Russia’s war against Ukraine is an aftershock of the earthquake of 1989–91, which saw eastern Europe break free from communism’s clutches and the Soviet Union collapse. Two questions dominated European security discussions in the years that followed. The first was about how to integrate Russia into a new world order. The second was about how far, if at all, to stretch the boundaries of NATO membership into eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet states. These questions lie at the heart of M E Sarotte’s remarkable book on geopolitics in the final decade of the last century.
Although Russia’s invasion occurred too late for consideration in this account, the subject of Ukraine dominates it. The country was a sore spot in the confidential discussions between Washington and Moscow in the 1990s, and Sarotte highlights the problems that it caused. More than any previous historian, she also emphasises the campaigns by most other countries in Europe’s eastern half to join NATO. This is a welcome antidote to a widely held assumption that the alliance’s expansion was exclusively the product of American initiatives. From Estonia to Albania, in fact, there stood a queue of national leaders demanding admittance. They pleaded on the basis of experience. The USSR had oppressed them in the years after the Second World War. They feared what might happen when the Russian state rose again from its ashes. Russia’s weakness, they pointed out, was likely to be only temporary. They urged the West to fix a canopy of security above them before it was too late.
It was not just history that made them frightened. As a diplomat from one of those states told me in 2017, the language that Russian leaders used in talks with them away from public microphones was different from the way in which they talked to ministers and officials from North America and western Europe. When Russia began to recover its sense of might and self-worth in the early 2000s, the bullying tone returned with menace.
Lech Wałeşa, hero of the Solidarity trade union protests in the 1980s and Poland’s first democratically elected president, told President Bill Clinton at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in April 1993 that ‘we are all afraid of Russia’. He added that ‘if Russia again adopts an aggressive foreign policy, that aggression will be directed against Ukraine and Poland’. President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia made a similar point on the same occasion, expressing his sadness about ‘living in a vacuum’. Havel explained: ‘That is why we want to join NATO.’ Neither Wałeşa nor Havel liked to make a public display of their trepidations. Here, Sarotte covers a huge amount of political ground with commendable briskness, albeit at the expense of pen portraiture of these many national figures. For example, Havel in 1990 had teased the Soviet representatives at a Warsaw Pact meeting by asking them why they were taking so long to clear out of his country. Mikhail Moiseev, chief of the Soviet general staff, bristled at his manner of speaking: ‘We’re not some second-class power for anyone to talk to us like that.’
It so happened that US presidents George H W Bush and Clinton needed little persuasion to exploit Russia’s weakness by pushing the boundaries of NATO in an easterly direction. It was not done immediately, and the process of decision-making was tortuous because both occupants of the White House needed Russian cooperation to achieve other objectives. They especially saw it in the American national interest to sustain Yeltsin in power. Communism might have fallen in Moscow in 1991, but the potential for a communist resurgence in the new Russian state could not be discounted.
The possibility of NATO’s expansion had been mooted immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. West Germany’s chancellor, Helmut Kohl, pressed the case for German reunification. On 9 February 1990, US secretary of state, James Baker, held a meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow to discuss arrangements. It was not the easiest conversation. Baker pointed out that if the USSR insisted on the about-to-be-united Germany withdrawing from NATO, the result might be that the Germans would decide they needed their own nuclear armed forces. The future of the continent required fast but careful planning. Baker put a crucial question to Gorbachev: ‘Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no NATO forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?’ Gorbachev replied that any expansion of NATO would be unacceptable. Baker, according to Gorbachev, answered, ‘we agree with that.’
This discussion undergirds today’s claim by Russia that George H W Bush and Bill Clinton guaranteed to leave the circumference of the NATO alliance undisturbed. Putin – and Gorbachev in more decorous terms – contends that Moscow was deceived by Washington’s promises. From such a standpoint, NATO boots and weaponry should never have arrived on the soil of any part of the former communist states of eastern Europe. This, however, is a misleading interpretation of the February 1990 conversation between Baker and Gorbachev. Baker had put his question in the subjunctive mood and there was no written agreement affirming what had passed between him and Gorbachev. They formulated an understanding about the future of East Germany, not a draft treaty on eastern Europe.
Our own ability to unravel the matter is not helped by the fact that when Baker was editing the final draft of his memoirs, he excised passages produced by his research team that suggested a certain shiftiness on his part. Sarotte’s trawl of archives leads her to assert that neither Gorbachev nor Baker has been straightforward about what was said and what it meant. She is also convincing when she moves on to the years after the collapse of the USSR, when Yeltsin was debating NATO problems with Clinton. Yeltsin wanted Russia to be integrated into ‘the West’. He was delighted when Clinton established the Partnership for Peace, which appeared to be a stepping stone towards Russian membership of NATO. In 1993 Yeltsin assured Wałeşa that the Russians did not object to Poland’s ambition to join NATO. In 1997 Yeltsin gave consent to the expansion of the NATO perimeter on a broad front – and not just into Poland. Not One Inch admirably pricks the bubble of Putin’s pretence that everything had been cut and dried on 9 February 1990.
Clinton was aware that Russia’s awful economic condition made it unlikely that Yeltsin would refuse to compromise. The US president was juggling the requirement to protect the former communist states of eastern Europe with the desire to keep the Russians onside. Clinton was also conscious of the continuing need to lessen the dangers of world war. When the USSR broke apart, Ukraine inherited weapon stocks that left it the world’s third largest nuclear power. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 provided that the Ukrainians would give up this weaponry to the Russians in return for a guarantee from Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in perpetuity. This suited the Americans, who believed that disarmament talks would be easier if all ex-Soviet nuclear weapons came under the single control of Russia.
Yeltsin worried away at the bone of the Ukrainian question after the signing of the Budapest Memorandum. He was unlikely to remain an accommodating neighbour for Ukraine if ever the Russian economy again acquired some potency. Sarotte’s conclusion is that the 1990s were a decade when Western leaders prioritised the safeguarding of eastern Europe over the task of accommodating Russia. Although the Russian national interest was not truly trampled over, this was not how things were seen in Moscow. Much more should have been done while Yeltsin was in power to design a continental security settlement with which Russia could feel comfortable on a lasting basis. It would not have been easy. But it might have helped to spare Ukraine the ‘special military operation’ that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and made refugees of millions of them.