Idealism or Betrayal?: What Clinton-Yeltsin Rhetoric about NATO Expansion Tells Us about Today’s U.S.-Russia Crisis

Revisiting the rhetoric surrounding NATO expansion sheds light on the current confrontation between Russia and the West.  

May 24, 2017

By Connor Cleary

b2000003President Bill Clinton addresses NATO, 1994 (Image: NATO)

On December 31, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned, saying that it was time for a new generation to lead Russia. Yeltsin lamented that the dreams of the post-Cold War period did not come to pass: “For what to us seemed simple, turned out to be painfully hard. I apologize for not having lived up to the hopes of those people who believed that in one instant we could jump from a gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into a bright, rich, and civilized future.”

These hopes were centered on reforming the country’s dilapidated economic and political systems, but also on the ability of post-Cold War Russia to retain its role as a peer of the United States and other great powers on the world stage. As President Yeltsin’s resignation speech indicated, this vision for the future of Russia and its relations with the West did not materialize.

The dispute between Russia and the West over NATO enlargement into the post-Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s is one of the crucial reasons for this outcome. Comparing the rhetoric used by the Clinton administration to justify the first wave of NATO expansion in 1999 with Russia’s response under Yeltsin and, subsequently, Vladimir Putin helps to establish the battle lines, both figuratively and literally, of the current confrontation between Russia and the West.   

‘A Europe whole and free’

The language used by the Clinton administration to advocate for NATO enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe was remarkable for its historic vision and optimism, even if that optimism  was increasingly tempered by the end of the 1990s. In speeches made between 1994 and the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to the alliance in 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton argued that enlarging NATO eastward would erase the divisions of the Cold War, as well as contribute to the realization of a united Europe that was democratic, prosperous, and stable. 

During his first presidential trip to Europe in January 1994, Clinton reiterated this vision: “We should not foreclose the possibility of the best possible future for Europe which is democracy everywhere, a market economy everywhere, people cooperating everywhere for mutual security.” In the same speech, the president noted that whereas during the Cold War “the old security order was based on the defense of our bloc against another bloc,” NATO would bring stability in Europe through integration in the new era.

For the United States, the alternatives to enlargement – such as leaving former Warsaw Pact countries as non-aligned buffer states between NATO and Russia, an approach that Moscow had advocated for – was irreconcilable with Washington’s vision of a united Europe. Addressing the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 1994 meeting in Budapest, Clinton argued: “We must not allow the Iron Curtain to be replaced by a veil of indifference. We must not consign new democracies to a gray zone.”

The Clinton administration viewed NATO enlargement as a doubly important incentive for reform because it preceded European Union (EU) enlargement into post-communist Europe. EU enlargement moved forward less quickly than that of NATO due to the broad spectrum of stringent economic, political, and institutional reforms required of new members, and because of concerns on the part of EU members of the impact that a large eastward expansion could have on the European economy  – such as concerns about visa-free travel of Eastern European workers – and on EU political institutions.

Seeing the opportunity to incorporate Central and Eastern European into the Euro-Atlantic community as both unprecedented and fleeting, the administration pushed for NATO enlargement as a crucial incentive for newly post-communist states to choose to join the Euro-Atlantic community. 

‘If Russia is democratic, Europe will be calm’

Russia was the clear outlier in the United States’ vision of a unified Europe kept stable by NATO. For the divisions of the Cold War to truly be overcome, Russia also had to become a partner in the remaking of the Euro-Atlantic community. From early on, the Clinton administration understood that Russia’s future course would play an integral role in the success or failure of post-Cold War European integration. In a 1994 speech in Brussels, Clinton prophetically noted:

[I]f [Russia] continues to evolve as a market democracy, satisfied within her borders and at peace with her neighbors … then our road toward Europe’s full integration will be wider and smoother and safer. As one Ukrainian legislator recently stated, ‘If Russia is democratic, Europe will be calm.’

Despite recognizing the issue, Washington struggled to ensure Moscow that NATO expansion neither threatened nor isolated Russia. To address this gap in mutual trust, the United States moved to alter the nature of the relationship from a Cold War-era mindset to one in which Russia and NATO could collaborate to address common security problems.

First, the alliance launched the Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative at the 1994 Brussels Summit, which established military-to-military cooperation among member countries and former-communist states across a wide range of issues. Next, at the 1997 Paris Summit, NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security (“the NATO-Russia Founding Act”). As described by Clinton, the rationale behind the NATO-Russia Founding Act was as follows: 

We establish this partnership because we are determined to create a future in which European security is not a zero-sum game, where NATO’s gain is Russia’s loss, and Russia’s strength is our alliance’s weakness. That is old think; these are new times.

