The last thing Joe Biden must have expected upon fulfilling his dream of becoming president in January 2021 was that a year later he would face a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. This wasn’t supposed to happen. China was seen as the new threat. The Quad—the alliance of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, designed to contain Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions—was the main focus of Washington’s foreign policy. Now suddenly Vladimir Putin, keen to prove Russia’s status as a great power, was hell-bent on reconquering the second-largest republic of the former Soviet Union. The scope and brutality of his invasion has been shocking; yet to many of those old enough to remember the end of the cold war—when the USSR lay supine and a series of American presidents set out to expand (or as their aides put it, in an attempt to avoid accusations of neo-imperialism, “enlarge”) the NATO military alliance to include nearly every nation in Central and Eastern Europe that had been a vassal of the Kremlin for the previous half-century—the attack, at least initially, came as little surprise. In a sense, it was a backlash waiting to happen.
Not One Inch, M.E. Sarotte’s highly detailed, thoroughly researched, and briskly written chronicle of NATO’s expansion in the first decade after the end of the cold war, leaves the impression that Putin has a case for resenting how the United States and its allies took in the western parts of his country’s erstwhile empire—though not as good a case as he seems to believe. Sarotte, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, takes her title from Putin’s frequent references to a “promise,” allegedly made by American leaders at the end of the cold war, not to expand NATO into the power vacuums of Central and Eastern Europe. “‘Not an inch to the east,’ we were told in the 1990s,” Putin said in a December 2021 speech. “They cheated us—vehemently, blatantly.”
But as Sarotte documents, the US made no such promise. On February 9, 1990, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell but before the Soviet Union imploded, James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, met with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader had no illusions that he could prevent the unification of East and West Germany, but he wanted assurances that the new German state would not be part of NATO, the US-led military alliance that was created in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union. West Germany had been a member of NATO since 1955; East Germany was a member of the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact. For the reunified German state to be a part of NATO would rub defeat a bit too harshly in the Russians’ faces. It might be better, Gorbachev said, to keep the new Germany neutral. Baker replied that a unified neutral Germany might not be in anyone’s interest, that it might even build its own nuclear arsenal. He asked, according to a transcript of the meeting:
Would you prefer to see a united Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?
It was a question, not a pledge. Gorbachev said that, put that way, he preferred the latter; Baker said he did too. But upon returning to Washington, Baker was upbraided. “To hell with that!” President Bush exclaimed, dismissing the notion of letting the Soviets have a say on the fate of the new German state. “We prevailed and they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” Baker never mentioned “not one inch” again.
But the dilemma couldn’t be sidestepped so easily. The Soviet Union—which at this point hadn’t yet dissolved—had thousands of troops and hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons in the eastern part of Germany, which gave Gorbachev leverage to undermine any effort to establish a new order in the heart of Europe. Bush, German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and other Western leaders worried about what they might have to concede in order to win his consent to keep a unified Germany in NATO and to get the Soviet troops and weapons out. Remarkably, though, Gorbachev gave up the one strong card in his otherwise meager hand. In a meeting the day after Baker’s, Kohl asked Gorbachev if he agreed “that the Germans themselves must now decide” all questions about unification. Gorbachev allowed that this was “very close” to his view.
Kohl was stunned. He proceeded to boast publicly that Gorbachev had agreed to German unification without conditions—and Gorbachev did not push back. The Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, later wrote in his memoir that the concession left him in “a melancholy and fatalistic mood.” Bush announced that the unified Germany would hold full membership in NATO. Kohl’s task was now to mollify Gorbachev—whose economy was tanking—with vast financial assistance.
And so the pattern was set for the next decade: NATO expanded, first into the former East Germany, then beyond; Gorbachev—and later Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation after the USSR’s implosion in 1991—put up a fuss; the US, Germany, and the IMF sent Moscow billions of dollars to quell his protests (though much of the money disappeared, as the elites controlling Russia’s government shifted it to foreign bank accounts). When President Clinton told Yeltsin that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—the three Baltic states that had once been Soviet republics—would join NATO at some point, Yeltsin begged him not to pile on such deep humiliation. Clinton held out the bribe of Russian membership in several Western institutions, including the prestigious Group of Seven, consisting of the most powerful industrial democracies. Yeltsin caved; he had no alternative. (Russia was expelled from the G-8, turning it back into the G-7, in 2014, as punishment for annexing Crimea.)
