Inching eastwards: The re-alignment of Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain

Illustrative photo: Miloš Turek

The fall of the Iron Curtain is often described as a sudden, unexpected event. The following years during the 1990s saw both a major expansion of NATO eastwards and the geographical retreat of Russia from areas previously seen as within its sphere of influence. This included Czechoslovakia, which switched from being a member of the Eastern Bloc’s Warsaw Pact to full NATO member (as the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in a space of ten years. To find out more about how this exactly came about and what could have been, I spoke to Cold War historian Sergei Radchenko, professor of International Relations at Cardiff University. I began by asking him about the US and Soviet expectations of where the former Soviet satellites in Central Europe would align immediately after the fall of Communist regimes in 1989.

Sergei Radchenko,  photo: WorldsApaRT/YouTube

“As the Cold War was coming to an end, the Soviet leadership were looking forward to the creation of what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev referred to as ‘a common European home’. Some sort of a common security infrastructure for the whole of Europe.

“The expectation on the Soviet side was that NATO would become irrelevant and would fall apart more or less. This was based on the notion that NATO had been created in opposition to the USSR and now that the Soviet Union had mended fences with the West the idea was that NATO would also fade from the historical stage. This was how Gorbachev was thinking about this in the late 1980s.”

I came across this argument when I was reading about how Czechoslovakia back then saw itself, whether to join NATO or see both alliances dissolved. So why did NATO not get dissolved?

“A historical accident. In fact, I was recently reading some interesting documents from the early 1990s and there was a debate among policy makers in Britain for example. The general feeling there was that it had almost been an accident that NATO survived the end of the Cold War. There was actually a widespread expectation that something would happen. That NATO, which itself had been suffering from a lack of cohesion internally ever since the 1960s when the French pulled out of the military structures, would somehow transform itself out of existence, because it no longer had any role.

“Of course the Soviets had this kind of expectation. They wanted to invest themselves in common security structures where they would be at the table. You have to look at this from the Soviet perspective and understand why they wanted to do that. For them NATO was an enemy out there and now the Cold War was over, but they wanted to be at the table. And so, the process which seemed most suitable for this purpose from their perspective was the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, CSCE (OSCE today), that was part of the Helsinky process launched in the early 1970s. The Soviets, as co-sponsors of this process, effectively wanted to use that for sorting out European security after the Cold War.

NATO Summit | Photo: U.S. Department of State,  Flickr,  public domain

“Now, as for Czechoslovakia, we know that even after 1989, briefly at least, the Czechoslovak leadership actually supported these kinds of views on the part of the Soviet Union. [Václav] Havel himself, in fact, advocated some kind of all-inclusive security structures for Europe. Only briefly. He travelled to the United States, made a speech to the US Congress where he aired some of those ideas, but very quickly he backed away from these ideas and by the early 1990s already we have Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic after the Velvet Divorce) arguing for Prague’s inclusion in NATO, in Western security structures at the expense of Russia.

During your research, did you come across any talks, perhaps between Havel and American representatives that explain why this position shifted?

“It is not exactly clear. I have been wondering about this, because, generally speaking, if you look at Central and Eastern Europe, not just the Czech Republic but how the Poles, or Hungarians, or Baltic states were thinking about the problem, you see two distinct themes here.

“On the one hand there is this fear of the Soviet Union, the fear of Russia, that is conditioned historically and for good reason. Look, the Czechs for example, had every reason to suspect the Russians. It is not like in 1968 the Soviets did not invade Prague. Of course these kinds of memories linger, influence current perceptions and affect policy making. That was certainly a concern. The Poles, as well, could think back to the division of Poland, the imposition of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or later the imposition of communism. They could think back to 1956 when it came very close to Soviet intervention in Poland, or the martial law of the 1980s and they could suspect with good reason any kind of good intentions.

“If Gorbachev was saying: ‘Ok yeah, we will have peace and a zone of security and cooperation from Vancouver to Vladivostok’, the Poles could have good reason to say that they do not believe that, the Czechs as well and the Hungarians, where 1956 comes to mind. So they had their security concerns and this is one of the reasons why they were so desperate to be included in Western security structures, because that gave them guarantees against a perceived threat from the east.