Meanwhile, NATO and Russian troops completed joint peace-keeping missions, as well as coordinated humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Bosnia in 1996-1997. As Clinton reflected during a press conference with Yeltsin in September 1998: “we would not have solved the Bosnia war, or ended it, had it not been for the leadership of Russia and the partnership between NATO and Russia.”

In April 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO, coinciding with the height of NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia. There had been moments of limited but meaningful partnership between NATO and Russia in the early and mid-1990s, most notably in Bosnia.  However, throughout that period Russia felt itself a junior partner to the West.  Efforts to bring Russia into the Western fold had been well-intentioned but ill-conceived. Ultimately, they did not overcome the division between the two sides.

Russia’s response to NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia

If any potential for deeper NATO-Russia cooperation in the 1990s existed, it was abruptly halted after the alliance began bombing Serbia on March 24, 1999, in response to persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces. From the Russian perspective, the purportedly defensive alliance had bypassed the United Nations and used force against a sovereign country that had not attacked a NATO member. NATO’s bombing of Serbia (and Montenegro) ended the honeymoon period of optimistic relations between Russia and the West, leaving “only a sentimental memory,” as one Russian commentator described.

Russian rhetoric after March 1999 made clear that NATO was once again perceived as a sinister and existential threat to Russia, much as it had been described in Soviet times. In response to the bombing, Moscow closed all channels of cooperation with NATO and immediately suspended all PfP activities.

While these actions were taken in response to NATO’s bombing campaign, they were emblematic of long-standing Russian skepticism of NATO-Russia institutions. As one Russian commentator argued at the time, the PfP “did not solve fundamental questions for Russia: it did not give Russia any guarantees and it did not solve the problem of Russian security.” Similarly, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was described as “a propaganda document that created the impression of maintaining cooperation with our country [i.e. Russia], even as the alliance continued to expand.” 

Russia viewed the bombing of Belgrade as an effort by the United States and its allies to supplant the authority of the United Nations (UN): a challenge to the very notion of the sovereignty of states and of international law. As then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov noted, NATO’s intervention “depart[ed] from the principle of refusing to use force or the threat of force against another state, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity or its political independence in a way that contradict[ed] the charter of the UN.”

Moscow argued that the combined policies of NATO expansion and use of force outside of member countries “create[d] the threat of military intervention for any country that is not a member of NATO.” Notably, these ideas of NATO domination were held across the Russian political spectrum, with one of the most scathing rebukes published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily known for its independent political analysis reflecting the views of the Western-leaning Moscow intelligentsia.

By the time of Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999, Russia’s relations with NATO were at a low point, to say the least. Russia’s recurring grievances throughout the 1990s – mainly, the perceived betrayal and encirclement by an out-of-control West, with NATO (and later the EU) as its vanguard – would remain central to the mindset, rhetoric, and foreign policy choices of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin.  

Putin and NATO in the 2000s

As tensions in the Balkans simmered, and particularly following the 9/11 attacks, NATO and Russia found a new common threat to address: terrorism. In response to these dangers, the NATO-Russia Council, which created a forum for the coordination of joint security issues and other projects, was established at the 2002 NATO summit in Rome. At the same time, not without controversy, invitations to join the alliance were extended to the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – as well as to Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. In the United States, the creation of the NATO-Russia Council was seen as a way to offset Moscow’s concerns about further expansion of the alliance.

But just one year later, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq resulted in irreparable damage to the prospect of deeper NATO-Russia security cooperation. For Russia, Iraq symbolized the same kind of unilateral intervention that Moscow had opposed when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999. A year after the invasion, the countries that had been invited to join NATO became full members of the alliance, aggravating already tense relations between Russia and the West.

Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference synthesized Russia’s growing discomfort in the mid-2000s with the United States’ willingness to intervene military in other countries and the use of NATO in that regard. The Russian leader condemned, as had Yeltsin-era officials, the United States and NATO for seeking to supplant the UN in defiance of international law. As Putin argued, “The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN. And we do not need to substitute NATO or the EU for the UN.” 

Echoing the debates that surrounded NATO’s campaign in Serbia, Putin asked “whether we should be indifferent and aloof to various internal conflicts inside countries, to authoritarian regimes, to tyrants, and to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?”  The Russian president’s answer was that military force should only be used as a last resort, and only then with UN approval. The alternative was a world in which great powers intervene with impunity in the internal affairs of other states. Thus, “no one feels safe because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall and will protect them.”  

