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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Soelistyo

Reading "Not One Inch" by Mary E. Sarotte

This book is incredibly timely. Published just three months before Russia invaded Ukraine this February, "Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate" is an account of NATO expansion in the 1990s by Mary Sarotte, a Johns Hopkins history professor and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The book finds its current relevance today in part because Russia's current invasion has sparked much debate about whether NATO expansion has been a contributing factor to tensions between Russia and the West. Whilst figures such as political scientist John Mearsheimer and former US ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock have claimed that Russian aggression is in part a response to NATO expansion, others such as historians Timothy Snyder and Stephen Kotkin contend that this line is merely an excuse to justify the Kremlin's imperial ambitions in Ukraine (I made a post about this debate here).

At the heart of this contention is a supposed agreement struck at a February 1990 meeting between US Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that in return for Soviet agreement to the reunification of Germany, the "zone of NATO" would "not shift one inch eastward from its present position" (p.55). Lacking inclusion in any written treaty - with Baker denying that it was even an agreement at all - this accord has remained mired in dispute ever since, both between the US and Russia (Putin claimed that with NATO expansion, "they cheated us"), and within US policy circles themselves.

However, as Sarotte shows, this debate is far from new. In fact, within the American foreign policy establishment, there has been continuous contention since the end of the Cold War about the merits of NATO expansion and the possible impact on relations with Russia. It is this history that Sarotte explores in the book, focusing in particular on the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the first round of post-Cold War NATO expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999.

At the heart of this narrative are two key questions: why did the United States come to embrace NATO expansion, and how did this affect relations with Russia?

As the book shows, the diplomatic wrangling that led to NATO expansion in 1999 was a messy process, covering ten years, two US administrations and two leaders in Moscow. Hence, there is no single, monocausal answer these questions. Sarotte therefore answers them by describing the process of NATO enlargement itself, and the motivations and tensions that powered each step of the way.

The road to expansion in 1999 consisted of three irreversible steps, what Sarotte calls "turns of the ratchet". The first was the success of George H.W. Bush in expanding NATO's jurisdiction to the former East Germany, upon its absorption into NATO member West Germany on October 3rd, 1990. In doing so, he prevailed over both the protests of Moscow and even alternative visions originating in Bonn (the former capital of West Germany) itself. The second turn was Bill Clinton's determination in late 1994 to pursue full-fledged NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, as opposed to the most popular and viable alternative at the time, the "Partnership for Peace", which envisioned a zone of cooperation between Vancouver and Vladivostok, forgoing the security guarantee of Article 5 in exchange for greater inclusivity and Russian and Ukrainian participation. The third turn was Clinton's decision to not only admit new states to NATO, but to do so in a way that left open the possibility – and, in fact, near-certainty – of new members in the future.

The takeaway that Sarotte gleans from this narrative is that it was not NATO expansion per se that led to the current atmosphere of distrust, but rather, it was how NATO expanded - this point will be discussed in Section IV.

Sections I, II and III will narrate these three steps, whilst Section IV provides some reflections.

Note: This is a long read! Skip to Section IV for a summary.


I: German Reunification

I.I: Acceptable Outcomes

I.II: Cutting a Deal

I.III: The Treaty

I.IV: Not One Inch?

II: NATO Expansion vs. Partnership for Peace

II.I: The Nuclear Question

II.II: Visegrad in NATO

II.III: Partnership for Peace

III: Damage Control

III.I: Defending Yeltsin

III.II: Economic Assistance

III.III: Redefining “Not One Inch”

IV: Conclusion

I: German Reunification

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 immediately raised the possibility of the reunification of East and West Germany. However, the crucial question was, on what terms would Germany be reunified? Given that West Germany was part of NATO, would the jurisdiction of NATO then automatically extend to the former East Germany? Would the newly reunified Germany pull out of NATO altogether? Or perhaps something in between? This was the question that engaged US and Soviet leaders from November 1989 to October 1990.

I.I: Acceptable Outcomes

For the administration of George H.W. Bush, the only acceptable solution was to extend NATO jurisdiction - and that meant the Article 5 security guarantee as well as the ability to station NATO forces - to all of reunified Germany. To the United States, West Germany - and thus also its reunified successor - was a crucial element of NATO defence as a frontline state in the Cold War. By 1990, West Germany "hosted so many Western troops and weapons - especially Americans and nuclear ones - that any West German attempt to shed either would seriously undermine not only US military standing in Europe but the entire alliance". This had already caused concern in the 1980s when West Germans staged massive antinuclear protests. However, the spectre of a neutral Germany was "a problem orders of magnitude more challenging" (pp.26,27).

By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would collapse, and the original rationale of NATO, as an instrument for containing Soviet power, would lose its meaning. However, as Sarotte notes, Bush's efforts at preserving and even strengthening NATO were based to a great degree on the "power of precedent", on the way in which NATO had "brought success for Washington" during the Cold War. It was a reflection of the way that "international organizations, once entrenched, persist" (p.339). Hence, even as NATO’s original rationale appeared to vanish, NATO itself would not.

Another ally on this front was NATO secretary general Manfred Wörner, himself a West German, who noted that if a united Germany were in NATO, it would become a "neutral, dangerous giant sitting in the middle of Europe". In his words, a neutral Germany "will not have nuclear weapons for a time, but [it] may [eventually] want nuclear weapons" - to prevent this outcome, "we must avoid the classical German temptation: to float freely and bargain with both East and West". The solution was to anchor a reunited Germany in NATO, not floating between East and West but firmly a part of the West (p.70)*.

*This echoes Henry Kissinger's assertion seven years later that without a firm American role in Europe, a united Europe would "founder on the fear of German domination".

However, unsurprisingly, the Soviets were not too keen on seeing NATO power extend to eastern Germany. On November 21st, 1989, Moscow sent Bonn a document that raised "the [hypothetical] question of unification or reunification as a matter of practical politics" and asserted that if it were to take place it was necessary to consider "the future alliance memberships of the German states" and consult the "clause on exit" provided in the "Paris treaties [allow West German entry into NATO] and the Rome treaty [establishing the European Community]". The reference to this "clause on exit" was, in Sarotte's words, a "Soviet ultimatum masquerading as a hypothetical: if you want German unity, you must leave both the EC and NATO". Even if the two Germanies were to opt for a loose confederation rather than full unification, this would only be acceptable to Moscow if the Germans agreed to "no foreign nuclear presence at all on German soil" - either East or West (p.36). Hence, the Soviets had made clear they would not tolerate a unified Germany in NATO.

