Factcheck: Encir­clement of Russia?

Bun­de­sarchiv 183‑1990-0912–027, Foto: Thomas Uhlemann

Are Russia’s inter­ven­tions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria merely a reac­tion against the expan­sion of NATO? Facts and argu­ments con­cern­ing a pro­pa­ganda myth.

Russia was ignored polit­i­cally by the West and encir­cled mil­i­tar­ily: this claim belongs to the stan­dard reper­toire of Russian pro­pa­ganda. The asser­tion falls on fertile ground, even in the West, par­tic­u­larly in Germany.  It is used to justify the aggres­sive shift in Russian policy. Whether the issue is the annex­a­tion of Crimea and the mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Ukraine or the Russian role in the Syrian war, the pre­tence that Russia must free itself from NATO’s grip is always main­tained. Those making this claim cite as their proof the east­ward expan­sion of the transat­lantic alliance, right up to Russia’s borders. By expand­ing NATO, the argu­ment goes, the West was break­ing a promise it (allegedly) made in 1990 that NATO would not expand to the east. Russia’s legit­i­mate secu­rity inter­ests were ignored. The Kremlin’s return to the policy of a mil­i­tarised great-power is thus jus­ti­fied as a reac­tion to the growing threat allegedly posed by NATO.

Myth 1: Did NATO make such a promise?

The answer is no. It is true that the topic of a pos­si­ble east­ward expan­sion of NATO came up in the 2+4 talks held between May and Sep­tem­ber 1990. At the time though, at issue was only the mil­i­tary status of GDR ter­ri­tory. By signing the 2+4 Treaty, the Soviet Union con­sented to NATO’s expan­sion into East Germany.  The treaty pro­vided for a tran­si­tional period for this expan­sion: German sol­diers assigned to NATO command could not be sta­tioned in East German until after the with­drawal of the Soviet troops there.  No nuclear weapons were ever to be deployed on former GDR ter­ri­tory.  This com­mit­ment has never been broken.

Other coun­tries in Central and Eastern Europe did not enter into the dis­cus­sion back then. If for no other reason, there could be no com­mit­ment about a non-expan­sion of NATO beyond the river Oder because a dis­so­lu­tion of the Warsaw Pact was “beyond our realm of com­pre­hen­sion” in early 1990, as Eduard She­vard­nadze, who was then Soviet foreign min­is­ter, put it. The Warsaw Pact was not dis­solved until a year later – 1 July 1991.

Before the 2+4 Treaty was signed, there was concern on the Western side that the Soviet Union might make its consent to reuni­fi­ca­tion con­di­tional on a neutral status for Germany. Given Germany’s role in Euro­pean history though, it was crucial to gain the reas­sur­ance of having this big Euro­pean country inte­grated within a mil­i­tary alliance of the Western democ­ra­cies. To ensure that Germany would remain in NATO, West German foreign min­is­ter Hans-Diet­rich Gen­scher and James Baker, the US sec­re­tary of state, approached the Rus­sians before the 2+4 nego­ti­a­tions got under­way. In January of 1990, without having con­sulted in detail with the alliance, they mooted the pos­si­bil­ity of a special mil­i­tary status for GDR ter­ri­tory. The West could refrain from expand­ing NATO (Gen­scher) or NATO’s juris­dic­tion (Baker). Clearly not well thought out, the ideas were rejected by NATO within a matter of days as non-viable. In late Feb­ru­ary 1990, US Pres­i­dent Bush and Chan­cel­lor Kohl agreed on a united stance: NATO mem­ber­ship for all of Germany was not nego­tiable. The ideas put forth earlier by Gen­scher and Baker are now some­times cited as alleged “promises”.  Yet at the end of the day the Soviet Union did explic­itly agree to NATO’s expan­sion into GDR ter­ri­tory in an inter­na­tional treaty. Looking back, Gen­scher referred to what he had said back then as “feeling out” [Abtas­ten] before the actual start of negotiations.

Myth 2: Was NATO’s east­ward expan­sion in dis­re­gard of Russia?

