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Moscow believed NATO ‘forced it’ into 1997 agreement – files

A declassified document shows Yeltsin thought he had to sign the NATO-Russia Founding Act to soften the fallout from the bloc’s expansion

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin told his US counterpart Bill Clinton in 1997 that Moscow was being “forced” to sign a cooperation agreement with NATO because it had no other way to offset the bloc’s enlargement, according to a newly released document.

On Tuesday, the US-based National Security Archive released a trove of now-declassified files that shed light on the deliberations that resulted in NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders in the 1990s.

One document features what was described as a “candid conversation” between Clinton and Yeltsin in Finland in March 1997, which paved the way for the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act two months later. The agreement was supposed to deepen cooperation between Moscow and the bloc, stating, among other things, that “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries.” 

However, Yeltsin told Clinton that he opposed NATO’s expansion, echoing his earlier accusation saying that the bloc “was trying to split Europe.” 

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“Our position has not changed. It remains a mistake for NATO to move eastward. But I need to take steps to alleviate the negative consequences of this for Russia. I am prepared to enter into an agreement with NATO, not because I want to, but because it is a forced step. There is no other solution for today,” he told his counterpart, according to the document.

Yeltsin insisted that enlargement “should also not embrace the former Soviet republics… especially Ukraine” while suggesting that such a delicate deal could be struck in secret. Clinton, however, disagreed, arguing it would send a “terrible message” to the world, scare the Baltic countries and undermine NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

In 1999, NATO expanded to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland – all members of the former Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact. In 2004, it expanded further to include Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2008, NATO members agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the bloc, but gave no specific timetable.

After the Western-backed coup in Kiev in 2014, NATO designated membership for Ukraine as a priority. Kiev officially applied to join the US-led bloc in the autumn of 2022, after four of its former territories voted to join Russia.

As tensions between the West and Russia have worsened over the years, including over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has described NATO as a “hostile” bloc, noting that Kiev’s plans to join it were among the main reasons for the current conflict.


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