To Bush, the Soviets deserved no say in this: "the Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany's relationship with NATO. What worries me is talk that Germany must not stay in NATO. To hell with that". A hard line was necessary because "we prevailed and they didn't" (p.73).

I.II Cutting a Deal

Nevertheless, the Soviets did have some degree of influence in Germany, owing to their post-World War II legal right to station occupation troops in what would become the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). As noted at the time by Robert Zoellick of the State Department, "the presence of 380,000 Soviet troops in the GDR was means enough for obstruction" of German unification. In other words, any kind of reunification would require Soviet agreement.

Moreover, a third actor in the game was West Germany itself, led by its charismatic chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Bush Administration feared the potential of "separate German-Soviet deals that could be prejudicial to our interests" (p.66). The issue for the Americans was that Kohl - who was, in Margaret Thatcher's words, a "politician to his fingertips" (p.31) - might agree to give the Soviets too much in return for his dream of becoming the chancellor who reunited Germany.

Of particular concern was the Soviet demand that should the Germanies join in a confederation, there would have to be "no foreign nuclear presence at all on German soil". As chancellor, Kohl was accountable to West Germans, and as contemporary polling showed, 84 percent of West Germans wanted to denuclearise their country entirely. As Kohl would later recall, if Moscow offered "quick reunification in exchange for an exit from NATO and neutrality", it would find "widespread support among the members of the public in both East and West Germany". The British Foreign Office concurred, advising Thatcher that "if the Russians made clear that the de-nuclearisation of Germany is really the bottom line of their demands in respect of German unification, then the bulk of German public opinion is likely to be sympathetic" (p.36). The Americans thus had much to fear.

This fear was so visceral that, upon learning that Kohl had made a trip to Moscow in February 1990 without telling the Americans, Zoellick asserted, "Kohl should hear from the President that we do not expect to hear again about upcoming German-Soviet meetings from Moscow" but rather in advance from the Germans themselves. Condoleezza Rice of the National Security Council additionally suggested that Kohl be encased in a "cocoon of Alliance contacts" so there would be no way to hide a secret deal with Moscow (p.66).

In late February, at a meeting between Bush and Kohl at Camp David, the American president further insisted that Kohl provide a clear commitment for a unified Germany to remain fully in NATO, despite the chancellor's suggestion that Germany may be united in NATO with qualifications - perhaps along the lines adopted by France: no permanent foreign troops, national control of nuclear weapons, and abstention from NATO's integrated military command. Despite Kohl's efforts, this was "not a model Bush would accept for Germany" (p.73). Thus, at this stage, the Americans and Soviets both agreed in believing that Germany was too important to decide its own foreign policy.

However, the Americans had the strongest hand, owing to the "desperate economic circumstances" faced by the Soviet Union at the time. Hence, as written by deputy national security advisor Robert Gates in his memoirs, after Camp David, "we were trying on two levels to bribe the Soviets out of Germany". First, "West Germany was offering them a pile of money to agree to unification in NATO", with Washington "leaving open the possibility" of providing even more loans themselves. Second, the United States would put forward a "number of proposals" on NATO that could render "unification in NATO acceptable" and give Gorbachev something "he could use at home" with domestic critics. The idea was to allow the Soviets to save face while allowing German unification in NATO, and the essential strategy was to bribe them with "inducements" and "incentives" (p.76).

This reflected a tension inherent in US strategy, which attempted to maximise gain for the Americans while somehow protecting Gorbachev from domestic critics, who may not have been so charitable toward the West. This realisation of Gorbachev's importance was also shared by some Central and Eastern European states. For instance, when Hungary formally requested to join the European Community in November 1989, it justified its concurrent decision not to exit the Warsaw Pact by stating that “they knew the survival of the pact was an 'existential question' for Gorbachev" and "they did want to undermine it, or him, too soon". This might lead to "his ouster by Soviet reactionaries" - which in turn would end "the reform process in all of Central and Eastern Europe" and bring a return of harsh Soviet control to the region (p.12).

However, for the Soviets, even the issue of the Warsaw Pact paled in comparison to the political importance of East Germany. Here was a country that "represented half of a divided nation on the verge of reuniting", and not just any nation but "the one responsible for millions of wartime deaths of Soviet citizens". Moscow therefore would not allow the reemerge of that entity without "getting as much as possible in return" (p.81). During negotiations over unification and economic assistance, Gorbachev similarly told Helmut Kohl that there were "howls" from the Soviet military that he was "selling the Soviet victory in World War II for deutsche marks" (p.95).

I.III: The Treaty

The final agreement over German unification was signed on September 12th, 1990. This treaty, known as the Two Plus Four Agreement (two German states plus the four occupying powers), listed the conditions accompanying German reunification, as well as the obligations of present occupying powers. Article 4 obliged the Soviet Union to remove all its armed forces still stationed in East Germany - around 600,000 including dependants - by the end of 1994. For as long as Soviet troops remained in the former East Germany, Article 5 permitted only German national defence forces to be stationed on that territory – in other words, no German forces integrated into NATO command structures and no foreign forces.

After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, German units integrated into NATO command would allowed to be stationed in eastern Germany. Despite this, it would still remain the case that "foreign armed forces and nuclear weapons or their carriers will not be stationed in that part of Germany or deployed there". However, an agreed minute to the treaty left the word “deployed” to be defined discretionally by the German government; hence foreign forces could be placed in eastern Germany at the German government’s discretion.

Finally, Article 6 reaffirmed the "right of the united Germany to belong to alliances, with all the rights and responsibilities arising thereform". Article 7 additionally reaffirmed the united Germany's "full sovereignty over its internal and external affairs" (emphasis added).

In return, Kohl offered Gorbachev 12 billion deutschemarks toward "the costs of relocating and rehousing Soviet troops" currently in East Germany, as well as an extra 3 billion of interest-free credits (p.102). However, in a shocking indictment of the state of the Soviet system, this 12 billion "went missing, presumably into corrupt hands, almost as soon as it crossed Soviet borders". Gorbachev complained to US Secretary of State James Baker that "we got a lot of money for German unification, and when I called our people, I was told they didn't know where it was ... it's just gone". As a result, the Bush administration would in future give "little thought about serious assistance to the Soviet Union" (p.106).

I.IV: Not One Inch?

Conspicuously absent from the Treaty was the topic of NATO expansion to Eastern Europe, despite the verbal assurance given to Gorbachev by James Baker that NATO would "not shift one inch eastward". Russian elites - most prominently, Vladimir Putin - have long cited this assurance as proof of the West's betrayal in expanding NATO to Central and Eastern Europe. However, the trouble was that this agreement was never made in writing. Furthermore, it could not have been made in writing because it was never the official policy of the Bush administration, despite what Baker may have told Gorbachev.

