De-coding the myth of NATO expansionism

By: emmi kivi&
September 15 2023

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
De-coding the myth of NATO expansionism

Flags flying outside the NATO Headquarters in Brussels. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it justified the attack as a defensive act against the aggressive Western alliance, NATO, encircling Russia and preparing for war.

Narratives of a warmongering NATO are not new; the evergreen assertion takes new shapes and sizes depending on worldwide current affairs. During the pandemic, Pro-Kremlin accounts claimed that NATO neglected allies, suggesting that the CIA created the virus and that NATO troops spread COVID-19. Currently, false stories of NATO forces in Ukraine, Ukraine being a mere NATO proxy, and NATO pushing for war in Europe are all widely circulating online. 

Dr. Viktorija Rusinaité, Director of Research & Analysis at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), commented on Russian disinformation on NATO to Logically Facts, “The main strategic narrative is that NATO is an aggressor provoking Russia and destabilizing European and global security. If NATO is shown as aggressively expanding or in some cases even at war with Russia over Ukraine, then it allows Russia to portray itself as a victim that has been pushed by NATO into attacking Ukraine to protect its vital security interests, or even global order. This is then instrumentalized to shape opinion about different aspects of Russia’s war on Ukraine.”

Claims of broken promises of NATO expansion often drive the Russian campaigns. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin vehemently opposed NATO’s enlargements to Eastern Europe and U.S. military presence in new NATO member countries:

An extract of Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.

In December 2021, a few months before the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin pleaded for security guarantees from the West. On the list of demands were promises of no further NATO enlargements, including banning Ukraine’s membership, since “NATO had ‘cheated’ Russia with five waves of expansion.” The demands also appealed for the removal of NATO troops and weapons from NATO countries that joined after 1997, including most Eastern European countries, the Baltics, and the Balkan NATO countries.

The Alliance’s official policy remains that “NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to the Russian Federation.” It has grown from 12 founding members to 31 Allies while Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine have declared aspiration to join – but is NATO expanding beyond its promises? Logically Facts examined the myth of NATO expansionism and reviewed the allegations of broken promises related to its Eastern Enlargement after the Cold War.

“Not an inch East” – post-Cold War promises

According to the myth of a “broken promise,” the West has deceived Russia and illegally expanded to Eastern Europe after the Cold War. Subsequently, instead of incorporating Russia into a new security framework, the Alliance pushed Russia to a new path of confrontation. The claim is not only promoted by the Kremlin. Some Western scholars, former and present politicians, share the blame for the Russo-Ukrainian war on the West and grasp Russian suspicion and resentment towards the West.

However, analysis of the main arguments behind the myth of a broken promise does not resonate with reality. A speech by Secretary-General Wörner, cited by Putin in 2007, sheds light on the truth behind the argument:

Above are the quotes of Vladimir Putin and Secretary-General Wörner, showing the full context of Wörner’s speech.

When viewed within the full context of the speech by NATO Secretary-General Wörner, it becomes evident that the speech referred to the deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Germany. West Germany was already a member of the Alliance. Later in the speech, the Secretary-General does speak about the aspirations of NATO membership of a unified Germany but not about NATO enlargement in general. Similarly, the famous “Not an inch East” words of the U.S. Secretary of State James Baker referred to the unification of Germany and East Germany, not NATO. Discussion of NATO enlargement would have hardly made sense as the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union still existed.

Secondly, beyond the verbiage of a former NATO Secretary General and U.S. Foreign Secretary, no treaty or legal agreement between the U.S., Europe, and Russia includes provisions for NATO membership. The 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany referred to the temporary deployment of foreign troops on the territory of the former GDR. According to the Treaty’s Article 5, German forces assigned to NATO could be posted to the former German Democratic Republic after the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Image of Article 5 of the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany on the temporary deployment of troops in East Germany. 

Article 5(3) states that foreign forces and nuclear weapons systems would not be stationed or deployed to the East German Republic or Berlin. NATO enlargement in the long-term was not a topic of the time, a fact famously confirmed by Cold War President Gorbachev in his interview on Russia Behind Headlines in 2014. 

Claims of a broken promise are untrue. Former Director of the NATO Information Office in Moscow, Ambassador Tomasz Chłoń, affirmed to Logically Facts, “The promise not to enlarge NATO eastwards is a myth. No one has made such a promise, either politically or even more so legally.” 

Rusinaité elaborated that “Russian officials and media have multiplied and disseminated these claims during different waves of NATO enlargement in the 90s and 2000s, and then to justify annexation of Crimea and war against Ukraine in order to shape opinion of these events, but also justify Russia’s idea of its right to spheres of influence.”

Expansion versus enlargement  – NATO’s “open door policy”

The idea of an expansive NATO is erroneously rooted in the minds of many. NATO uses the term “enlargement” when discussing the accession of new Allies. According to NATO’s Founding Treaty Article 10, NATO membership is open to “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area” after specific political, economic, and military criteria defined in the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement are met. After a State has expressed interest in joining NATO, the acceptance of new members will eventually be based on the consensus decision of all existing Allies. Logically Facts has previously disproved false claims about NATO’s accession process.

The “open door policy” aligns with the post-Cold War idea of a united Europe; sovereign states choose their security arrangements and opt to (or not) form security alliances. These principles were enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, 1990 Charter of Paris, and 1999 Istanbul Document. For example, the latter states, “We reaffirm the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of Alliance… Each participating State will respect the rights of all others in these regards.” The Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, also committed to abide by these principles. 

Undeniably, the number of NATO members has grown in the past 30 years as sovereign states have chosen to apply for membership and seek security in the Alliance. The Alliance did not expand eastwards, but the “open door policy” allowed the former Warsaw Pact countries to apply and join the Alliance, which Russia reluctantly accepted. Later the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led non-NATO countries, such as Finland and Sweden, to change their long-running policy of non-alignment and request membership in the Alliance.

The evolution of NATO-Russia relations

Apart from evergreen anti-NATO propaganda, Russia cooperated with the Alliance, departing from previous adversarial relations after the Cold War. 

For example, Russia became the first country to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative. In 1997, the two counterparts signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which asserted that “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation.” 

The Treaty also established the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, later known as the NATO-Russia Council, a consensus-based body of equal members. Within the framework of the Council, NATO and Russia cooperated in areas such as crisis management, arms control, and counter-terrorism.

Optimism prevailed in the 1990s, but likewise, crises and suspensions of cooperation punctuated the timeline after NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. 

Chłoń told Logically Facts, "Paradoxically, the North Atlantic Alliance's policy towards Russia up to 2008 is most aptly expressed in the Alliance's 2010 Strategic Concept, which envisaged the possibility of achieving a strategic partnership with the country. It was valid until 2022, but at that point it naturally became a dead letter after Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.” 

Until 2014, NATO’s military presence in its Eastern Flank was minimal. In response to the annexation of Crimea, NATO began enhancing its presence in the Baltic region and Central Europe and suspended practical civilian and military cooperation with Russia. Chłoń further explained that “After 2014 and the illegal annexation of Crimea, the presence of Allied forces on the Eastern Flank as a result of the decisions of successive NATO summits in Newport and Warsaw had a limited dimension, far below the expectations of the countries on this flank. It was not until the decisions of the Madrid Summit in 2022, following Russia's full-scale and criminal war aggression against Ukraine, that we would create the rationale for a significant strengthening of NATO's deterrence capabilities in the East. Regional defence plans with specific units dedicated to their implementation have been adopted (in [NATO Summit in] Vilnius this year).”

Only the 2022 NATO Strategic concept states: “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area." Russia had referred to NATO as a threat in its national security strategy, approved in 2015.

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before