Words Matter: The Bucharest NATO Summit and Its Contentious Promise

Words do matter. Even when we think we have said something casually, or of not great importance, they can come back to haunt. Item 23 of the final declaration of the 2008 NATO Ministerial summit in Bucharest said: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”  10 years later, speaking at a meeting with Russia’s ambassadors and permanent representatives, President Vladimir Putin warned about the eventual membership: “We will react to such aggressive steps, which pose a direct threat to Russia…”

Following Presidents Biden and Putin talks this December, the Moscow Times reported that the Russian foreign ministry insisted that the United States should formally close the door to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. “In the fundamental interests of European security, it is necessary to officially disavow the decision of the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit that ‘Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members,'” the Russian foreign ministry was quoted.

The Russian Ministry had already argued in 2018 that the “verbal promise to Soviet President Gorbachev not to expand NATO to the East, in exchange for the Soviet leader’s consent to the annexation of East Germany (GDR) by Western Germany, was fragrantly violated and is the source of much of the present conflict between Russia and the West.”

But a spoken promise is different from a written declaration, although the written promise should be put in perspective. Item 23 of the Bucharest Declaration promising future NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia came after: references to Albania and Croatia entering accession talks, praise for NATO troops in Afghanistan and Kosovo, NATO’s ability to counteract terrorism, concern about the situation in Darfur, NATO’s assistance to the people of Iraq, and an eventual invitation to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia once the problem of its name issue was solved.

A feeling of complacency and smug confidence must have reigned at the 2008 Bucharest meeting. Both the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist almost twenty years before. The major enemy NATO had been formed to counter was gone. The Cold War was over. The Iron Curtain had risen.

The final Declaration reads more like a confirmation of a raison d’étre of why NATO should exist and a glimpse into the future rather than a strategic plan against a feared enemy: “We, the Heads of State and Government of the member countries of the North Atlantic Alliance, met today to enlarge our Alliance and further strengthen our ability to confront the existing and emerging 21st century security threats,” the Declaration began. It was important to justify NATO’s continuing existence and what it would be doing in the future. Logically, the NATO leaders had to answer the obvious question: Shouldn’t NATO disband after the Warsaw Pact had already shut down?

From Moscow’s perspective, the eastern enlargement of NATO has always gone against the spoken promise to Gorbachev. Today, the Russians are drawing a red line at Ukraine and Georgia. But, in 2008, NATO has already integrated former members of the Warsaw Pact such as Hungary and Poland and the three Baltic states. Why the hardened attitude?

An obvious answer is that Putin feels more assertive. But more important is the premise of NATO troops on his border. In order to understand this fear, one should go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The United States threatened nuclear war when the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba, some 90 miles south of Florida.

If Georgia and Ukraine were to join NATO, Russia fears western troops would be directly on its border, although Latvia and Estonia are members of NATO and border Russia. This may be a reason for Russian activity on the eastern border of Ukraine as well as their takeover of the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. It is also important to remember that a solution to the Cuban missile crisis was the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey, which shared a border with the former Soviet Union.

Two conclusions from the current situation. Cannot NATO say that Georgia and Ukraine will never become members of NATO? Probably not. That would mean going back on Item 23 as well as denying the independence of both countries. Another possibility would be to guarantee that no offensive weapons or troops would be stationed on Russia’s border. Just as the missiles left Cuba and Turkey, a similar arrangement could be worked out.

Negotiations between the United States and Russia on the future of Ukraine, Georgia and NATO are ongoing. Considering the repeated statements coming out of Moscow, there is no question that Item 23 has become a major bone of contention. I sense it was not a major sticking point in Bucharest. After all, it was only Item 23. But words do matter and their consequences are often unforeseen.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.