On Baker’s side, he and his aides would later point to the "hypothetical phrasing" of the suggestion to claim that he had "only been test-driving one potential option of many" (p.55) and had in fact made no solid agreement at all, not even a verbal one. Therefore, in criticising NATO expansion, Gorbachev and others such as Boris Yeltsin were forced talk only of the spirit of the assurances, or of the Two Plus Four Agreement, rather than their actual content. And here, it is arguable that it did undermine the new spirit of cooperation between the United States and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Sarotte notes, "while Moscow's claim was wrong in substance, it had psychological weight" (p.346).

Hence, in the end all parties attained a result appropriate to their means. The Soviet Union was collapsing, both economically and politically, so it was close to powerless to prevent German unification in NATO. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration took advantage of this victory to expand NATO jurisdiction east of the Cold War line, maintaining United States power in Europe even as its adversaries were in disarray. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 would present challenges as well as opportunities, and these would inevitably condition the next round of NATO expansion to Central and Eastern Europe.

II: NATO Expansion vs. the Partnership for Peace

With the final collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the United States was faced with a newly independent Russia under President Boris Yeltsin and a small set of other post-Soviet nuclear-armed states: Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. In fact, the dissolution made Ukraine the third largest nuclear power in the world - with almost 4,000 Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil - behind only the US and Russia.

Ukraine's nuclear arsenal would thus complicate an already complex attempt by the Americans post-1991 to square the interests of three sides: Ukraine, Russia, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, America's approach to this problem reflected its own internal divisions and deliberations as well.

II.I: The Nuclear Question

US policymakers had been concerned about control of nuclear weapons in the USSR ever since a failed coup in August 1991 (where Soviet hardliners attempted to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev), and its threat to centralised authority. By the end of 1991, the Soviets possessed 27,000 nuclear weapons, a lot of them pointed right at the United States, so it made sense that Bush's most urgent question during this coup was "who is controlling the nuclear weapons?" (p.119)*.

*The true answer was rather disconcerting. Three briefcases are required to order the launch of Soviet nuclear weapons, one being in the possession of Gorbachev. However, for a while, he temporarily lost possession and this briefcase was taken by the Ministry of Defence, making it the sole controller of the Soviet nuclear arsenal (p.121).

The worry was two-fold. On one hand, the Americans were concerned about the "theft and black-market sale of components of the Soviet nuclear arsenal" amid the chaos of Soviet disintegration. However, the Americans also feared the prospect of having the Soviet Union break into multiple nuclear-armed successor states, rather than just one. Allowing Kazakhstan or Ukraine to retain their nuclear arsenals could 'destabilise' the situation in Europe. For the United States, it would be far easier to deal and negotiate with one nuclear power in Eastern Europe, rather than two or three.

For this reason, the Bush Administration was actually rather anxious about a Soviet breakup altogether. In October 1991, Secretary of State James Baker met with Bush, Defense Secretary Cheney and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to discuss the nuclear issue - his notes from the meeting conclude that "if we push too rapidly to launch a campaign where we have [a diplomatic] team going out to the [post-Soviet] republics, we're likely to undercut our objective of preserving some cohesion ... on nuclear weapons". The ultimate goal should be "centralized control of nukes". The United States should do all it could to "preserve [the] center". Moreover, then-Russian (i.e., not Soviet) foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev would later claim in an interview with Sarotte that "it was clear that Bush and Baker were, because of their concerns about the atomic arsenal, reluctant about Yeltsin's desire to end Soviet central authority" (p.121).

Hence, US policy was to exert pressure on the new nuclear-armed states to de-nuclearise. In the case of Ukraine, this argument was made by arms-control expert William Potter, who insisted that US diplomatic recognition of the newly-independent Ukraine* should be conditional on Ukraine's accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which would amount to Ukraine forsaking its nuclear arsenal. However, Bush decided to go ahead with full legal recognition without any conditions of this kind, "presumably hoping that a previously declared Ukrainian intent to forsake nuclear weapons would hold" (pp.129,130).

*On December 1st, 1990, an independence referendum was held that saw an 84 percent turnout, with 90 percent of voters choosing independence. Ukrainian president-elect Leonid Kravchuk boasted that "not even a single district in Ukraine came in below 50% support for Ukrainian independence" (p.129). This was despite Gorbachev's warnings that "pro-Russian" regions such as Kharkov, Donbass and Crimea would resist separation from Russia (p.127).

The problem was that it didn't hold. By the time of President Clinton's inauguration in early 1993, the Ukrainian parliament was already questioning "the wisdom of Ukraine's previously made commitments to denuclearize". Thus on February 2nd, 1993, the foreign ministry in Kyiv analysed three possible options: becoming a fully non-nuclear state, remaining nuclear or 'splitting the difference' (e.g., by retaining only a minimal deterrent force) (pp.158,159).

The pros of retaining nuclear weapons were obvious: it would allow Ukraine to enjoy the status of a "great power in the international community" and give it a "a 'strong' position in negotiations both with Western countries and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe", as well as Russia. This was vital because relations between Ukraine and Russia could deteriorate at any time.

On the downside, retaining the Ukrainian arsenal would produce a "sharp deterioration of relations with the West" and a "sharp escalation" of tensions with Russia. Moreover, the "retention, maintenance and development" of the arsenal would be very costly and difficult. Lastly, it was not guaranteed that Ukraine would be able to effectively use these weapons at all. Even though the weapons were on Ukrainian soil, the command and control systems had been established for operation from Moscow, not Kyiv. As such, as was later admitted by Ukraine's minister for nuclear safety, "Ukraine did not really know the specific characteristics of the nuclear stockpile ... it had inherited". In addition, even if Ukraine did establish effective control of the weapons, retargeting them to hit cities in Russia would be a "technically daunting task" (p.159).

In any case, the Americans were dead set on trying to rid Ukraine of its nuclear arsenal*. In this, it followed a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot was financial aid; between 1991 and 1996, Ukraine's economy would contract between 9.7 percent and 22.7 percent, making attractive Clinton's suggestion that the US could provide $175 million in aid in return for denuclearisation. If Ukraine refused, it would "make Ukraine the enemy of both Russia and the United States, a heavy burden for a young country" (pp.158,160).

*One prominent exception was the political scientist John Mearsheimer, who wrote in a 1993 article titled "The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent" that this arsenal would be "imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine" ensuring that "the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it". Given the Americans' hesitance to extend a "meaningful security guarantee", Ukrainian nuclear weapons were "the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression".