At the same time, Putin lamented the fact that the post-Cold War vision of a united, free, and prosperous Europe did not come to pass because of the actions of NATO and the West. Paradoxically, this argument echoed rhetoric used by the Clinton administration’s in support of NATO expansion in the 1990s, though, of course, from the opposite point of view. 

For the United States, NATO enlargement was an opportunity to bring Eastern and Western Europe closer together, and to erase the Cold War era divisions in Europe, with the Berlin Wall being the clearest symbol of that division.  By contrast, Putin saw NATO (and EU) enlargement as resulting in a missed historical opportunity to unify Europe, arguing: “[W]e should not forget that the fall of the Berlin wall was possible thanks to a historical choice–one that was made by our people, the people of Russia–a choice in favor of democracy, freedom, openness and a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family.” 

Putin continued: “and now they [i.e. the West] are trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us.  These walls may be virtual but they are nevertheless dividing, ones that cut through are continent.” 

In the following years, NATO-Russia relations continued to worsen. At the 2008 Summit in Bucharest, NATO agreed to the accession of Albania and Croatia, and officially declared that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of NATO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded: “We will do anything we can to prevent Ukraine’s and Georgia’s accession into NATO.”  Indeed, only months later, in August of 2008, Russian military forces entered Georgian territory, ostensibly to restore the peace following Georgian military actions in South Ossetia. 

Russia’s invasion of Georgia, even if technically provoked by Georgian actions, was self-consciously undertaken to preclude Georgian NATO membership for the foreseeable future – a strategy employed again by Russia only a few years later in Ukraine.     

Russian rhetoric in the years before and immediately following its 2014 annexation of Crimea – grounded in a sense of betrayal and citing Kosovo as a precedent – make clear Russia’s rationale for taking the drastic step of fomenting the Ukraine crisis.

‘Russia will snap back hard’

On March 18, 2014, Putin justified Russia’s annexation of Crimea using language remarkably like the rhetoric used by Russians in the 1990s to condemn NATO enlargement and the NATO campaign in Serbia.

Firstly, Putin stressed that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was in conformity with international law, particularly the UN Charter “which speaks of the rights of nations to self-determination,” and the precedent set by Kosovo when the West “agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.”

Secondly, Putin justified the annexation of Crimea as a counterpoint to the U.S.-led, unipolar world order, which Putin also condemned in his 2007 Munich speech. Putin noted that the West “led by the United States of America, prefer[s] not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun.” Putin went on to condemn the involvement of NATO member countries in military actions against Serbia, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. 

Putin explicitly countered the claim made repeatedly by the Clinton administration that a united Europe would include Russia, by noting that “we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment [of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union], led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries continues today,” and that the West “are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner.”

A recurring theme throughout the speech is a condemnation of the West’s belittling of Russia throughout the post-Cold War period, in effect forcing Russia’s hand (according to Putin) to act drastically in Ukraine. Clearly, for Putin, in addition to Western-backed “color revolutions” to bring Ukraine into the Western political fold, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was the final straw. As Putin explained in his speech: “there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine our Western partners crossed the line.” He concluded that “Russia found itself in a position that it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.” 


The early 1990s saw a brief window of optimism in which there were hopes on both sides that decades of confrontation between the West and Russia could be replaced by positive, equal relations, with Russia becoming an integral part of a newly united Europe. For the United States, NATO enlargement was a crucial first step to set the table for deeper European economic and political integration.

However, even under the pro-Western Yeltsin administration and despite efforts both rhetorical and practical to convince Russia that NATO was no longer a threat, Russia and the West’s respective ambitious visions for Europe drifted farther away from one another. For Russia, this dynamic was solidified by the 1999 bombing of Serbia and further entrenched by U.S. military interventionism that followed 9/11. 

American and Russian commentators have lamented the 1990s as a lost opportunity to build an undivided Europe. But in the case of NATO enlargement, the benefits of Euro-Atlantic security integration, even at the cost of excluding Russia, trumped the ambitious and idealistic rhetoric of the early post-Cold War years, isolating and embittering Russia. This bitterness endures—not least because Russia, too, for a brief time dreamed that Europe’s divisions could truly be overcome.


Connor Cleary is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program and a program assistant at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. He received a dual master’s degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies and Public Affairs from Indiana University in 2015.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions.


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