The long-standing conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a little confusing, especially for those of us living in distant parts of the world. Questions surrounding the whole affair are natural. Why does Russia not want Ukraine to be a part of NATO (AKA the North Atlantic Treaty Organization)? Did NATO truly promise not to expand its presence towards Russia? Why did Russia not have an issue with its other neighboring countries joining NATO? How do the Russians feel about this war?
One place to get answers and learn more about the history of the world, in all its diversity, is the AskHistorians subreddit. It's a place where experts are more than willing to provide you with detailed answers about anything, including questions about royalty, politics, conflict and generic happenings around the world.
Here's a few common questions bound to arise looking at the conflict in Europe, along with detailed answers explaining the situation in depth.
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Why Did Ukraine Give Up Their Nuclear Arsenal?
Redditor u/ajbrown141 asked:
In the early '90s, Ukraine had the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, but in 1994 it agreed to give them up completely under the Budapest Memorandum. Why?
An excerpt from Redditor u/Kochevnik81:
The Soviet military continued after 1991 as a transitional Commonwealth of Independent States military theoretically under the joint command of its member states. Russia had declared itself to be the legal successor to the USSR, assuming its UN seat, its treaty obligations, its foreign debt, and control of its nuclear arsenal.
The Alma Ata Protocols in December 1991 recognized that the Russian President held command and control of nuclear forces and was to use them in consultation with other members of the Commonwealth of the Independent States, most notably the three other "nuclear" states that had weapons deployed on their territories (Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan). Hotlines were established between these capitals and the Kremlin, and when Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, he transferred his nuclear codes (kept in the "Cheget" nuclear briefcase) to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
A quick word on the nuclear codes and nuclear forces. The codes used a "triple key" system: the Soviet/Russian President had to transmit his code to the Minister of Defense, who had to transfer their code to the Chief of Staff. This controlled strategic missiles commanded by the Strategic Rocket Forces (a separate military branch), submarine missiles under control of the navy, and airborne weapons controlled by the Air Force. In late 1991, Gorbachev unified all nuclear weapons under one command, but this was reversed later in 1992. In April 1992, Russia created its own Ministry of Defense, which shared personnel (and nuclear codes) with the older joint military, which uneasily coexisted and shrank in importance before being dissolved in June 1993. So for a while, there were technically two command and control systems over the former Soviet arsenal. After the dissolution of the joint CIS command, this control was all folded into the Russian Ministry of Defense structure.
Generally speaking, Belarus and Kazakhstan were more or less fine with de facto Russian control of nuclear weapons on their territory. Ukraine, less so. From late 1992, Ukraine had custodial control of nuclear warheads on its territory and set up its embryonic command and control system, as well as protocols to order military staff on its territory to not comply with launch orders that the Ukrainian President did not countersign.
Ukrainian control went so far that in 1993 the Ukrainian military removed and transported warheads from missiles, inching closer to setting up its active control of nuclear weapons. This confusing situation was only ultimately resolved by December 5, 1994, Budapest Memorandum, under which Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan agreed to the transfer of all nuclear warheads to Russian territory, which was completed by 1996.
Budapest Memorandum of December 5, 1994, was agreed between Ukraine and Russia, the UK and the US (very technically it's three memorandums with identical terms between Ukraine and each of the other countries). France and China also gave separate unilateral security assurances to Ukraine. [It stated:]
The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise per the Charter of the United Nations.
There aren't specific terms or obligations listed should this be violated though, except in Article 4, in which case the US, UK, and Russia pledge to seek immediate UNSC action should a country use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and Article 6, [in which] the countries would consult "in the event a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments."
Strictly speaking, the treaties that Ukraine were party to that governed its security and its nuclear weapons are referenced in the memorandum, namely the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (which Ukraine joined after signing the Memorandum), the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 (which Ukraine signed in 1992) and the UN Charter (which Ukraine as the Ukrainian SSR signed in 1945 as a Founding UN Member).