The United States' approach to Central and Eastern Europe, and the question of NATO expansion to that region, was thus coloured by its desire to see Ukraine surrender its nuclear arsenal. Yet of course, this consideration had to contend with others, not least of them being the determination of the Visegrad countries to join NATO.

II.II: Visegrad in NATO

The Visegrád group was formed in February 1991 as a political union between Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (then, Slovakia and the Czech Republic from 1993 onwards). By the time of Clinton's inauguration, these states were all clamouring for membership in NATO - an outcome to which the region's leaders felt entitled due to "the democratic courage [they] had shown in shedding Soviet control" (p.160).

One such leader was Václav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, who had helped resist the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and subsequently spent multiple terms in prison. On a visit to the United States in April 1993, Havel lamented to Clinton that "we are living in a vacuum", which was "why we want to join NATO". That meant "association, followed by full membership" (p.161).

In a similar position was Polish president Lech Wałęsa, another activist who had led the Solidarity movement for ten years and helped precipitate the end of Communist rule in the country, earning him his very own time in prison (as well as a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983). In late 1990, he had already told Bush that “we resolutely desire to join Western Europe and the United States in political, economic, and military terms” (p.109). In April 1993, he told Clinton that "we are all afraid of Russia" and that "if Russia adopts an aggressive foreign policy, that aggression will be directed toward Ukraine and Poland". He insisted that "Poland cannot be left defenseless; we need to have the protection of U.S. muscle" (p.161).

Likewise, the Hungarians were also pushing for the Clinton administration to convey a "forward-leaning" message on NATO expansion, and to state explicitly that the Visegrad countries would be first in line (p.166)

This sentiment was also shared by the president of Estonia at the time, Lennart Meri, who, during a visit by US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, complained that "there is a security vacuum in this part of the world", so he had hoped "Talbott had come to town to sign Estonia's accession to NATO" (p.162).

Yet another force arguing for expansion of the alliance was NATO secretary general Manfred Wörner, who argued that "there is currently an historic moment of opportunity regarding NATO's engagement in the East" and "if the moment is lost, who knows when it will occur again?". Hence, the alliance must "seize the moment" and "admit all the former Warsaw Pact states of Central and Eastern Europe, from north to south" on a staggered schedule. Going even further, he insisted that "the alliance could not ignore the FSU [former Soviet Union] states", even though "the Russians would view the FSU states differently" (p.166).

Furthermore, there was a strong current of domestic thought nudging the Clinton administration toward a policy of NATO enlargement, as evidenced by a speech by national security advisor Anthony Lake in September 1993 in which he stated that "the successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement" - as well as a Foreign Affairs article that same month by three RAND analysts that stated that "NATO's collective defense and security arrangements" must be extended farther south and east (p.166).

However, despite these pro-expansion forces there remained one complicating factor: Ukraine. At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in June 1993, Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed the concern that if NATO expanded to the Visegrad states - but not to Ukraine - it was "hard to see how Ukraine can accept being the buffer between NATO, Europe and Russia". This situation would "militate against our efforts to get rid of Ukraine's nuclear weapons". In a similar vein, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell noted that if they felt ignored, the Ukrainians would "use the nuclear issue to extract [the] greatest possible concessions" from the West (p.163).

Strobe Talbott additionally pointed out that in pursuing NATO enlargement, Washington "must be very careful not to pull this off in a way that makes Ukraine feel it is being left out in the cold with its furry neighbour to the north". Otherwise, "we could inadvertently - and disastrously - give hardliners in Kiev new arguments for their case that Ukraine needs a nuclear deterrent". Talbott's warning came after he had learned that Ukrainian deputy foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk had pronounced that it was "unacceptable for NATO to expand without Ukraine becoming a full member" (p.166).

Hence, in the calculus of the Clinton administration, it was important not to draw a new security line that pushed closer toward Russia but still left Ukraine out in the cold, and here, the issue of Ukraine's nuclear arsenal was pivotal. Of course, there was one other option - to admit Ukraine into NATO as well - but this constituted the “very reddest of Russian red lines”, to the extent that when Anthony Lake proposed it, his interlocutors “wondered afterward whether it was a ‘serious proposal’” (p.160)*. Furthermore, the National Security Council in Washington concluded that the Visegrad states themselves were loath to be lumped together with the Ukrainians until "series efforts at economic and political reform are evident" in Ukraine. These states thought that Ukraine would be a "drag on their own development" since it had "not made the same qualitative break with the Soviet past as they have". In other words, Visegrad was pushing to be able to join NATO without having to wait around for Ukraine. Given this attitude, Clinton feared that Ukraine would be left feeling "increasingly isolated and desperate" (p.165).

*Ukraine was of enormous significance to the leadership in Moscow. Apart from its strategic location and vast resources, Ukraine was the second-most populous Soviet republic, with a history “deeply intertwined with Russia’s”, and with millions of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and married to Ukrainians. Hence, US Ambassador to Moscow Robert Strauss wrote that “the most revolutionary event of 1991 for Russia may not be the collapse of Communism, but the loss of something Russians of all political stripes think of as part of their own body politic, and near to the heart at that: Ukraine” (pp.126,127).

Thus, the Clinton administration was faced with two alternative strategies for NATO enlargement: to either absorb all of Central and Eastern Europe - including Ukraine - thereby "solving the Ukrainian nuclear issue but alienating Russia", or to "stop enlargement west of Ukraine, but leaving a populous state with nuclear arms in limbo" (p.166). No one solution could satisfy Ukraine, Russia and the Visegrad states all the once, not to mention the competing camps within the American government itself. However, a potential middle-ground did begin to emerge.

II.III Partnership for Peace

On October 18th, 1993, a high-level meeting of US officials convened to discuss the issue of "whether NATO would commit at the January [1994] NATO Summit to expansion, or simply hold out the vague possibility" (p.173). Here, it was chosen to pursue an alternative concept put forward by the Pentagon - in particular, Defense Secretary Les Aspin and General John Shalikashvili, who at that time was supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe. Already in September, these two voiced to the State Department their concern that the NATO enlargement debate excessively "focused on the interests of the Central and East Europeans, rather than on USG [United States Government] interests". This was a strategic mistake, since the Pentagon saw "no requirement or advantage in offering membership at this time". It insisted that NATO should admit no new members until they could be "contributors to, rather than consumers of, the security provided by the alliance". In its place they offered an "inspired alternative" - a graduated, phased expansion scheme known as the "Partnership for Peace" (pp.173,174).

