Nato is taken more seriously in Russia than in the West. Here, Nato is largely seen as yet another international bureaucracy, as useless as the rest of them. But to a former KGB officer like Vladimir Putin, the Cold War has never really ended, and Nato is an exceptionally dangerous and perfidious enemy. You may not criticise corruption in Russia, he says, as that would play into Nato’s hands. Putin had no choice but to invade Ukraine — in the Ukrainians’ own interests, to protect them against a Natotakeover.
Putin’s case against Nato is that it has deceived Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev says he agreed to withdraw from Soviet central Europe only after being promised that ‘Nato would not move a centimetre to the east’. This claim would seem to be corroborated by the handwritten notes of James Baker, the former US Secretary of State. ‘Nato — whose juris. would not move eastward,’ he scribbled during a conversation with Gorbachev in 1990. He then wrote to Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany, that he had offered the Soviets ‘assurances that Nato’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position’. Since then, however, as many as ten eastern European countries have joined Nato, and Ukraine seems to be next in line. So Moscow seeks to justify the invasion as no more than a defensive move, taken in response to Nato’s treachery and expansionism.
Baker’s notes and Gorbachev’s recollections are all very interesting, but after all, the Soviets themselves were meticulous note keepers. Every word said by their leaders was recorded, and the transcripts circulated to those who needed to know. If Nato leaders really had given assurances to Gorbachev, the Kremlin would have it in black and white. Ten years ago, it seemed as if these files would be open to the public: Gorbachev’s former aides preserved their own copies, and let historians see them.