The nuclear arsenal that was on Ukrainian territory consisted of the following: 130 SS-19 and 46 SS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with 1,240 warheads, and 44 Tupolev-95 and Tupolev-160 strategic bombers (with 1,081 nuclear cruise missiles). There were still tactical nuclear warheads on Ukrainian territory as well - the USSR kept tactical nukes in local armories, and started relocating them to Russia proper in the last months of 1991. The last ones were out of Ukraine in early 1992. So the negotiations were always specifically around the strategic weapons and delivery systems.
Ukraine started negotiating with Russia over the fate of the strategic nukes starting in 1992 (when Russia relatively quickly worked out deals with Belarus and Kazakhstan). Part of why Ukraine's deal took longer and ultimately involved the US was because Ukraine was driving a harder bargain. It did want assurances over its sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also specifically had more cost-conscious concerns as well. It wanted to make sure it was fully compensated for the value of the Highly Enriched Uranium in the warheads, and also that as few costs for eliminating nuclear weapons and infrastructure as possible would be paid by Ukraine. So even from the Ukrainian perspective, it wasn't so much a question of "if" as much as "when, and at what price".
For what it's worth, the last warhead was transported to Russia by June 1, 1996, and the last nuclear delivery vehicle (an SS-24 missile silo) was dismantled in 2001.
Redditor u/ThePoarter asked:
Why was the United Nations so unwilling to stop the genocide happening in Rwanda in 1994?
Redditor u/redrighthand_ answered:
Happenings just before the Rwandan Genocide created a deep hesitancy in Washington, who would have traditionally played a key role in any intervention. From this, any form of non-US-led action was poorly funded and lacking in resources.
The infamous "Black Hawk Down" episode in Somalia was the image that swept across the world of UN failure when it intervened in other nations' affairs. The backdrop to this was UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's belief that in the right circumstances, international intervention should supersede national sovereignty if peace was the result. This was a highly ambitious and untested mantra in the new post-Cold War era and one the UN simply did not have the resources for.
Riding on a high after their victory in the first Gulf War, however, the US saw Boutros' vision as a useful tool in their "new world order". Without going into the intricacies of the Somali War, Resolution 837 allowed UN troops, spearheaded by America, to disarm militia groups and essentially wage war against them. A key target was the leader of the rebel United Somali Congress (USC), Mohamed Farrah Aideed. Using helicopters, elite US Rangers swept into the USC stronghold in Mogadishu to snatch up Aideed within the hour. Now immortalized in film, this turned into a 15-hour slugfest with America's elite soldiers either killed or limping back to safety. With [humongous] public anger, President Clinton ordered the withdrawal of American forces, which essentially deprived Boutros of his biggest backer [and] causing other supporting countries to lose interest.
Why is Somalia so relevant? The public humiliation of America's best caused the White House to drastically rethink its approach to supporting intervention across the world. In late 1993, Clinton announced a stringent stress test to assess any intervention as something that would remedy a threat to US national security. In tow, it required well-defined scope and timescales to try and avoid a repeat of Mogadishu. This left the UN as nothing more than a bystander, just as the mass slaughter in Rwanda showed no sign of stopping.
The UN machinery for intervention in Rwanda had already started to come to life during the Somali intervention. Initially led by the Canadians, a request for 4,500 troops were put in, but the US, burned by what had just happened in Mogadishu, reduced this to around 2,000. Most importantly, the mandate to act was severely watered down to nothing more than protecting Kigali, the capital city. The draft agreement initially spoke about nationwide disarmament and controlling the murderous gangs, but all these clauses were eventually deleted.
Although receiving 400 elite Belgian paratroopers fresh from Somalia, Roméo Dallaire, the officer in charge of the operation, was dismayed to find most of the contingent were poorly equipped and [un]trained Bangladeshi troops. On top of this, UN hesitancy had left zero infrastructure for intelligence collecting of equipment, leaving Dallaire "blind and deaf in the field". It is pertinent to note that a Hutu paramilitary called the Interahamwe had more equipment and relatively better training centers than the Bangladeshi troops under Dallaire's command- the UN military arm was embarrassingly underequipped and under-resourced.