Although developed by numerous figures in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the US Mission to NATO, it was chiefly the brainchild of Shalikashvili, who had personal connections with Europe given his Georgian ancestry and upbringing in Poland. At its heart, Partnership for Peace (or, "PfP") was a "peacekeeping organization that simultaneously offered a contingent form of affiliation with NATO". Membership in PfP would not entail membership in NATO - and certainly not an Article 5 guarantee - yet, it would entail strong military-to-military cooperation of the sort that could "build bridges among former enemies". In that way, PfP would enable aspiring country militaries to gain experience working with NATO - to get "NATO mud on their boots" - before finally earning the Article 5 guarantee. The benefit of PfP is that instead of directly expanding a military alliance, it provided "useful ambiguity" that would both keep a lid on tensions with Russia and spur aspiring members to get up to scratch with NATO standards. As the US Mission to NATO put it, "it is critical that timing on identifying potential NATO members not get out ahead of creating a basic geostrategic structure that effectively accounts for Russia and Ukraine" (p.174).

This scheme solved three major problems. First, it addressed the Pentagon's concern that adding unprepared new members - equipped with an Article 5 guarantee - would end up weakening the alliance overall. As a military alliance, NATO required its members to "standardize equipment, train troops and contribute to each other's security". This could take time, and adding unprepared members might impose a burden on more established members. However, the Partnership would "provide time and flexibility to sort out practical matters" as each new partner could "determine the pace and intensity of its evolving partnership with NATO" (pp.174,175).

Second, PfP would deepen relations between NATO and countries in Central and Eastern Europe, all the while avoiding a 'new front line', the dangers of which were apparent in the case of Ukraine. It would achieve this by maintaining a spirit of inclusivity - PfP would be far more inclusive than NATO - while also promoting substantial military-to-military cooperation, which would ensure that relations would evolve past the point of "just talk" (p.175).

Third, and vitally, the Partnership "defined a place for Ukraine in a European security system in a way that did not alienate Russia". While expanding NATO short of Ukraine would raise both Russian and Ukrainian fears, incorporating Ukraine would cross a vital red line for Russia. However, PfP offered a way of reaching out to both Ukraine and Russia without expanding NATO and inflaming tensions at all. This was desirable because, as advised by the US embassy in Moscow, Russian democracy "remains a fragile entity" therefore "we and our NATO allies should not do anything which jeopardizes its chances" such as "mov[ing] forward on questions of expanded alliance membership for any of the former Warsaw Pact states" (p.175)*.

*George Kennan made this point in a February 1997 article for the New York Times titled "A Fateful Error": NATO expansion could be expected to "inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking".

Despite these benefits, the Partnership still had its detractors. The most prominent drawback was that many states in Central and Eastern Europe were now clamouring for membership in NATO. There was also disagreement within US foreign policy circles. Henry Kissinger took issue with the fact that PfP lumped together "victims of Soviet and Russian imperialism" and their "perpetrators" on equal footing (p.176). Meanwhile, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned in a Foreign Affairs article that "insurance is needed against the possibility - one might even argue the probability - that the weight of history will not soon permit Russia to stabilize as a democracy"; for Eastern Europe, only Article 5 could provide that insurance (p.177).

Nevertheless, the Partnership proved extremely popular in a wide range of circles, for it had "achieved the near impossible" - addressing the interests of the Visegrad states, Ukraine and Russia simultaneously. Madeleine Albright - a Czech-born diplomat who was the US ambassador to the UN at the time - "praised it extensively". At Clinton's request, she took trips to Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and the Visegrad states to gauge reactions to the Partnership, reporting that "PfP turned out to be considerably more effective than most critics predicted". One reason was that "all were concerned about how Ukraine fits into the picture and understood the danger of leaving it out". They all understood the "need to avoid, in the near term, 'new artificial dividing lines in Europe'". In Albright's view, the Partnership fulfilled three seemingly competing objectives: "to revitalize NATO, to avoid antagonizing Russia by feeding nationalist tendencies, and to calm growing fears in Central and Eastern Europe" (p.176).

The Partnership found another strong supporter in Strobe Talbott, who thought that the State Department should make PfP, "rather than expanded NATO membership ... the centerpiece of our NATO position". He was concerned about the fate of democracy in Russia, counselling against giving "happy hints" to Central and Eastern European states about getting into NATO since such hints might undermine "our support for reform further East - especially in Russia". In addition, NATO expansion short of Ukraine might prove detrimental to "our relations with Ukraine, and, more specifically, our attempt to get them to give up the nukes, which is the single most important and dangerous non-proliferation challenge we face". He had been dismayed that "[Ukrainian] ministers have been trying to trade the nukes for membership in NATO" - now PfP offered a viable alternative (p.177).

Last but not least, the Partnership found much support within the Russian leadership itself. In October 1993, Secretary of State Warren Christopher went to visit Yeltsin and his foreign minister Kozyrev at a presidential dacha in Zavidovo. He mentioned that instead of adding new members to the NATO, the United States was now "emphasizing a Partnership for Peace" to "develop a habit of interoperability ad cooperation" before adding members. Furthermore, "all countries in CEE [Central and Eastern Europe] and the NIS [newly independent states of the Soviet Union] would ... be on an equal footing". Yeltsin replied that "this is a brilliant idea, it is a stroke of genius ... this served to dissipate all of the tension which we now have in Russia regarding East European states and their aspirations with regard to NATO ... it really is a great idea, really great" (p.178).

With all this support, it seemed as if the Partnership for Peace would take off, leaving NATO expansion by the wayside. However, by the end of 1994, it was the Partnership that was dumped, with Clinton resolving to expand NATO to the Visegrad states. What happened?

II.IV: The Partnership Falls

Sarotte identifies several reasons for why Clinton changed his mind. The two most prominent are: Yeltsin's decision to use violence against domestic political opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, and the devastating performance of the pro-expansion Republican Party in the 1994 mid-term elections. In addition, a third factor might very well have been Ukraine's final decision to forswear nuclear weapons in return for economic aid and security guarantees in 1994.

Since early 1992, under Yeltsin's free-market reforms, Russia's economy was being eviscerated. Real GDP fell by 14.5 percent in 1992, and another 8.7 percent in 1993. Unemployment reached record levels and inflation was rampant. As a result, by 1993, Yeltsin faced considerable opposition at home, to the extent that vice president Alexaksandr Rutskoy could claim Yeltsin's policies were tantamount to "economic genocide".

The situation resulted in urban warfare between supporters of a rebellious parliament and of Yeltsin, culminating on October 4th when the Russian army, loyal to Yeltsin, sent tanks to encircle and shell the parliament building*. With military support, Yeltsin had won the power struggle.