All this said, it is crucial to note that the campaign to expand NATO was not simply a power play by the West’s cold war victors. The most excited advocates of enlargement were the leaders (and to a great degree the populations) of the Central and Eastern European states, who were eager to throw off the Kremlin’s yoke and join the West. To some, this was a matter of principle; to others, it posed an irresistible opportunity to get on the winning side. Either way, neutrality was not an attractive option. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once defined a small country as “one which knew it could disappear at any moment,” and if the leaders of these newly independent states hadn’t read Kundera, they’d witnessed enough modern history firsthand to draw the same lesson.
Václav Havel knew Kundera very well. When the dissident playwright improbably became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he touted a grand vision of a “Europe free and whole” and pressed for US and Soviet troops to leave Central and Eastern Europe. However, by the summer of 1990, he saw the appeal of NATO’s Article 5, which pledges that an attack on one member will be treated as an attack on all members. As he later put it to President Clinton, in a one-on-one meeting during a trip to Washington, “We are living in a vacuum…. That is why we want to join NATO.” Lech Wałęsa, the hero of Poland’s Solidarity movement who emerged as his country’s president, expressed the same sentiment, compounded by a deep fear of a Russian resurgence. Sarotte writes (based on declassified memos of conversations) that these pleas affected Clinton deeply and convinced him that NATO was “key” not just to Europe’s security but also to its stability.
Many were skeptical about the notion of enlargement. General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “was not sure what NATO would mean” with the influx of so many nations that didn’t share the democratic traditions of its original twelve members (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, and the US) and the four that were added between 1952 and 1982 (Greece, Turkey, West Germany, and post-Franco Spain).1 Clinton’s first two secretaries of defense, Les Aspin and William Perry, feared that pushing NATO closer to Russia’s border might agitate the Kremlin into pulling out of nuclear arms–reduction talks. Many in the State Department worried that NATO’s eastward expansion might endanger Yeltsin’s fragile democratic experiment and usher ultranationalists into power.
In May 1995 eighteen former US officials, mainly retired Foreign Service officers, signed an open letter expressing concern that NATO enlargement risked “exacerbating the instability that now exists in the zone that lies between Germany and Russia” and might convince “most Russians that the United States and the West are attempting to isolate, encircle, and subordinate them, rather than integrating them into a new European system of collective security.” In a New York Times op-ed, George Kennan, the dean of Russia hands and the architect of America’s cold war containment policy, agreed, castigating NATO enlargement as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”2 Senator Sam Nunn and Brent Scowcroft, who had been President Bush’s national security adviser, wrote another Times op-ed, calling for “a definite, if not permanent pause” to enlargement, quoting John Maynard Keynes on the errors made in the aftermath of World War I: “the fatal miscalculation of how to deal with a demoralized former adversary”—an error that “we must not repeat.”
But some of Clinton’s senior aides took on NATO enlargement as a mission. His top Russia adviser (and former Oxford classmate) Strobe Talbott wrote in these pages that containing Russia was not NATO’s only function; the West might face threats from elsewhere, and besides, the alliance helped strengthen its members’ democratic institutions and devotion to free markets. He acknowledged the critics’ case that Russia might see enlargement as evidence “that the noose is tightening around its neck and will take defensive if not offensive countermeasures,” and allowed that “unless it is handled with skill and foresight, the process of expanding NATO could create new tensions and divisions,” but he argued that “freezing NATO in its cold war configuration would itself be a huge mistake.”3
It was a weak argument and was the subject of a rebuttal in the following issue.4 Sarotte’s archival research revealed, to her surprise, that Talbott himself didn’t fully believe his own case. In a memo to Secretary of State Warren Christopher on September 12, 1994, a year before his New York Review article, Talbott admitted, “NATO expansion will, when it occurs, by definition be punishment, or ‘neo-containment,’ of the bad Bear.” He also dismissed contending views as irrelevant or worse. When French president Jacques Chirac warned a colleague of Talbott’s that NATO was expanding too far and too quickly—writing, “We have humiliated them too much…the situation in Russia is very dangerous,” and “One day there will be dangerous nationalist backlash”—Talbott suspected that Chirac and some other European leaders were colluding with Russia’s foreign ministry to develop an alternate plan for European security, one that relied less on NATO, i.e., less on the US. He appointed Richard Holbrooke—his State Department colleague and a master at bureaucratic politics—to chair an interagency panel on NATO enlargement, all but ensuring that its report to Clinton would highlight all the arguments in favor and downplay those opposed.