A lot of this critique so far points the finger at America, whose hesitancy certainly drained the life out of any cohesive UN action. However, Secretary-General Boutros had certain vested interests with the Hutu faction in Rwanda that further complicated the mix and blunted the international effort. As a deputy foreign minister in his native Egypt, he had strong ties with the Hutu elites in the country and specifically chose a man called Jacques Booh-Booh of Cameron as his envoy there. Booh-Booh was openly pro-Hutu and regularly downplayed or challenged Dallaire's demands, thoughts, and reports which hampered any possible change in policy to be more interventionist.
Both the political perspectives and agendas of Boutros and two US administrations carved out a drastic lack of action when it came to Rwanda, which had a huge impact on the feasibility of intervention on the ground. With little political will, mired by both hesitancy and bias, the UN forces on the ground had little chance of creating a successful and realistic intervention to prevent such a huge loss of life.
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Is NATO Similar To All The International Treaties That Created The First World War?
Redditor u/__mud__ asked:
A common narrative is that World War I was the result of cascading mutual defense pacts drawing ever more nations into the war. Yet NATO with its Article 5 was created just decades later. Are there any notable differences between the WWI treaties and Article 5?
Redditor u/RunMyLifeReddit answered:
Yes, many, and I'm sure I'll miss something but I shall try to give a good overview here.
The main point I would make is in regards to the basis/wording of your question. You ask about the "WWI treaties" as compared to "Article 5" instead of the entire North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 which has 14 Articles. At least one of these articles (Article 8) can be seen as a direct response to the problem of overlapping (or sometimes) conflicting alliances that pulled so many nations into WWI and it is probably more relevant than Article 5.
Article 8 verbatim:
Each Party declares that none of the international engagements now in force between it and any other of the Parties or any third State conflicts with the provisions of this Treaty, and undertakes not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this Treaty.
Article 8 and the single, clear 1949 North Atlantic Treaty [was direct]. [On the other hand] is the hodgepodge of treaties, alliances, and informal agreements between and amongst members of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. [These] built up over decades from the time of [Prussia's Otto von] Bismarck and the 1870 Franco-Prussian war up until hostilities in 1914.
Bismarck engineered the League of 3 Emperors between Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungry against the perceived threat of France. Later Austria-Hungary saw Russia as the main threat and that alliance dissolved. Italy was added later to the German-Austrian "dual alliance" forming the triple alliance.
[Meanwhile] the [Triple] entente started with France trying to counter-balance Germany with a treaty with Russia in 1894 followed by the Entente Cordial with Britain in 1904. LATER [it] became the Entente in 1907 when Britain and Russia had the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention.
Note also that the majority of these treaties, alliances or informal (sometimes secret) agreements were generally bilateral (i.e. France-Russia, then France-UK, then UK-Russia) and each could have its stipulations or requirements. NATO, however, is the result of ONE treaty that, at its founding, was negotiated by ALL signatory parties at the same time. They were, quite literally, all on the same page. Any country joining later would, within the terms of the alliance at least, be subject to the same terms AND obligations.
We should also note the collective security arraignment that came about "NATO" as its own institution/organization instead of just the "North Atlantic Treaty" is hugely consequential in the alliance's endurance and success.
NATO has its headquarters in Belgium, its [own] command and staff with dedicated personnel, etc. NATO members work to standardize equipment as much as possible, train together, and have a unified command structure under SACEUR, who is always an American Officer and incidentally is also the Commander of US European Command (EUCOM). (Incidentally, this is why it was such a huge deal when France withdrew from the integrated command structure in 1966, although notably NOT out of the North Atlantic Treaty or 'NATO' as some might incorrectly state). Nothing even remotely close EVER existed either with the Triple Alliance or the Entente.
The last salient point I would bring up is that NATO – and its mirror in the now-defunct Warsaw Pact – had a clear, hegemonic leader as its security guarantor/backer (the US or the USSR). While one can see that Germany was the clear hegemon of the Alliance, it was still (at least on paper) first among equals up until war broke out. The entente, however, was three great powers of near-peer status (or so each would claim), none of whom would subordinate their troops to a foreign commander as NATO member states do to SACEUR.
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Why Did NATO Continue To Exist After The USSR Fell?
Redditor u/envatted_love asked:
Why wasn't NATO disbanded after the dissolution of the USSR?