*There was a similar appeal by Rutskoy for the air force to bomb the Kremlin, yet this went unanswered.

However, the violence in Moscow "sent chills throughout Europe", and for two reasons. First, it displayed Yeltsin's "unexpected willingness to use violence to achieve political ends" - a discomforting thought, especially for Helmut Kohl, who until 1994 still had to contend with Russian troops stationed on German soil. Second, it revealed the growing influence of Russian extreme nationalists who resented Yeltsin's rapprochement with the West, and the economic reforms that accompanied it. Of particular note was the so-called "Liberal Democratic Party", which won the highest number of seats in the December 12th, 1993 legislative elections (22.92 percent) and whose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky*, was an ardent fascist and neo-imperialist who advocated extending Russian sovereignty southward to the space "from Kabul to Istanbul" (pp.172,173).

*Zhirinovsky would continue to lead the party until his death on April 6th, 2022.

As such, the prime minister of Hungary, Jószef Antall, sent Clinton a letter stating that "in the hours of the Moscow clashes" it had become clear to Hungarians that Russian instability was "seriously threatening our region". He felt that NATO "cannot avoid the task of investigating the means to improve our region's security", and the best way would be "to extend the alliance to the democratically most mature states of the region". In the aftermath of the October crisis, his words carried much weight (pp.172,173).

Then, there was Chechnya. On November 30th, 1994, Yeltsin approved a "high-precision police action" to combat Chechen separatists - however, this action soon unravelled into a "protracted, bloody conflict" in which Russian soldiers committed "unspeakable acts of brutality". According to Sarotte, one consequence of the conflict was to increase Yeltsin's reliance on the Russian military and his intelligence departments, all of whom opposed cooperation with the West. One other consequence was to pave the way for NATO expansion because "it seemed to prove that the states insisting Russia remained a military threat were right" (pp.205,206).

On top of this, Clinton had to deal with his own souring political situation back home. The midterm Congressional elections of November 1994 were a disaster for the Democratic party. The Republicans scored a net gain of 8 seats in the Senate (out of 35 contested), as well as 54 in the House, securing them unified control of Congress for the first time since 1952. As Clinton later admitted, upon learning of the results, “I felt like I had just died” (p.201).

This presented a strong domestic challenge to Clinton because the Republican party was strongly pro-NATO expansion (in an interesting contrast to the situation nowadays). The threat was that the Republicans would appeal to Americans of Central or Eastern European origin to an extent that would cost Clinton the presidential election in November 1996.

Already, in the run up to the 1994 midterms, the Republicans had seized on NATO expansion as a “useful way to attract Polish-Americans and others of Eastern European descent in crucial midwestern states” (p.180). This was vital because that demographic was “particularly well represented” in the important states of the industrial Northeast and upper Midwest (p.242). As Sarotte remarks, Clinton was “too good a politician to forget that 20 million Americans of Eastern European descent lived in fourteen states that accounted for close to 40 percent of the Electoral College” (p.227). In 1995, Clinton himself reminded Yeltsin that pro-expansion Republicans had done well in “Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio … they represented a big part of my majority last time – states where I won by a narrow margin”, and that he would need to win these states again in 1996 (p.231). As such, the Democrats’ stunning defeat in the 1994 midterms “tipped a wavering Clinton fully toward [Anthony] Lake and his colleagues”, who favoured expansion. This combined with Yeltsin’s moves in Chechnya to prompt Clinton to abandon the Partnership (p.182).

One final consideration was Ukraine’s surrender of its nuclear weapons. By early 1994, Ukraine still had these weapons, but “the need to barter them in exchange for support for its disintegrating economy was increasing” (p.182). The result was that Ukraine had little choice but to assent to a disarmament agreement organised by Russia, the United States and Britain. In exchange for transferring all of its nuclear weapons to Russia, Ukraine would receive American financial assistance to aid in the disarmament process, as well as commitments by the US, Britain and Russia to assure (i.e., not guarantee) Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As Sarotte notes, the technical difference between assure and guarantee was that “a guarantee meant the odds that the US Eighty-Second Airborne Division would show up in response to a crisis in Ukraine were high, and an assurance meant they were low”. Thus, in exchange for financial aid and a somewhat half-baked security assurance, Ukraine agreed to surrender its nuclear arsenal on January 14th, 1994 (p.188).

As such, Ukraine became the fourth-largest recipient of US aid, with $900 million pledged for 1994 to 1995. However, the cost of this was that Ukraine had lost its nuclear bargaining chip. This is not to say that Ukraine become unimportant – after all, its ongoing tensions with Russia still “commanded presidential attention”, and the president could not forget either that “a large number of Ukrainian-Americans … lived in states electorally significant to Clinton’s reelection chances” (p.217). However, it removed US concerns that expanding NATO short of Ukraine would convince the Ukrainians to retain their nuclear arsenal.

As such, by the end of 1994, the Clinton administration decided that the Partnership was dead and that the only way forward was NATO expansion. However, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were not invited formally to join until 1999. The intervening period reveals how the United States attempted to manage relations with Russia over this very issue.

III: Damage Control

It was obvious to all that NATO expansion would raise tensions with Russia. At a summit meeting with Clinton in 1995, Yeltsin warned that “I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed … how do you think it looks to us if one bloc continues to exist while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished?” (p.231). The core issue was that the Clinton administration was not willing to budge on NATO expansion. NATO would be free to expand to whichever states seek admission, and furthermore, expansion would entail full integration into NATO command structures and the Article 5 guarantee. As Secretary of State Warren Christopher noted, Washington “must be very careful not to be seen as running after the Russians, offering them concessions … because over the long term, we can get that relationship right without concessions” (p.222).

But how would this be done? The solution appeared to be two-fold: to assist Russia economically, and to defend Yeltsin’s power at home.

III.I: Defending Yeltsin

Despite Yeltsin’s use of violence at home in Moscow and Chechnya, when it came to relations with the West, he was seen as by far more favourable than his domestic opponents. Referring to his notorious penchant for binge drinking during meetings, Clinton once remarked that “Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober” (p.237).

Hence, the Clinton administration did what they could to prop up Yeltsin, and the main component of this was delaying making any moves toward NATO expansion until after Yeltsin’s reelection in the summer of 1996*. This was crucial because Yeltsin went into that election season with an abysmal approval rating of 3 percent (p.241). In 1995, he reminded Clinton that “my position heading into the 1996 election is not exactly brilliant” (p.231).