Here again the answer is no. In June of 1990 at a meeting in Moscow, the Warsaw Pact leaders declared that the par­tic­i­pat­ing states “will begin to review the char­ac­ter, func­tions and activ­i­ties of the Warsaw treaty and will start its trans­for­ma­tion into a treaty of sov­er­eign states with equal rights, formed on a demo­c­ra­tic basis.” The polit­i­cal message of the meeting was that the Soviet Union would stop using the pact as an instru­ment for main­tain­ing control over the Eastern Bloc and that each state has the right to deter­mine whether it wants to be part of an alliance. This was the basis for the Charter of Paris, which was adopted in Novem­ber of 1990 at the CSCE summit– with the Soviet Union’s approval. The charter guar­an­tees all sig­na­tory states full sov­er­eignty and the freedom to choose their alliances. Claim­ing a sphere of influ­ence is incom­pat­i­ble with both the spirit and the letter of this charter.

Even before NATO had agreed on a common expan­sion policy (i.e. the terms and con­di­tions under which a state could join), a number of Central Euro­pean states– in par­tic­u­lar Poland, the Czech Repub­lic and Hungary – had expressed the wish to join the alliance and informed the Russian lead­er­ship of their desire. In 1993, Russian Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin, after long, dif­fi­cult nego­ti­a­tions, gave a green light in Warsaw to Poland’s acces­sion to NATO, earning himself severe crit­i­cism from hard­lin­ers in the Russian secret service, Russian fas­cists like Zhiri­novsky and Dugin and the Com­mu­nist Party.

In 1994, the Russian Fed­er­a­tion joined NATO’s “Part­ner­ship for Peace” pro­gramme. One aim of this pro­gramme was to bring Russia closer to the alliance. Claims to the con­trary notwith­stand­ing, Russia was never refused entry into NATO. The Kremlin would have had to subject itself to the terms of a Mem­bership Action Plan, i.e. a reform pro­gramme that would have included strength­en­ing demo­c­ra­tic control over the armed forces and secu­rity ser­vices, a prospect the Russian lead­er­ship con­sis­tently rejected.

The 1999 and 2004 rounds of NATO enlarge­ment were both pre­ceded by con­sul­ta­tions with Russia, and con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures asso­ci­ated with both. This was to ensure that Russia’s secu­rity needs would be respected. The trans­for­ma­tion of the armed forces of the new member states to meet NATO stan­dards also included the dis­band­ing of reserve units (mobi­liza­tion force) and a large reduc­tion of total forces. There were no longer any offen­sive-capable armies on Russia’s Western border, nor any reserve units which could be called up to perform occu­pa­tion duties. Today, NATO is very far from being in a posi­tion to conquer Russia militarily.

NATO’s expan­sion occurred at the urging of the acced­ing states. For them, NATO was insur­ance against the reawak­en­ing of Russia’s impe­r­ial ambi­tions. To refuse them admis­sion due to Russia’s con­cerns would have gone com­pletely counter to the prin­ci­ples of the Charter of Paris on the full and equal sov­er­eignty of all coun­tries, while also cre­at­ing a dan­ger­ous secu­rity vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe.

Poland, the Czech Repub­lic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999. Prior to that, the  was signed in 1997. In this dec­la­ra­tion of intent, a legal instru­ment under inter­na­tional law, the two sides commit to refrain from the threat or use of force against each other, and to respect the invi­o­la­bil­ity of borders, sov­er­eignty and peoples’ right of self-deter­mi­na­tion. NATO pledged that it would refrain from the per­ma­nent sta­tion­ing of addi­tional sub­stan­tial combat forces in the new member states “in the current and fore­see­able secu­rity envi­ron­ment”. Russia, for its part, com­mit­ted to exer­cise restraint in the deploy­ment of its con­ven­tional forces in Europe.

These com­mit­ments have been metic­u­lously respected by NATO to date. At its 2014 summit in Wales, NATO remained unswerv­ing in its com­mit­ment to the NATO-Russia Found­ing Act despite the aggres­sion against Ukraine. It has still not sta­tioned any “sub­stan­tial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe. “Not sub­stan­tial” means that those troops that are in place are too weak to carry out offen­sive mis­sions against Russia. This self-imposed restric­tion con­tin­ues to be strictly observed, the deploy­ment of four NATO bat­tal­ions in the Baltic and Poland (NATO Enhan­ced Forward Pre­sence) in response to the annex­a­tion of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine notwith­stand­ing. Three of these bat­tal­ions are sta­tioned in the Baltics (one in each country) and one in Poland sup­ple­mented by three bat­tal­ions within the scope of the US oper­a­tion “Atlantic Resolve” (each with 800‑1000 per­son­nel). Right across the border from the total of 19 NATO bat­tal­ions in the Baltic (the three inter­na­tional con­tin­gents plus the armies of the Baltic states) stand 40 Russian bat­tal­ions. And another three Russian divi­sions stand directly behind the Belarus border, with Poland in their line of sight (the Polish army is two divi­sions strong). Thus, how mil­i­tar­ily supe­rior Russia could pos­si­bly feel threat­ened by its neigh­bours remains a mystery.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithua­nia, Slo­va­kia, Romania, Bul­garia and Slove­nia joined NATO in 2004.  The Per­ma­nent Joint Council (PJC) had already been estab­lished as a frame­work for con­sul­ta­tion and coop­er­a­tion with Russia through the NATO-Russia Found­ing Act in 1997. In 2002, the PJC was upgraded to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC). The NRC was offi­cially estab­lished by the Rome Dec­la­ra­tion (on “NATO-Russia Rela­tions: a New Quality”), which was signed by the NATO member heads of state and gov­ern­ment and Pres­i­dent Putin. The dec­la­ra­tion was drawn up with a view to Russian secu­rity inter­ests in antic­i­pa­tion of the enlarge­ment of NATO in 2004.