Redditor u/kieslowskifan answered:
There certainly were some intellectuals and politicians who argued for NATO's disbandment, but the institution carried on for two mutually reinforcing reasons.
Firstly, NATO continued to act as a force for collective security. Although from the vantage point of 2016, the causes and consequences of the dissolution and collapse of the USSR are clear, they were less apparent in July 1991 (when the Warsaw Pact formally dissolved).
The breakup of Yugoslavia added more to these fears as it demonstrated that the transition away from communism might not always be peaceful and could spill over into other nations. Many Western European and American policymakers felt that keeping NATO intact was the best way to shepherd Europe into a more peaceful order.
A very influential speech given at the Berlin Press Club in 1989 by US Secretary of State James Baker highlighted NATO's continued role in the post-1989 world. "A new architecture," he asserted, "must have a place for old foundations and structures that remain valuable- like NATO- while recognizing that they can also serve new collective purposes." For example, part of NATO's repurposing in this period was that it provided the apparatus to ensure the efficacy of the Open Skies treaty to guarantee nuclear disarmament.
Furthermore, the breakup of Yugoslavia highlighted a new potential role for NATO: peacekeeping. NATO-led peacekeeping had greater flexibility than UN missions as it was far easier to create concord among 16 nations than the global community of the UN.
The second, and more prosaic, rationale for keeping NATO is bureaucratic inertia. Rather than being a part of a coherent geopolitical strategy, the continued existence of NATO reflected the embedded governmental networks and mentalities of its leadership and elites. It's important to realize that, unlike the Warsaw Pact states, NATO governments really came out of the Cold War politically unchanged.
Even the newly united Germany was fundamentally structurally identical to the Federal Republic, whose legal and state apparatuses displaced those of the [German Democratic Republic]. Creating a new defense structure would have been costly and time-consuming. Disbanding NATO would have also had a negative effect on its members' own militaries. NATO created a force and base structure that spanned the whole half of the continent.
If, say, the British Army of the Rhine was to disestablish itself, the UK would have to find a place for these troops in the British Isles, constructing new bases and incurring significant costs. This is one of the major reasons why the US maintains such large bases in Germany; it is much easier and cost-effective to have units and heavy equipment proximate to trouble spots in Southwest Asia than having them return to the continental US.
NATO airbases in Turkey were a vital component for the Coalition's air offensive in the Gulf War. Both Turkish and German bases' utility in this conflict proved the importance of keeping these military ties intact. In short, NATO continued to undergird American military strength. Similarly, other NATO countries would have found their military forces decidedly unbalanced without American assistance (heavy airlift and AWACs, for example, are only affordable to larger NATO states). Given this context, the repurposing of NATO as exemplified by Baker's speech was a welcome return to familiar territory.
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Did NATO Agree To Not Expand East?
A Redditor asked:
Russia claims the US agreed to not expand NATO further east after the fall of the Soviet Union. According to the New York Times Daily podcast, the US says they never made this agreement. What really happened?
An excerpt from Redditor u/Young_Lochinvar:
The simple answer is yes. But it’s a more difficult question when you consider the context in which the assurances might have been made.
This is because there were various meetings occurring at various levels between the USSR/Russia and the NATO countries (not just the US) and the exact scope of topics talked about could move quite rapidly. Additionally, many if not most of these meetings were behind closed doors. In the last couple of years, a number of documents from the time have been released, which do add wonderfully to the question.
(First a quick note: under International Law, the Russian Federation is the legal successor to the USSR, and all treaties and agreements that applied to the USSR continue to apply to Russia. Hence, I will use USSR/Russia a little interchangeably.)
There are three broad schools of debate on the question.
The first school suggests that suggest that there were ‘assurances’ at high levels: [t]hat these assurances were binding [and] that the expansion of NATO, at least in the 1990s, was a breach of these assurances. This school points to statements, such as those attributed to Jack Matlock, the former American ambassador to the USSR, as well as recent documents released by the Americans. Matlock was supposed to have said:
We gave categorical assurances to Gorbachev back when the Soviet Union existed that if a united Germany was able to stay in NATO, NATO would not be moved eastward.