*Yeltsin won with 54.50% of the vote, against Communist Party challenger Gennady Zyuganov, who won 40.73% of the vote.

Clinton made clear to Yeltsin that that was a concern of the West as well, stating at the same 1995 summit that Central and Eastern European states desired membership because even though “they trust you, Boris”, they could not be “so sure what’s going to happen in Russia if you’re not around” (p.232). In a similar vein, Clinton even admitted to German chancellor Kohl that “if the Russian people knew how much I wanted [Yeltsin] re-elected, it might actually hurt his chances”. Kohl shared the sentiment, saying “Boris listens to us” (p.249).

Yeltsin finally won on July 3rd, 1996, to “cries of relief” from the West. Immediately, there were concerns about the fairness of the election. Some reports highlighted its more dubious aspects, including the fact that despite “years of brutality” in Chechnya ordered by Yeltsin – as well as some estimates that fewer than 500,000 adults remained in the region – more than a million Chechens casted votes, and 70 percent voted for Yeltsin. However, the Clinton administration could not care less. Thomas Graham, who served at the US embassy in Moscow at the time, noted that despite the administration’s knowledge that the election was not truly fair, it was a case of “the ends justifying the means” (p.257).

Yet, even if Yeltsin were to be re-elected, this would not solve the long-term issue of economic collapse with Russia, which threatened to push the Russian body politic to more hostility toward the West, and this is where economic assistance came in.

III.II: Economic Support

US economic might stood in stark comparison with Russia’s troubles, and this was particularly apparent in the 1990s, as the shock of Russia’s transition to a free-market system imploded its economy. Thus, in addressing the challenge of achieving “enhancement of relations between NATO and Russia” in parallel with NATO expansion, Clinton concluded that “in principle I think Russia can be bought off” (p.223).

As such, between 1993 and 1996, Clinton would raise $4.5 billion in direct assistance to Russia to “facilitate economic reform, curb inflation, and stabilize the ruble”, making the United States Russia’s largest foreign investor (p.223). In addition, Clinton intervened with the IMF to aid Yeltsin’s reelection chances in 1996. In February of that year, Yeltsin pleaded with Clinton to add $4 billion (from $9 billion to $13 billion) to a package the IMF was considering, to “deal with social problems in this very important pre-election situation”. Clinton succeeded in raising the loan to $10.2 billion, and it came free of the “usual onerous requirements for economic reform”. One analyst noted later that “the political purpose of this IMF credit was obvious to everybody: helping re-elect President Yeltsin in the face of a potent Communist threat. The IMF lost its credibility” (p.247).

Such damage control measures were particularly necessary in light of the kind of NATO expansion that the Clinton administration came to support, which was open-ended and comprehensive. This meant that expansion to new states would not be hampered by any limits on troops or nuclear weapons, and also, that no states were to be barred from admission to NATO.

III.II: Redefining “Not One Inch”

Sarotte makes the point that under the Clinton administration, “not one inch” came to mean, not one inch of territory is out of bounds to NATO – the complete opposite of the Russian ideal that NATO would not expand one inch further to the east. Ironically, the necessity of this stance arose in part due to Clinton’s attempts to manage relations with Russia. The product, in Sarotte’s view, is that the United States made a terrible blunder that paved the way to the US-Russia tensions we see today.

As the Russian presidential election was closing in, the US National Security Council (NSC) advised that expansion should take place at the earliest possible date – however, the first batch of new entrants should be limited only to “the most obvious candidates” – namely, the Visegrad states. The reason for this was the “link between the number of new members and the cost in terms of damage to US-Russian relations”. In order to limit this cost, the NSC advised piecemeal expansion, such that at each stage, the cost to relations was manageable (p.257).

However, the flip-side to limiting the first batch was keeping options open for the second or third batch. On June 25th, 1996, Clinton invited leaders of the Baltic states – former Soviet territory – to the White House and reassured them that “the first new members to join the alliance shall not be the last”. However, while giving reassurance in private, the NSC advised that in public, “the impression that the Baltics will be given special consideration in the next tranche could be seen as so provocative as to sour, perhaps for good, prospects for a meaningful NATO-Russia relationship”. Hence, the NSC was well aware of the rupture to US-Russia relations that would be caused by admission of the Baltics, but advised giving them those reassurances anyway (p.258).

Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov told Strobe Talbott that Russian red lines included “such issues as the Baltics and Ukraine”. The response of Talbott and Clinton was clear: if Russia wanted to rule out membership for any state, “we’ll be at an impasse if not in a train wreck”, as Clinton saw “no reason to foreclose in advance membership for any of Europe’s new democracies” (p.261).

Hence, the United States at this juncture came to support a mode of NATO expansion that was inherently open-ended, deciding that not an inch of territory should be beyond the limits of NATO expansion, even those territories that constituted strong Russian red lines.

Hence, in 1996 the United States began to steam ahead with the expansion process. The Republicans, who reigned supreme in Congress, managed to pass into law the “NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act” in July 1996 – providing $60 million to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to “improve their chances of joining NATO”. In September 1996, Secretary of State Christopher also gave a speech in Stuttgart saying that “the first new members pass through NATO’s open door, that door will stay open”. In response, Chancellor Kohl bemoaned that the Republicans had seemingly forgotten that “Russia is a large and important country”. He worried about the long-term reaction to expansion supporters’ efforts to take advantage of Russia’s and Yeltsin’s current “condition of weakness” (p.261).

However, once Yeltsin appeared doomed to fall, Kohl changed his stance. At this moment, Yeltsin’s health was in dire straits and in November 1996, he underwent a multiple-bypass heart operation. Visiting Yeltsin in January 1997, Kohl realised that despite having survived the surgery, “there is virtually nothing left of his vitality”. As such, Kohl confided to Talbott, “I don’t think Yeltsin will last out his term” – therefore he was “absolutely against postponing” NATO expansion anymore (pp.265,266).

Thus by 1997, the Clinton administration was in no mood for compromises, and this strategy shaped the eventual text of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in late May 1997. On March 14th, Talbott explained to Madeleine Albright that he was making sure the accord “commits us to very little up front”. In fact, one lawyer who reviewed the charter noted that “all we’re really promising them is monthly meetings” (in the form of the “NATO-Russia Joint Council”) (p.267).

Upon being briefed of the text, Clinton reportedly replied, “so let me get this straight”, all the Russians get from this “great deal we’re offering them” is an assurance “that we’re not going to put our military stuff into their former allies who are now going to be our allies, unless we happen to wake up one morning and decide to change our mind”. The Russians would get regular meetings with NATO but would not get “any ability to stop us from doing something that they don’t agree with” and could only “register their disapproval by walking out of the room” (p.267). This was, indeed, an accurate summary. As Sarotte notes, the reason the Russians acquiesced was simple: “If Russia had been in a position to obstruct the enlargement of NATO in 1996, it would have done so” but “Moscow remained too weak” (p.241).