However, even some of the policy’s most ardent advocates thought that enlargement had its limits—and one of those limits was Ukraine. As enlargement unfolded—beginning in 1999 with the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary—Ukraine seemed like a logical candidate for membership in the near future. But as Sarotte puts it, even Holbrooke “refrained from his usual role of bulldozing away all opposition, saying, ‘Ukraine is the most delicate issue.’”
Christopher mused at a conference of NATO foreign ministers that if the alliance kept up its pace of expansion, it would be “hard to see how Ukraine can accept being the buffer between NATO, Europe and Russia”—and for that reason he favored slowing the process down. To nearly all the ministers, offering NATO’s Article 5 guarantees to a large country with still-extensive ties to Russia—geographical, historical, cultural, and economic—would be too provocative. Ukraine seemed, in Sarotte’s words, “a bridge too far for membership, and it was thought best to leave it in a separate category for the time being”—though nobody took the trouble to devise a “separate category,” so the issue was kicked, like an explosive can, down the road.
George W. Bush picked up the can in April 2008 at a NATO conference in Bucharest. It was his final year as president. He wanted, as one of his aides put it, “to lay down a marker” for his legacy as an advocate of promoting democracy throughout the world. The invasion of Iraq, which he’d believed would spark a wildfire of freedom across the Middle East, wasn’t working out so well, but he was impressed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the country’s election of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko as president. NATO was already set to announce Albania and Croatia as new members at the summit. In a surprise move, Bush urged letting Ukraine, as well as the former Soviet republic of Georgia, embark on a “Membership Action Plan,” with the aim of accepting their full ascension at some point.
His idea was instantly, in some cases angrily, opposed by the other NATO leaders, especially German chancellor Angela Merkel, who thought—like several US officials in the previous two administrations—that such a move was, first, impractical, since Ukraine couldn’t meet many of NATO’s requirements (among them a firm anticorruption policy), and, second, needlessly provocative to Russia.5 Yet by the end of the summit, Bush prevailed. The official communiqué read, “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO,” then added—more definitively than anyone could have predicted—“We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” It may have been no coincidence that four months later, ethnic-Russian militants in Georgia launched a separatist war, expelled Georgian nationals from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and “requested” Russian military aid, including the installation of permanent bases.
It was certainly no coincidence that in 2014, when Ukrainian protesters chased out their Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, and elected a new government that made moves to join the European Union, Russia reacted to the Western push by annexing Crimea (which Khrushchev had given to Ukraine as a symbolic gift in 1954) and sending special forces, wearing unmarked uniforms, to help pro-Russia separatists fight Ukrainian army troops in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. (In the eight years since, more than 14,000 people have died in that war, including at least 500 Russians.)
The warnings of two decades earlier by Kennan, Perry, and others that after the Russian economy revived to some degree, an ultranationalist might come to power and act on the resentments over the expansion of NATO were vindicated by the emergence of Vladimir Putin. A former KGB officer who watched the Berlin Wall come down, and a prime minister of Yeltsin’s who watched the Kremlin accede to the Westernization of Eastern Europe, Putin was determined to regain Russia’s old empire, or at least not to let another chunk of it, especially Ukraine, slip away.
Putin, who famously pronounced the implosion of the Soviet Union to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, also once told President George W. Bush that Ukraine was “not a real country.” On February 21 of this year, in an angry, rambling, hour-long televised speech, which climaxed with his recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics (shades of South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Putin not only railed against NATO expansion but asserted that Ukraine was not a legitimate sovereign state, claiming (in a false reading of history) that it was a creation of Bolshevik Russia and must now return to the fold or at least assume the status of neutrality in the renewed era of East–West rivalry. The demand would have been unacceptable enough after thirty years of Ukraine’s democratic independence; it was outrageous—“neutrality” could only be a euphemism for surrender—with 190,000 Russian troops poised on its border, and Putin must have known it.
