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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