“The other part in the reasoning of Central and Eastern Europe has to do with status, prestige, identity fundamentally. Who do you want to belong to? For the Czechs this was a no brainer. They wanted to be a part of the West. It was a question of identity, of belonging. To a degree, this was also a question for the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. Now, especially for Havel this was a key issue. In conversation with [US president] Bill Clinton, for example, he would talk about that. He would say: ‘You know, actually, the Czech Republic is a part of the West and we want this identity reinforced by the Czech Republic’s membership in the NATO structure’. Especially, when at the time Prague’s prospects for entry into the European Union were still kind of bleak. It was not a given, so in that context being part of NATO was seen as a stepping stone to eventual integration into Western Europe.”

Earlier, you were talking about this possibility of NATO transforming itself out of existence. Now, of course, one of the options that were discussed was the possibility of Russia joining NATO. Could you tell us a bit about that and what people like Václav Havel or Lech Walesa, Poland’s leader at the time, thought of that option?

“Well that is a very interesting question. I was surprised myself when looking at the record just how much the Russians wanted to join NATO. It is a theme that comes through very clearly in the early 1990s.

Mikhail Gorbachev | Photo: Vladimir Vyatkin/RIAN,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“In fact, it started with Mikhail Gorbachev in the spring of 1990. To give some context, this was a time when Germany was in the process of reunifying. Gorbachev agreed to have a reunited Germany be a part of NATO. He was promised that there would not be any enlargement, “not one inch eastward” as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker told him in February of 1990. Now this was in the context of German reunification. Those remarks later became rather controversial, because the Russians said: ‘Well, you promised that there would be no enlargement and yet you then started pushing it’.

“Of course, the counterargument to that is that everything changed in the early 1990s and those promises were only given in the context of German reunification, there was no discussion about Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, already by the spring of 1990 Gorbachev was desperate in many ways. He felt that his hope for a common European home was collapsing, that the Soviet Union was being pushed out of Eastern Europe. He made repeated pleas to the Americans asking if the Soviet Union can become a part of NATO. He was sort of laughed off. This was not yet seen as a sensible argument to make, certainly for the Bush administration. They did not even want to discuss that.

“Later, the new Russian leadership, Boris Yeltsin in particular as well as his ‘pro-Western’ foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, repeatedly made the argument about the importance of anchoring Russia in NATO. This was done in complete seriousness. Why did they want to do that? I think the Russians obviously did not have to worry about securing NATO’s security guarantees. NATO offered security guarantees from Russia, so this was not the real perspective.

What sort of role did the Western European middle powers, such as Germany or the United Kingdom, play in this new realignment of Central and Eastern Europe during this period and how did they view the situation?

“Western Europeans were very cautious about NATO enlargement. This idea was lobbied very hard by Central and Eastern Europe. Countries like Britain and France were not so keen on this, because they worried that, by extending to the east, NATO would lose its credibility among other things. That it would acquire new territories that would be hard to defend and that integrating those new armies from the former Warsaw Pact would be technically extremely problematic.

“Furthermore, what also worried them was the prospect that Russia would be against this and that NATO expansion would potentially undermine the reformers in Russia allowing the Russian nationalists to claim that the whole idea of cooperating with the West was a betrayal of Russia’s national interests.

President Bill Clinton plays the saxophone presented to him by Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a private dinner hosted by President Yeltsin at Novoya Ogarova Dacha,  Russia,  1994,  photo: Bob McNeely/U.S. federal government,  public domain

“So this was the position across much of Western Europe and it was actually the Americans who were much more open to the idea of NATO enlargement during the early years of the Clinton administration. You can see movement in that direction already in the spring of 1993 and by the summer the Americans are thinking of what that would entail in practical terms. Fundamentally, what Bill Clinton was worried about was how you enlarge NATO without upsetting Russia, because for him Russia was the big prize. He did not want to lose Russia. He wanted to continue to cooperate with Boris Yeltsin and he knew that the Russians were against that enlargement, or at least he knew that Russia wanted to be part of that enlargement if it happened and that they wanted to exercise veto power which the Americans said no to. They said they would never allow Russia having the right to say whether Central and Eastern European countries may or may not join NATO.

