Ukraine crisis instigator: US-led NATO reneges on ‘Not one inch eastward’ promise to compress Russia’s space to the extreme
Published: Mar 23, 2022 11:45 PM Updated: Mar 25, 2022 10:04 PM
Unmasking the superpower: Where the Ukraine crisis started Cartoon: Xu Zihe/GT

Unmasking the superpower: Where the Ukraine crisis started Cartoon: Xu Zihe/GT

Editor's Note:

Since the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine began, the international community has become increasingly aware of the roles the US and NATO have played behind the crisis.

From leading NATO's eastward expansion to hem in Russia's territorial space, to launching color revolutions; from imposing sanctions on "disobedient countries," to coercing other nations to pick sides… the US has acted like a "Cold War schemer," or an "vampire" who creates "enemies" and make fortunes from pyres of war. 

The Global Times is publishing a series of stories and cartoons to unveil how the US, in its superpower status, has been creating trouble in the world one crisis after another.  

This is the first installment.

1 Ukraine crisis instigator: US-led NATO reneges on 'Not one inch eastward' promise to compress Russia's space to the extreme
2 Instability brewer: Behind every war and turmoil in the world is shadow of the Star-Spangled Banner
3 'Vampires' in the war: US warmongers feeding on the bloody turbulence in other countries
4 Cold War schemer: Reminiscing in its past 'victory,' US brings color revolutions to 21st century to maintain its hegemony
5 The poison disseminator: How US spread biological 'poison', ethnic division and ideological antagonism around the world
6 Human rights destroyer: US causes humanitarian disasters around globe, killing innocent civilians and creating millions of refugees
7 'Voldemort' of global order: America is the 'Dark Lord' set on destroying international order

Polish citizens watch US army military equipment and soldiers at a temporary base in Mielec, Poland on February 12, 2022. Photo: IC

Polish citizens watch US army military equipment and soldiers at a temporary base in Mielec, Poland on February 12, 2022. Photo: IC

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia, as the "eldest son" of the 15 Soviet republics, inherited the Soviet Union's "one-vote veto" status in the UN Security Council, as well as most of the Soviet territory, overseas assets, and debts. At the same time, Russia also inherited the great power and historical leanings of the Soviet Union, as well as the promises and betrayals, grievances and hatred surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union. 

Among them, the eastward expansion of NATO might have been the most jolting for Russia.

In the eyes of President Vladimir Putin and other Russian political elites, the West has reneged on promises made before the Soviet Union's disintegration. Instead, it has, for the past three decades, been continually hemming in the strategic security space of Russia. This is not only an arrogant result of the US and NATO, but also a betrayal that Russia can never accept.

'They brazenly tricked us!'

"'Not one inch to the East,' they told us in the 90s. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us! Five waves of NATO expansion and now already, please, the systems are appearing in Romania and Poland," Putin, at his annual press conference on December 23, 2021, pointed out.

Earlier the same day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gave a speech claiming that the alliance has never made promises not to expand, in particular to the East.

The promise of "Not one inch to the East" has always been the Achilles' heel of the West. 

As early as in January 1990, in his speech on German reunification, the West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher made clear that "the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an 'impairment of Soviet security interests.'"

In a crucial meeting on February 10, 1990 between West German leader Helmut Kohl and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, it was agreed that Soviet would assent in principle to German unification in NATO, as long as NATO did not expand to the east.

Then US secretary of state James Baker made his famous "Not one inch eastward" assurance regarding NATO's expansion in his meeting with Gorbachev on February 9, 1990. "Neither the President nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place," Baker said. "Not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO's present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction," he said.

Experts noted that if it were not for the subsequent expansion of NATO all the way to the east, the current crisis in Ukraine would likely not be. But unfortunately, the "brazen trick" of "Not one inch to the East" knocked down the first piece of the domino.

Previous illusions about the West

Russia once held high hopes for the West after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Early Russian leaders, such as former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, believed that the West would embrace Russia after the country abandoned its previous ideology. 

Russia seemed to have turned itself from "The Evil Red Empire" in the eyes of the West to a Western power on par with the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan, when it was invited to join the Group of Seven (G7) summit in 1991. And the G7 was expanded to the G8. 

At that time, there was an illusion among Russians from the leadership to the general public that a happy, fairytale-like life was to soon follow. Russia still held on to these illusions about the West even after the latter was indifferent to its economic woes in the 1990s, people recalled.

In March 2000, then presidential candidate Putin said in an interview that Russia would possibly join NATO, on condition that "Russia's interests are going to be taken into account, if Russia becomes a full-fledged partner." Observers believed that Russia was sincere and saw such a move as a diplomatic gesture to the West at that time.

Putin had close contacts with some of NATO's leaders in the early days of his term, including former US president George W. Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Putin once accompanied Blair to watch a performance of opera War and Peace when Blair visited St. Petersburg in March 2000. Media reports showed that by the end of 2001, Putin had met Blair nine times since he'd become Russia's president less than two years before.

