As I am writing I am listening to the horrific news emanating from Ukraine. The Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022, continues to produce atrocity after atrocity with no end in sight. By launching his “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe in pursuit of his fantasy of an ethno-nationalistic Pan Slavic empire for Russia as he tries to recreate the old Soviet Union. His stated goal was to block the NATO threat embodied by Ukraine, a country that seeks to join the Atlantic Alliance for protection against Moscow. Putin’s actions were based on his perceived weakness of NATO countries and their lack of unity. The result, instead of pushing NATO away from his border, Putin has reinvigorated NATO and brought the west closer than it has been since World War II. Sanctions against Russia, arming Ukraine, financial aid, intelligence sharing, and humanitarian aid are all designed to help Kyiv overcome Putin’s rage as the war has not gone as he had planned. Based on the Russian President’s comments, who knows how far he will push his war of choice and how it will end. The question is how did we get to this point? What can be done to mitigate the situation? Lastly, what weapons will Putin employ as he hints about tactical nuclear weapons and chemical and biological warfare if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not capitulate.
M.E. Sarotte, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations has authored the perfect book to try and understand the background of the current crisis. Her monograph, NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE is an excellent analysis of events, personalities, and decisions made by western European, American, and Russian leaders from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the resignation of Boris Yeltsin as Russian president replaced by Vladimir Putin.
Sarotte develops a thoroughly researched book that revolves around options faced by the west once the Soviet Union collapsed. The choice was clear; either they could enable the newly independent states of Central and Eastern Europe including the Baltic states to join NATO regardless of its impact on Russia or promote cooperation with Russia’s fragile new democracy. The move that made the most sense would have slowed the decision making process and proceeding carefully considering Russian sensitivities. The west created an incremental security partnership open to European and post-Soviet states alike. Potential NATO members could gain experience in working with the west and eventually gain Article 5 protection. However, Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shed the blood of opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, the rampant inflation in Russia as it tried to transition to a market economy, bloodshed in the Balkans, and domestic political changes in the United States as Republicans took over Congress pressured the Clinton administration to push for NATO expansion all impacted the course of NATO enlargement. As all of this evolved Vladimir Putting was rising through the Russian bureaucracy.
In breaking down her analysis into three parts, Sarotte tackles the 1989-1992 period dominated by President George H. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Her focus is on the “promise” offered by Baker that “not one inch” of former Soviet territory would be subject to NATO expansion. This formed the basis of the Russian position, and as events evolved the United States and its western allies saw loopholes in any agreement that would allow them to offer NATO membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first wave of NATO membership and keep open the possibilities for further members including the Baltic states, Romania, and others. Gorbachev who faced internal opposition, economic issues and other roadblocks to reform would face a coup and eventual replacement by Boris Yeltsin.
The second part of the narrative, 1993-1994 was dominated by the “Boris and Bill” show as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin developed a strong working relationship which would eventually flounder due to events and decisions that ruined their camaraderie as the US pushed for rapid NATO enlargement. By the third part of the book, 1995-1999 the situation in Kosovo, the failed Russian economy raped by oligarchs, and Yeltsin’s uneven and unpredictable personality heightened by his drunkenness would result in Moscow and Washington failing to create lasting cooperation in the thaw after the Cold war resulting in the rise of Putin and what the world would eventually face in Ukraine.
(The odd couple: François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl link hands at the cemetery beside the battlefield of Verdun)
Sarotte covers all bases as she highlights negotiations between the west and Russia and delves into the motivations and policies of the main personalities. As she draws the reader in she offers a number of insightful comments and vignettes. Among the most interesting and almost laughable was the role played by the Lewinsky Affair and Clinton’s impeachment trial in finally expanding NATO in 1998. Sarotte’s meticulous presentation of how German unification was achieved and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from East Germany are among her strongest sections of the book, particularly the role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The nuclear problem was always present in the background. Issues of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, the cost to destroy and relocate them, and Russia’s role were paramount. In addition, the evolution of the situation in Ukraine is discussed further and Sarotte offers a number of historical keys that will play out and impact Kyiv which in the end will end up being invaded by Russia in 2014 in its seizure of Crimea and the recognition by Russia of two separate self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas region.
Sarotte’s work is impeccable, and I would recommend it strongly to anyone interested in a detailed presentation of the 1989-1999 period that resulted in the arrival of Vladimir Putin as the dominating figure in the Kremlin’s approach to the west and Russian expansion. Sarotte delineates the lost opportunity for a more peaceful world with increased Russian, American and European cooperation and integration between 1989 and 1991. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been lost and it will take many years for it to reappear, if ever.