For the NRC, Russia estab­lished an office for a per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive at NATO head­quar­ters in Brus­sels. Russia is the only non-NATO state with access to those head­quar­ters. The NRC meets twice each year at the level of foreign and defence min­is­ters and chiefs of staff and takes deci­sions based on con­sen­sus. Mil­i­tary con­sul­ta­tions are held monthly. The NRC was sus­pended in 2014 as a sanc­tion against Russia fol­low­ing the annex­a­tion of Crimea. It has been meeting again since 2016.

Myth 3: Does NATO pose a threat to Russia?

Repeat­ing some­thing over again and again does not make it true. Whereas NATO has reduced its mil­i­tary capac­i­ties in Europe since 1998, Russia has been upgrad­ing and mod­ernising its armed forces ever since Putin first entered office. Russia rou­tinely carries out large-scale exer­cises and short-notice oper­a­tional readi­ness inspec­tions. The exer­cises have grown so large that they can now be mea­sured against the mag­ni­tudes of those of Soviet times. It has been esti­mated that Russia carries out exer­cises three times more often than NATO.

The regular large-scale exer­cises are par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in this respect. In some cases, they have clearly served to prepare for Russian deploy­ments in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria. Regard­ing the exer­cises, Russia sys­tem­at­i­cally cir­cum­vents the Vienna Doc­u­ment on con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures, specif­i­cally with respect to noti­fi­ca­tion duties. Adopted in 1990 within the frame­work of the OSCE and updated several times since then, this doc­u­ment states that the states par­tic­i­pat­ing in the OSCE must be invited to observe exer­cises that involve 13,000 or more troops. Russia reg­u­larly fudges the numbers on these drills to keep below this threshold.

In the Zapad 2009 (West 2009) exer­cise, Russia, together with Belarus, de facto rehearsed an attack on Poland. A sim­u­lated nuclear strike on Warsaw formed part of these war games.

Zapad 2013 was also carried out jointly with Belarus. The OSCE was noti­fied that less than 13,000 sol­diers would be taking part. In reality, about 70,000 sol­diers deployed. Obvi­ously, the intent was to avoid having to invite foreign observers. The Russian side described the drills as train­ing for anti-terror oper­a­tions. In fact, all branches of the armed ser­vices were involved in an area of oper­a­tions that stretched along the borders of Poland, the Baltic coun­tries and Finland, right up to the Barents Sea. They sim­u­lated a large-scale attack on mul­ti­ple EU, NATO and neutral coun­tries. Troops and capa­bil­i­ties  involved in the Zapad 2013 exer­cise were also deployed in 2014 in con­nec­tion with the annex­a­tion of Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine.

Vostok 2014 (East 2014), an exer­cise involv­ing 100,000 troops, was said to be the largest exer­cise since the end of the Soviet Union. It was fol­lowed a year later by Tsentr 2015 (Centre 2015), which was pre­ceded by an unan­nounced combat readi­ness inspec­tion and involved 95,000 troops. It seemed clear to many observers that one purpose of the exer­cise was to train capa­bil­i­ties for the oper­a­tion in Syria.

Around 120,000 troops took part in Kavkaz 2016 (Cau­ca­sus 2016), rather than the orig­i­nally reported 12,500, as Chief of the General Staff Gerasi­mov later announced. The exer­cise involved the testing of a new net­worked command system.

