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In its own fact sheet NATO denies Russia's claims that NATO promised not to expand:

Russian officials claim that US and German officials promised in 1990 that NATO would not expand into Eastern and Central Europe, build military infrastructure near Russia’s borders or permanently deploy troops there.

No such pledge was made, and no evidence to back up Russia’s claims has ever been produced. Should such a promise have been made by NATO as such, it would have to have been as a formal, written decision by all NATO Allies. Furthermore, the consideration of enlarging NATO came years after German reunification. This issue was not yet on the agenda when Russia claims these promises were made.

Is NATO's claim, that it never promised not to expand into Eastern and Central Europe, correct?

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    I can imagine it happening. In 1990, in the months after the Berlin Wall comes down, the Russians talk to some German and US officials: "So, are you going to be like, occupying Eastern Germany now and driving up to the Soviet border?" -with the answer, "No no, don't worry about that, let's just all back off and let Germany reunite peacefully, shall we?" – ChrisW Dec 3 '14 at 14:47
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    So anyway, just to double-check: your question is about NATO's claim, which is that "NATO itself (as a block) never formally promised"; and it's not about the (indirectly quoted) Russian claim, which is that "US and German officials promised in 1990 that NATO 'would' not". Note that both claims might easily be true. – ChrisW Dec 3 '14 at 14:54
  • @ChrisW : If there a promise that wasn't made in 1990 but in 1991, then I would consider the NATO claim to be wrong and expect a question to show it wrong. – Christian Dec 3 '14 at 14:57
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    IMO the main differences between the two claims is the scope of the alleged promise. For example, "we're not going to expand" could have been a 'promise' made by, for example, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe or (perhaps more likely) by US+German ambassadors. It could have been a 'temporary' promise ("no we won't do that now, and not even for the foreseeable future" ... 1990 was 25 years ago); and that 'promise' wouldn't be a binding political treaty (ratified by every NATO government). – ChrisW Dec 3 '14 at 15:07
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    NATO only enlarges via unanimous consent. If a single NATO country made a promise to avoid enlargement and keep that promise NATO wouldn't expand. If a body like the G8 would have passed something that promises that NATO doesn't expand, then that would be a promise not signed by every NATO state but still be significant. – Christian Dec 3 '14 at 15:16
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Somehow, most of my answers tend to begin with "this is a complicated issue". As ChrisW suspected, there are no indications that NATO, as an organization, has made any formal promises; but there is plenty of evidence that top-level Western officials made public and private promises that NATO would not expand eastwards.

The German magazine "SPIEGEL" has run a detailed article on this topic in 2009, when Russian then-President Dmitri Medvedev raised the issue of a broken NATO promise. My answer is largely based on this; it states interviews with many of the protagonists as well as access to documents from the German Ministry of Foregn Affairs as well as other western archives as its sources.

As for formal NATO statements: Had any existed, surely there would be evidence of that in the West as well as numerous references from Russia. As it is, the Russian officials complaining about the NATO expansion tend not to make such claims. There have been claims of less formal promises made by the NATO, such as this one made by Vladimir Putin in 2007:

And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee”.

However, as Steven Pifer points out, the statement was a bit different:

This will also be true of a united Germany in NATO. The very fact that we are ready not to deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees.

Here, Mr. Woerner is clearly talking about the Federal Republic as opposed to the GDR; no non-German NATO troops were to be deployed in the Eastern part of Germany according to the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.

However, there is considerable variation of opinion on whether promises have been given by Western officials during the negotiations and the overall period of transition. The SPIEGEL quotes the last foreign minister of the USSR, Edward Shevardnadze, as saying no promises have been made; the same position is held by then-foreign minister of West Germany, Mr. Genscher, and the US Secretary of State, Mr. Baker. The Soviet President, Michail Gorbatchev, however, claims that of course promises had been made, and Jack Matlock, then the US ambassador in Russia, confirms that Moscow had received a "clear commitment". SPIEGEL also quotes from archival documents; Genscher is to have told Shevardnadze in February 1990: "It is clear to us then NATO will not expand eastwards".

On January 31 1990, Genscher already said in a public speech that a unified Germany would be a firm part of the Western world; however, there would be no expansion of the NATO towards the East. Genscher later explained that he was afraid of a situation similar to the 1956 Hungary uprising, when the insurgents' stated desire to join NATO provided the excuse for the Soviet Union to crack down. The US and British foreign ministers agreed with this line of diplomacy. On February 8 1990, in the Kremlin, Baker promised "no extension of NATO's jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east", should the Soviets ascent to a NATO membership for a united Germany.

However, there are also quotes showing that, at least internally, Baker and Genscher regarded this to be a policy for the very next future, not for all times. And there is no evidence of a formal or ratified decision by any NATO member state to oppose a NATO extension to the East; that is, while the foreign ministers seem to have made such promises, especially in the early stages of negotiations, no government or parliament officially endorsed them.

Finally, there is the question of why the Soviet leaders and negotiators, described in the SPIEGEL article as insisting "that everything be documented in writing, even when all that was at issue was the fate of Soviet military cemeteries in East Germany", did not request a written guarantee of NATO not expanding to the East. Gorbachev and a few others claimed the idea was plainly unthinkable at the time, so the issue did not arise. On the other hand, it might well be that the Western powers did not want to bind themselves on that issue. We just do not know and, if there is no release of new classified information in East or West, will probably not know for a while.

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    "Shevarnadze" and "clear" aren't in the SPIEGEL article you referenced. Where are those quotes from? And, please also supply a reference for who said, "described as keen to have the smallest detail formalized". – ChrisW Dec 3 '14 at 15:50
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    @ChrisW I first only found the German version of the SPIEGEL article and so translated the quotes myself; I now have the correct quotes from the article on Matlock as well as formalities. Shevardnadze I just misspelled continuously :) – P_S Dec 3 '14 at 15:56
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According to this article (which is pretty thin on formal sources such as documents or memoirs), there was never a written (and thus formal) promise, but there were oral indications.

"A Broken promise? What the West Really Told Moscow About NATO Expansion"

Documents also show that the United States, with the help of West Germany, soon pressured Gorbachev into allowing Germany to reunify, without making any kind of written promise about the alliance’s future plans.

...

Three days later, in Moscow, Baker talked NATO with Gorbachev directly. During their meeting, Baker took handwritten notes of his own remarks, adding stars next to the key words: “End result: Unified Ger. anchored in a ´changed (polit.) NATO -- ´whose juris. would not move ´eastward!” Baker’s notes appear to be the only place such an assurance was written down on February 9, and they raise an interesting question. If Baker’s “end result” was that the jurisdiction of NATO’s collective-defense provision would not move eastward, did that mean it would not move into the territory of former East Germany after reunification?

...

... As with Baker’s meeting with Gorbachev, no written agreement emerged. After hearing these repeated assurances, Gorbachev gave West Germany what Kohl later called “the green light” to begin creating an economic and monetary union between East and West Germany -- the first step of reunification....

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