This view can sometimes conflate assurances for ‘no NATO expansion’ with assurances of ‘no taking advantage of the Soviet Union during Perestroika’. There were also vague assurances to not ‘threaten the security of the Soviet Union’ made at the time which is really unclear in terms of how such threats were to be assessed, and who would do the assessing.
The second school (e.g. Mary Sarotte) is that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had tried to get the Americans to agree not to expand NATO, but that the NATO allies wouldn’t agree to it. There is some evidence that it was suggested by the West Germans as something that could be offered to the Russians so that East Germany could join NATO as a unified state (there’s a lot of interesting history on the status of a unified Germany in NATO going back to Stalin in the 1950s, but I won’t digress here). It’s important to note that the West Germans were also very focused on the reunification of Germany, and so it’s unclear whether they were thinking very much about broader issues of NATO or Soviet weakness at the time.
For a time the assurance of ‘No eastern expansion in exchange for East German membership’ was an official American position for bargaining when US Secretary of State James Baker was sent to Moscow in January/February 1990. But within days of Baker meeting Gorbachev the views in Washington seem to have changed, and so it’s not clear on what footing Baker made the offer to Gorbachev. But even if Gorbachev was offered this assurance by Baker by May 1990, the US had published a new position on East Germany without reference to NATO expansion. When the Final Settlement was signed in September 1990, there was no mention of limits on NATO expansion. Russia it seemed, did not seem to contest the issue in the treaty text.
It’s plausible that Gorbachev took the assurance as an upfront commitment of good faith and not as a potential bargaining chip that the Americans offered then withdrew. This was certainly believed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin who claimed in 1993 that the Final Settlement did imply that NATO wouldn’t expand East.
A third school believes that the topic never came up during negotiations in the early 1990s and that attempts by Russia to invoke the ‘commitments’ are just Moscow trying to cover for its modern adventurism. This argument has support from a number of American officials involved at the time including Baker, the then Deputy of the State Department’s Soviet Desk, and members of the [National Security Council] (including Philip Zelikow who reported Ambassador Matlock's comments above). This school is also more or less the current official US Government position on the negotiations.
There was also a 1993 meeting between US President Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin where Clinton discussed the security of Eastern Europe. Clinton said that Eastern Europe including Russia would be offered security partnerships with NATO. Yeltsin seems to have tried to clarify that this partnership meant that those states wouldn’t be offered membership. The Americans said Yes. A charitable view of the Americans is that they meant ‘no membership at this time or at worst that they misunderstood what Yeltsin was asking (Yeltsin may have been drunk). An uncharitable reading is that the Americans deliberately misled the Russians. But in either case, 6 more years passed before former Warsaw Pact Members joined NATO. As a bit of a backgrounder, NATO expansion wasn’t new. From 12 original members, it was only 3 years after founding, before it started to expand. Though between when Spain joined in 1982, and Czechia joined in 1999, there was a gap. Nevertheless, the notion of expanding NATO wasn’t surprising in itself.
We also know that at the time there were a lot of different views of where NATO should stop that was argued throughout the 1990s. On one extreme, there was the No expansion argument. This suggested that NATO expansion was unnecessary, antagonizing to Russia, destabilizing Europe, and would risk the very cohesion of the alliance. At the other end of the spectrum, you had the argument that Russia should join NATO to solidify the collective security of Europe (Gorbachev briefly suggested this himself, but it seems he was doing it as a negotiation tactic).
In summary: It seems clear that it was discussed by various NATO officials with various Soviet officials for a few days in February 1990. But while the NATO members thought it was a mere suggestion in connection with the issue of German reunification, the Soviets might have taken it as a commitment, and the Russians have now adopted it (in good faith or not) as an argument in their relations with NATO.
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Was Russia Mad Because They Were Denied NATO Membership, Or Was It Never Even A Serious Bid?
Redditor u/RusticBohemian asked:
The USSR tried to join NATO in 1954, which was like trying to join an alliance formed to oppose them. Why did they want in, and were they surprised to be rejected?