Hence, the door was open to full-blown, open-ended NATO expansion, marked by NATO’s formal invitation to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic on January 29th, 1999, just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of NATO’s founding in April 1949.

IV: Reflections

Having written this vast and complex narrative, Sarotte’s conclusion is that while NATO expansion did not in itself inflame tensions with Russia, it was how NATO expanded that contributed to our current post-Cold War stalemate. It was understandable that Central and Eastern Europeans, having sustained decades of Soviet domination, wanted very badly to join NATO. For them, it was self-preservation. The question then became one of how to the manage this demand.

For Sarotte, the clearest way to address the concerns of all parties involved would have been to pursue the Partnership for Peace. This scheme held open the possibility of admission to NATO while simultaneously maintaining cooperation with Moscow. Most importantly, it provided a berth for Ukraine, such that it would neither be incorporated into NATO outright, or left in the cold to deal with its “furry neighbor”.

The Clinton administration did not choose this path. However, even then, Sarotte identifies several ways in which it could have avoided collision with Moscow. The most obvious would have been to pause the process of NATO enlargement after the first round in 1999, and ensure greater Russian participation in the diplomacy that would precipitate a second round. Instead, the first round led directly to a “big bang” in 2004 that saw no less than seven states join NATO, as well as the three Baltic states.

In the end, the strategy pursued by Clinton was similar to that followed by Bush in 1990: ignoring fundamental Russian concerns because “we prevailed and they didn’t”, while attempting to manage relations by “buying Moscow out” and propping up friendly leaders, whether Gorbachev or Yeltsin (p.348).

From this narrative, several consistent themes become apparent. The first is that throughout this period, the United States made plenty of tactical gestures toward Moscow in an attempt to keep its favoured leaders in power. This was readily apparent with Gorbachev, and also with Yeltsin. After all, the Clinton administration had delayed NATO expansion and intervened with the IMF primarily to assist Yeltsin in the July 1996 presidential election. Similarly, Helmut Kohl began to support rapid expansion only as soon as it become clear that Yeltsin’s time in power was coming to an end.

Hence, it is not entirely true that the United States did not pay attention to Russian concerns at all. Rather, it did, but, in my reading, primarily as a tactical gesture, to preserve leaders more friendly to the West while refusing to compromise on more fundamental matters.

Second, the ability of the West to push its agenda over Russia’s concerns was predicated on its economic strength, as embodied most prominently in the United States and then-West Germany. It was this that enabled the West to “buy out” Russia as a tactical move while it shaped the post-Cold War order to its liking. Economic power also played a part in convincing Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arsenal, seeing as the Ukrainian economy was in dire straits in this period as well.

Lastly, this narrative reveals that NATO expansion was a complex, multi-faceted process. There was no single strategic rationale for the United States to support NATO expansion (in fact, post-1990, this book barely mentions any strategic rationale at all). However, the states of Central and Eastern Europe were clamouring for entry into NATO, and this affected domestic politics in the United States as Democrats and Republicans fought to win Polish-American or Czech-American votes. The narrative also makes clear that Russia had a part to play in this as well. Far from being a passive actor, Yeltsin unleashed violence in Chechnya, thereby stoking fears of Russia within Europe and strengthening the hand of expansionists in the United States.

While the book tackles primarily with NATO expansion and its effects on US-Russia relations, Sarotte is always at pains, whether in the book or in interviews, to stress that her argument is not monocausal, i.e., she does not argue that NATO expansion was the sole cause of current tensions. One crucial element that she mentions only fleetingly in the book is Russia's economic disintegration in the 1990s and the effects that this must have had on Russian politics - in particular, on the popularity of strongman Vladimir Putin. What is likely the case was that NATO expansion and the West generally provided a useful political target for Russians who had suffered economic depravation, and Putin capitalised on this, in the same manner as Trump vis-à-vis China in the long aftermath of the 2008/09 financial crisis.

This is a point that Sarotte mentions briefly in a 2018 interview:

There's been times when Russia has been more upset about [NATO expansion] and times when Russia has been less upset about it. That seems to correlate with the economic performance of the Russian economy. When the price of oil is high, when Russian economic performance is solid, then there is less need to ... distract public attention by vilifying the West.


Certainly, in the last four or five years, as the oil price has stayed low, as Putin has decided to move aggressively into Crimea and Ukraine, [NATO expansion has] certainly moved into the forefront.


It seems that roughly speaking, Putin has had two 'deals' with the Russian people. Earlier on, when he first came to office, it was, we're going to improve your standard of living; elections will be kind of corrupt, but your standard of living is going to improve, so as long as you don't complain, as long as you're not Mikhail Khodorkovsky, you can live a decent life, just let ... Russia be run by the people who own it. ... That worked for a while, then the economy starts to nosedive, so now you have a new 'deal', which is, we're going to return imperial grandeur, we're gonna rally around the flag, we're going to oppose an enemy, and that seems to be going on more now.

Interesting in this case is the drastic decreases in life expectancy in the Soviet successor states in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1994, male life expectancy in Russia decreased by six years from 63.4 years to 57.4 years, an "almost unprecedented decrease in life expectancy in three years". It rose afterward, but then fell again by two years between 1998 and 2000, in the aftermath of Russia's 1998 financial crisis, and at the same time as Putin came to prominence under Yeltsin's recommendation. Life expectancy in Russia did not return to 1990 levels until after 2010.

Similarly, in the case of the United States, a study by Jacob Bor found that "changes in county life expectancy from 1980 to 2014 were strongly negatively associated with Trump's vote share, with less support for Trump in counties experiencing greater survival gains". Moreover, "counties in which life expectancy stagnated or declined saw a 10-percentage-point increase in the Republican vote share between 2008 and 2016". Bor concludes that "residents of counties left out from broader life expectancy gains abandoned the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential election".

This correlation between life expectancy and support for strongmen is part of a larger phenomenon whereby socioeconomic disaffection can be channeled into hostility toward enemies at home or abroad. It is an interesting area which could perhaps be integrated with Sarotte's diplomatic history of NATO expansion to explain the militaristic turn of Russian politics.

All in all, for me, the book carries an air of tragedy, portraying the current stalemate as the product of moves on both sides, often understandable ones, rather than the fault of any particular side. In our own time, the result is death and destruction on a horrific scale.



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