Is NATO enlargement to blame for Putin’s revanchism, or has it served as a pretext for fulfilling his obsessive nostalgia for empire? Probably a bit of both. His resentment over Russia’s loss of empire following its cold war defeat has some valid basis. But that doesn’t give him, or the leader of any country, the right to reverse that loss by fiat and force. Three American presidents pushed NATO enlargement too eagerly, with too many insincere assurances that the latest step was the last one. NATO’s declaration at Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia “will” be brought into the alliance at some point was a profound error, as most member states realized at the time, not least because there was no real intention to bring them in anytime soon, and saying otherwise merely handed Moscow a gratuitous provocation and filled Kyiv and Tbilisi with false hopes. Still, the former captive nations of the Soviet empire were—and in the case of Ukraine and Georgia, still are—genuinely eager to ally with the West after suffering the oppression of the East for so long.
In any case, a Russian leader more reasonable than Putin would not have demanded a legal document guaranteeing that Ukraine would never join NATO. Knowing that no such document could exist as a practical matter, he would have discerned the many reasons that membership wouldn’t be offered, probably in his lifetime or beyond. Biden in fact publicly said as much. He also offered Putin transparency in military exercises in the region; onsite inspections of the US missile-defense launchers in Poland and Romania, to verify that they couldn’t fire offensive cruise missiles (as Putin has charged they could); and a conference to reconsider twenty-first-century European security, with special attention to legitimate Russian interests. A less grandiose leader—especially one with an interest in building a more inclusive society and a more productive economy (neither of which has been a goal of Putin’s in his twenty-two years of rule)—might have seen the political advantages to be gained from these “confidence-building measures” and recognitions of his grievances.
Two questions remain to be asked. First, if NATO had not enlarged, if the nations of Central and Eastern Europe had been left to manage their own security, would Putin have let them live in peace? If Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had not joined NATO, would they still be independent states? From the vantage of 2022, both notions seem doubtful.
Second, was there a plausible alternative to NATO enlargement? Was there some way to satisfy the security needs of Central and Eastern Europe without threatening Russian interests, as Moscow defined them? Sarotte argues that there was. Toward the end of President Clinton’s first year in office, a group of his advisers—notably General John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—formulated an idea called the Partnership for Peace (PfP). It would appeal to the same newly independent nations (others too, if they liked), help them integrate with the West through free markets and democratic institutions, and build up their defenses without drawing a new militarized line through Europe and thus without alienating Russia.
Clinton was keen on the idea. Yeltsin praised it as “brilliant” and wanted Russia to join too. For the year or so that it lasted, the PfP worked “surprisingly well,” Sarotte observes. But in the end, the NATO juggernaut proved too captivating. Wałęsa feared the West was losing the opportunity to “cage the bear.” Havel wouldn’t sign on to the PfP until Clinton assured him that it was “a first step leading to full NATO membership.”
Sarotte also spells out domestic pressures in the US and Russia. Clinton’s scandals and impeachment trial distracted him from international affairs, leaving the enlargement enthusiasts around him to control policy. Yeltsin’s 1993 shelling of the Russian parliament building—the only way he could see to keep a coalition of hard-line Communists and outright fascists from gaining control of the government—revealed that the Russian Federation’s democratic reforms were even more fragile than they appeared. And his invasion of Chechnya the following year made the former Warsaw Pact members all the more eager for NATO’s protection.
The transformative events of the past two decades—the expansion of NATO, the failure of Russian reform, and the rise of empire nostalgia in Moscow’s ruling circles, climaxing with the annexations and finally the brutal invasion of Ukraine: none of them was inevitable. But especially with the rise of someone like Putin, they would have been hard to prevent.
NATO eventually grew to thirty members, most recently with Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. ↩
George F. Kennan, “A Fateful Error,” The New York Times, February 5, 1997. ↩
See Steven Erlanger and Steven Lee Myers, “NATO Allies Oppose Bush on Georgia and Ukraine,” The New York Times, April 3, 2008. ↩