“The result of this debate in the Clinton administration was a programme that sought to appease Russia as well as Central and Eastern European countries that were pushing for NATO enlargement that but were not immediately let in. The programme was called ‘Partnership for Peace’ and it was rolled out at the NATO summit in January 1994. The Russians misunderstood this programme. When the Partnership for Peace was presented to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, he thought that this was an alternative to NATO enlargement. He thought: ‘Ok, we dislike the idea of NATO enlargement and now you have rolled out this Partnership for Peace programme where Russia will play an equal role that means that means that enlargement is not on the cards any more, right?’

“The Americans were non-committal, but eventually became very clear that NATO enlargement still was very much on the cards, with the Visegrad Four countries having preference in this regard and that Russia was not in the queue to join NATO. That was just ruled out. So, in this context, we can see increasing Russian opposition to any kind of NATO enlargement.”

Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev,  photo: Mikhail Evstafiev,  CC BY 2.5

If I try to summarise this, and correct me if I am wrong, we have the Central and Eastern European countries who very much want to join NATO and carry historic grudges against Russia, then we have the Western European powers who are very sceptical of NATO enlargement and finally we have the Americans who are very much considering this option of Russia joining NATO. I was wondering, what were Russia’s bargaining chips aside from nuclear weapons? What could Yeltsin really threaten with?

“What the Russians were threatening throughout this period, and I am especially talking about the then Russian foreign minister Kozyrev and his conversations with his Western counterparts. He would say: ‘Be considerate. Consider Russia’s position here. Do not rush, because if you do, we have forces here in Russia who will come to dominate the political narrative and people like me will get pushed out. Here I am, a very pro-Western foreign minister. You will get someone else who will be much less inclined to cooperate with the West.’

“This is indeed what happened. Kozyrev was eventually forced out and replaced by Evgeni Primakov, a much more hard-line foreign minister. So essentially what the Russians were telling the Americans was that if they really want Russian democracy to succeed, if you really want this cooperation to work out, slow down on NATO enlargement, because if you push NATO enlargement you empower the nationalists in Russia.”

One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you is because you have been sharing some extraordinary archival accounts that you have come across regarding foreign leaders, including Central European leaders. These were often people who rose directly from dissident to president or prime minister. Were there any interesting episodes there when they encountered the leaders of Britain, America, or Germany?

“When you read the records of these conversations, they are sometimes hilarious and they do give you some interesting insights into personalities as well as their intellectual sophistication. One person who impressed me was Havel. His interactions were always marked by a high level of intellectual sophistication and vision if you would, his idealistic vision of the world.

“By contrast, someone like Lech Walesa for example, comes across as unsophisticated, but also very straightforward. If you read records of his discussions with the Americans you find out that they are full of doom and gloom about Russia. That the Russians are imperialists and that they all think like Zhirinovsky, etc. So he was not very sophisticated in his analysis, but you can definitely understand where he was coming from. At least he made himself very clear.

George Bush and Lech Walesa,  photo: David Valdez,  public domain

“What is also very interesting in conversations between the Central and Eastern Europeans and their Western counterparts, is the desire to the side of the former to be accepted as part of the West even as they drew the line between themselves and Russia. For example, when [US Secretary of State between 1997 to 2001] Madeline Albright visited on an exploratory mission several of the capital in the run up to NATO enlargement, she found out, as she put in her report, that Central and Eastern Europeans wanted to be in NATO themselves but with the Russians out.

“That was very interesting for me, this idea that Central and Eastern Europe wanted to assert its identity as something very different from Russia. You know: ‘Let the Russians stay in the East, we want to be part of Europe.’ This was very different from the Russian take by the way, because the Russians were coming to the same kinds of discussions and saying: ‘We are also Europeans. We want to be part of Europe!’, so there is almost a conflict of identities, a conflict of visions between the Central and Eastern Europeans and Russians about the future of Europe and the region.”