Russia pro­vided false infor­ma­tion con­cern­ing the scale of the Zapad 2017 exer­cise too, report­ing that it would involve 12,600 troops, again below the thresh­old over which observers must be invited accord­ing to the Vienna Doc­u­ment adopted within the frame­work of the OSCE. Belarus, which also par­tic­i­pated in the exer­cise, did invite observers in its own name. In reality, around 70,000 troops took part in the drills.

During the annex­a­tion of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, Russia carried out per­ma­nent “exer­cises” on the border to Eastern Ukraine, the purpose of which was clearly to keep the troops on the Ukrain­ian border in a state of readi­ness. These exer­cises were irrec­on­cil­able with the Helsinki Final Act, the Vienna Doc­u­ment and the NATO-Russia Found­ing Act in many respects: Russia did not invite observers, was clearly not refrain­ing from deploy­ing con­ven­tional troops in Europe and broke its pledge to refrain from the threat or use of force against any other OSCE state.

NATO holds no exer­cises that are com­pa­ra­ble in scale or in the strate­gic focus of pos­si­ble mil­i­tary oper­a­tions. There are no indi­ca­tions at all of prepa­ra­tions for an offen­sive against Russia. Given current troop deploy­ments and the short­age of trans­port capac­i­ties and offen­sive weapon systems, such an offen­sive would not even be fea­si­ble mil­i­tar­ily at this time. More­over, it would receive absolutely no polit­i­cal backing in the West.

On the con­trary, the Russian exer­cises doc­u­ment another instance of Russian mil­i­tary supe­ri­or­ity: in mobi­liz­ing forces within the briefest pos­si­ble time and con­sol­i­dat­ing them in a single loca­tion. NATO has not engaged in troop move­ments on that scale in deploy­ment or train­ing exer­cises since the mil­i­tary oper­a­tion in Kosovo (1999, 60,000 troops). Then as now, support from the USA was nec­es­sary to deploy troops on that scale. The bulk of the Amer­i­can troops would first have to be brought over the Atlantic by ship and then trans­ported from the ports of debarka­tion to the theatre of oper­a­tions on the eastern flank by rail. NATO has not rehearsed this pro­ce­dure since 1993, and even during the Cold War doing so required several weeks of prepa­ra­tions. Russia would enjoy com­plete mil­i­tary supe­ri­or­ity over NATO in the first months of a war.

Apart from all that, even a brief glance at the map makes it clear that there can be no ques­tion of an encir­clement of Russia by NATO. The NATO coun­tries and Russia share only one short land border at the North Cape and in the Baltics. Even if one counts Kalin­ingrad, the Baltic Sea region and the Black Sea as zones of over­lap­ping secu­rity inter­ests, the enor­mous border regions in the Cau­ca­sus, in Central Asia and East Asia remain devoid of any NATO mil­i­tary presence.


The talk about the “West’s broken promises” and the osten­si­ble encir­clement of Russia by NATO is nothing but a pro­pa­ganda myth. The facts are that close secu­rity policy con­sul­ta­tions aiming at an insti­tu­tional secu­rity part­ner­ship were held with Moscow in con­nec­tion with German reuni­fi­ca­tion and ahead of the two rounds of NATO expan­sion. The NATO-Russia Found­ing Act and the NATO-Russia Council are prod­ucts of these arrange­ments. The transat­lantic alliance is not geared towards an attack on Russia mil­i­tar­ily, nor would an offen­sive of that nature be con­ceiv­able polit­i­cally. Rather, NATO, par­tic­u­larly for its members in Central and Easter Europe, is insur­ance against the Kremlin’s newly reawak­ened super­power aspirations.

One could accuse the USA of viewing Moscow after the col­lapse of the Soviet Union as a second-rate power, one not enti­tled to much in the way of con­sid­er­a­tion in the geopo­lit­i­cal arena. But to say that the West poses a mil­i­tary threat to Russia is absurd.  It was the Russian lead­er­ship under Putin that insti­tuted a dra­matic course change in domes­tic and foreign policy: from a policy of devel­op­ing closer ties with the West to one of con­fronta­tion, from recog­nis­ing the equal sov­er­eignty of all Euro­pean states to a renewed claim to a Russian sphere of influ­ence. The ruling regime in Moscow has come to see the Euro-Atlantic inte­gra­tion of Russia as a threat. The author­i­tar­ian restora­tion within Russia matches the return to policy of a mil­i­tarised great power outside of it.

Our thanks to Gustav Gressel (ECFR) for his expert advice.


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