Broke Its Promise to Moscow

U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, July 1991. Rick Wilking / Courtesy Reuters

During negotiations over German reunification in 1990, did the United States promise the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe? The answer remains subject to heated debate. Today, Moscow defends its invasion of Ukraine by claiming that NATO reneged on a promise to stay out of Russia’s backyard. Skeptics, meanwhile, counter that Russian claims are a pretext for aggression; in their view, Washington and its allies never formally committed to forego NATO expansion.

The skeptics are correct that the two sides never codified a deal on NATO’s future presence in the east. But they misinterpret the precise implications of negotiations that took place throughout 1990. After all, scholars and practitioners have long recognized that informal commitments count in world politics. This was particularly true during the Cold War: as the historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown, the Cold War settlement itself emerged from European, Soviet, and U.S.

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