George W. Bush was in the news last week thanks to a major gaffe where he referred to “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq. I mean of Ukraine.”
Unfortunately for the gaffe-prone former president, he can’t catch a break. Footage has now emerged of him being prank-called by two notorious Russian pranksters: Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov. (Some of their previous antics are covered in this 2016 Guardian article.)
In the phone call, someone posing as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky asks Bush, “You know that the narrative, in the early 90s, Secretary of State Baker promised Gorbachev not to expand NATO, but this would be completely wrong, especially with the threats that Russia poses now.”
Bush responds, “Yeah, that’s right. Listen, times change. Baker, you know, he was the Secretary of State for my dad – which was years ago. And so the United States must be flexible, adjusting to the times, and that’s why you’re finding such strong support for your country now.”
Many commentators have interpreted this as an admission by Bush that Baker did promise Gorbachev that NATO would not expand. And it certainly looks that way.
However, it’s not an open and shut case. For example, “that’s right” could mean “it’s right that not expanding NATO would have been wrong, given the threats now posed by Russia”. And “times change” could mean “the threats posed by Russia have changed”.
When Bush says, “Baker, you know, he was the Secretary of State for my dad – which was years ago”, he could be implying that the relevant events happened so long ago that it’s hard to know what really happened. Of course, the other interpretation is that the promise was made “years ago” but “times change”.
Why does it matter? Putin has claimed that Russia was misled by the West about NATO expansion, which he sees as a threat to Russian interests. In his February 22nd speech, the Russian leader said “they have deceived us, or, to put it simply, they have played us”, citing “promises not to expand NATO eastwards even by an inch”.
This refers to an assurance Baker gave Gorbachev in 1990 that “there will be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or NATO’s forces one inch to the East” if German reunification takes place. Interestingly, however, Baker subsequently denied that he ever “intended to rule out the admission of new NATO members”.
Scholars disagree about exactly what Russia was promised during the negotiations over German reunification. Yet a strong case can be made that the US “did indeed offer the Soviets informal non-expansion assurances”, as the political scientist Joshua Shifrinson argued in a prize-winning 2016 article.
Shifrinson summarised his arguments in an op-ed for the LA Times, writing: “The West has vigorously protested that no such deal was ever struck. However, hundreds of memos, meeting minutes and transcripts from U.S. archives indicate otherwise.”
According to a PolitiFact article from February, Shifrinson still holds the same view, and in fact recently discovered additional supporting evidence: a document in the British National Archives that quotes a German official as saying, “We had made it clear during the 2+4 negotiations that we would not extend NATO beyond the Elbe”.
The fact that Western countries broke these “informal assurances” does not justify Putin’s invasion, Shifrinson notes. However, “Russia’s leaders may be telling the truth when they claim that Russian actions are driven by mistrust.”