The immediate years after the fall of the Iron Curtain were, simply due to the chaos or massive changes that were taking place, a period where border changes in Central and Eastern Europe were more possible than ever since the Second World War. There was for example this report published by the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2010 where the Kaliningrad region (formerly East Prussia) was allegedly offered to Germany in 1990. Did you come across any crazy proposals or ideas during your research in that respect?

“Well, there was a lot of uncertainty. Indeed, one of the arguments for NATO enlargement made by Tony Lake, President Clinton’s national security advisor, was that it would prevent such a scenario. There were serious, justified worries.

“Just look at what was happening in Yugoslavia at that time. There was an absolute meltdown in the Balkans, ethnic cleansing, redrawing of borders, the creation of a wannabe Greater Serbia, etc. Just really crazy things were happening on the ground and the fear in Washington was that this sort of Yugoslav nationalist contingent could potentially spread to parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

“Fortunately that did not happen, but NATO enlargement was in part an effort to ensure that it would not happen.”

You have previously been focused a lot on China and the Cold War. Why did you choose to research this period now? Are you preparing a book or an article?

“Yes. I have a big book on the Cold War. The Cold War and after, as I call it. Cold War historians generally stop in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall being seen as a cut-off date between the ‘Cold War World’ and the ‘Brave New World’ that we entered in 1989.

The fall of the Berlin Wall,  photo: Superikonoskop,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“From the Central and Eastern Europe perspective, indeed also from the German perspective, that does make a lot of sense as a cut-off point. However, from Russia’s perspective, it is not the same. It is not as straightforward.

“Indeed, as we move into the 1990s, we see the same sorts of concerns that animated Soviet foreign policy making - about Soviet standing in the world, about whether the Soviet voice is listened to in international affairs - also animate Russian policy making.

“I see a lot of continuity between the Cold War and post-Cold War periods, so in this book, which starts in 1949, I look at the history of the Cold War primarily as told from the Soviet perspective. I look at how it unfolded in Asia, in Europe and I continue the discussion all the way into the 1990s, indeed all the way into the present day period, seeing considerable continuity across the entire period.”

And what do you want to call this book?

“That is a big question. The book, which already has 25 chapters and is very near to becoming finished, still has no name, because you wonder what to call it. My provisional title is: ‘The First Fiddle: A History of the Cold War and After’.

Nikita Khrushchev,  photo: public domain

“Why do I say The First Fiddle? This was something that Nikita Khrushchev said in his time about Sino-Soviet relations. He was discussing the ideological conflict that the Soviet Union had with China in the 1960s. He said: ‘You know, they say we have an ideological conflict with China, but that is just not true. This is not what it is about. It was about the fact that China wanted to play the first fiddle, but we are the first fiddle in the socialist orchestra.’

“For me, that emphasised Soviet concern about their role in the world, their place in the world and about their desire to play the first fiddle. This is a concern that you see run throughout Soviet and Russian foreign policy and it is a concern that you continue to see until today.

During you research what do you think is the most curious thing you learned, or something that you did not expect to come across going into this?

“One thing that I find absolutely remarkable is that as documents are declassified, you have the opportunity to actually psychoanalyse discourses and look from almost a psychiatrist perspective into policymaking by different parties during the Cold War and after. So when you look at conversations involving Yeltsin, American leaders, or Khrushchev, or Brezhnev, you see what kind of people they were, what really drove them.

“The number one thing that I see there is not ideology. That was always something instrumental. You justify things with references to ideology. Did Brezhnev really believe in Marxism-Leninism? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Fundamentally, when he made policy, it wasn’t Marxism-Leninism that drove it. He was concerned with his own political legitimacy. That was true for Brezhnev, for Khrushchev, for Stalin, for Yeltsin, for Gorbachev and, I believe it is even true for Putin today. This emphasis on political legitimacy and how leaders justify themselves and their policy is what I find most interesting in this project.”