An excerpt from Redditor u/Kochevnik81:
To put this into perspective: the Soviet offer to join NATO came in a period of changing relations between the Soviets and the West that began with Stalin's death on March 5, 1953, and would culminate in the Geneva Summit of July 1955. The Geneva Summit was the first meeting between US and Soviet leaders since the Potsdam Conference ten years earlier, ending what would be the longest break between such meetings during the entire Cold War.
The offer didn't come from the blue but was part of an extended series of offers and maneuvers that the new collective leadership on the Soviet Presidium (basically, the Politburo) pursued as they struggled with each other for power and simultaneously looked for possibilities to reshape relations with the Western bloc.
These overtures were met with caution and hesitancy, most notably from the US President Eisenhower (interestingly, the once and again UK Prime Minister Churchill was much more enthusiastic about a potential thaw in East-West relations and urged Eisenhower to take greater initiative in supporting it).
An initial bid to change relations came in May 1953, when Lavrenty Beria proposed that in return for neutralization of the country, the USSR was prepared to accept reunification of the country, effectively offering to give up East Germany to West Germany. This proposal didn't get very far: it came while the Korean War was still active, and Soviet attention was very much distracted by the massive demonstrations (with over a million participants) that broke out across East Germany in June 1953 and required Soviet troops to put down. Beria was ousted at the end of June, and arrested and executed (for anyone who has seen Death of Stalin, these events are condensed into essentially one day, but actually happened over nine months or so). That was the end of that proposal.
The moves that led to the NATO proposal started with a meeting of the UK, US, French, and Soviet foreign ministers in Berlin, in January and February of 1954. The conference didn't produce [many] results, but Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Prime Minister, used the forum as an opportunity to present an offer of a European collective security arrangement. This was done because a treaty for a European Defence Community had been signed in 1952 between West Germany, the Low Countries, Italy, and France (the future founders of the European Economic Community), and provided for a collective defense establishment. Molotov was hoping to make sure that any such defense community, if formed, included the USSR rather than left it outside.
The Western representatives in Berlin were skeptical of Molotov's proposal, as any such defense community would leave the US on the outside as an observer, and would disrupt NATO and the still-forming EDC (note: the EDC never got off the ground and was shelved later that year). Molotov responded that he was open to amending his proposal and also to consider the defensive nature of NATO.
On his return to Moscow, Molotov had his Deputy Andrei Gromyko draw up alternative proposals for the Presidium to consider. Gromyko drafted proposals that the USSR offer the US full involvement in the collective security arrangement and that the USSR consider joining NATO. Molotov heavily revised these draft proposals: the offer to join NATO under certain conditions was dropped in favor of more cautious language to the effect that the USSR was prepared to discuss the possibility with interested parties.
Molotov, in his revised memo to the Presidium, noted that "raising this question would make things difficult for the organizers of the North Atlantic bloc and would emphasize its supposedly defensive character so that it would not be directed against the USSR and the people's democracies."
Basically, what Molotov was proposing was a win-win: if the USSR broached the idea of possible NATO membership, either it would be rejected, and the Western powers would look like militarists, or they might actually accept it – which would effectively change the nature of the organization – provide for a collective European security arrangement, and prevent the further remilitarization of West Germany directed at the Eastern Bloc. In any case, to avoid a possible humiliation, the offer to join NATO was never to be a formal one, but merely a possibility hinted at in negotiations.
The memo was forwarded to Georgy Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev (the two most powerful apparatchiks at the time), along with language to be presented to the Western powers, which was released in March 31, 1954. The communique stated that the USSR would not be against the US participating in a collective European security agreement and that in turn, the USSR was willing to consider the possibility of joining NATO, "if NATO relinquished its aggressive character."
In the event, the Western powers rejected the proposal as incompatible with the nature of NATO (which they saw as defensive anyway...but the fact that it was an alliance against the USSR made it "aggressive" to the Soviets).
The matter never really came to anything, but the negotiations between the sides would continue in 1954 (involving a conference at Geneva to discuss issues in Korea and Indochina) and on into 1955 with the aforementioned Geneva Summit, and these did see a number of areas of progress, such as the reunification (and neutralization) of Austria in 1955.