Soured ties 

Nonetheless, the improving personal relationships between Putin and Western leaders seemed not diminished but rather worsened the geostrategic crisis that Russia met. Data showed that during the three decades between 1991 and 2021, NATO accepted 10 former Warsaw Pact member countries as its members through its eastward expansion that made a strategic move to encircle Russia, stretching over 3,000 kilometers from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

The international community believed that Putin started to doubt the West early in 2002, when NATO leaders admitted seven countries including Baltic ones (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to NATO despite Russia's objection.

The speech Putin delivered at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on February 10, 2007, was widely regarded as a call to abandon long-held illusions and break with the West. In the speech, he harshly criticized the US' foreign policy and its idea of creating a unipolar world order, and strongly opposed NATO's expansion and its plan to deploy a US anti-missile system in Eastern Europe. 

"I think it is obvious that NATO's expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust," Putin stressed in his speech. "And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them."

On February 10, 2022, which marked the 15th anniversary of Putin's historic speech in Munich, Kremlin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that what is happening now "once again underlines the rightness of President Putin." "And, probably, the way the situation has developed over the past few years has led us to the very dangerous point where we are now," Peskov added.


A tool against Russia

In March 2014, Putin addressed State Duma deputies after the Crimea referendum, saying that in the face of the West's actions directed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration, Russia still strived to engage in dialogue with the West.  

"On the contrary, they have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our back, [and] placed us before an accomplished fact. This happened with NATO's expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They kept telling us the same thing: 'Well, this does not concern you.' That's easy to say," he said.

After the deterioration of Russia-Ukraine relations in 2014, Ukraine accelerated the process of joining NATO, and even tabled a constitutional amendment bill in 2019 to make its accession to NATO a national "strategic mission," which further touched Russia's security bottom line.

Analysts pointed out that from the evolution of Russia-Ukraine relations in 2014, Putin's bottom line regarding Ukraine has always been very clear: Oppose the involvement of external forces, and Ukraine must not join NATO.

"We have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO...this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia." Putin said in the speech.

In July 2021, Putin again stated in his article "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" that Russia is open to dialogue with Ukraine and is ready to discuss the most difficult of issues. "But it is important for us to understand that our partner is defending its national interests but not serving someone else's, and is not a tool in someone else's hands to fight against us," Putin said.

Tragedy of two great nations

Sorting out Russia's discontent and discomfort on the eastward expansion of NATO, observers pointed out that if there has been a whistleblower regarding the current crisis in Ukraine, Putin has been the one since 2007, but both the US and NATO have ignored the sharp and even piercing warning.

In June 2021, US President Joe Biden and Putin met in Geneva, Switzerland, where Putin raised the issues of NATO's expansion and Ukraine's membership in the alliance. However, Biden again displayed the de rigueur sort of Western arrogance and indifference that's come to be expected and did not respond directly to Putin's concerns.  

At the end of October 2021, Russia began to exert extreme pressure on Ukraine and the Western bloc behind it with a heavy military presence along Russia-Ukraine border, and in December, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the unusual step of publishing a draft "Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization" which encapsulates Russia's desired guarantees. Among them, Russia's bottom line is the exclusion of the possibility of further expansion of NATO and Ukraine's accession to it.

However, the US and other countries of NATO have rhetorically criticized the draft security treaty from the point of view of Ukraine's right to apply.

Experts noted that, judging from the historical lineage and statements of the Russian side on Ukraine, this draft is Russia's offer to the West to seek a package solution to security issues, and there are several points of compromise and concessions, but Russia has no way back on the Ukraine issue.

There are understandable security concerns about ensuring that Ukraine is not integrated into NATO's military structure, experts said.

Ukraine needs security guarantees, as does Russia, experts said. As the Ukraine crisis comes to a head, the US and NATO cannot and should not stand aside, standing on the proverbial moral high ground while lashing out at Russia without reflecting on their long-standing arrogance and prejudice. 

Locals inspect damage caused by anti-government protests, part of US-backed movement against the country's pro-Russia government,in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on February 20, 2014. Photo: VCG

Locals inspect damage caused by anti-government protests, part of US-backed movement against the country's pro-Russia government,in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on February 20, 2014. Photo: VCG

At present, Ukraine has developed a strong national identity since gaining independence 30 years ago, and the integration between Ukraine and the EU in economic, cultural, and other fields is deepening. Since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014, Russophobia and aversion to Russia in Ukrainian society have further increased.

Before the recent conflict erupted, a Global Times reporter asked the locals in Chernigov, Ukraine, whether Russians or Ukrainians were to blame for the deterioration of relations between the two countries. An old man, who had worked in a local textile factory all his life, replied, "It is not the responsibility of Ukrainians or Russians. It is the responsibility of politicians, and [our] people are always brothers and sisters."