The Historical Dispute Behind Russia’s Threat to Invade Ukraine

On January 21st, after meeting in Geneva with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a rather understated assessment of the high-stakes impasse between Russia and the United States, with Russia threatening the prospect of war in Ukraine. “I think the charitable interpretation would be that sometimes we and Russia have different interpretations of history,” Blinken said.

The stakes of this historical dispute could not be greater. In recent months, Russia has placed more than a hundred thousand troops, and a sizable arsenal of armor and missile systems, along its border with Ukraine. If Russia were to invade—a scenario that President Joe Biden and other Western officials have admitted is likely—the resulting violence and suffering would represent, as Biden put it, “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War Two.”

The particular history that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has in mind as he weighs starting such a conflagration is rooted in a post-Cold War settlement that he sees as having been unfairly dictated to Russia. Looming most of all is the question of NATO: Putin considers the expansion of the alliance to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states a direct threat to Russia’s security, and the idea of Ukraine drawing closer to NATO—whether through the still far-off prospect of formal membership or by hosting NATO troops in the meantime—an existential red line. In his mind, given that Western leaders once promised that NATO would not expand toward Russia’s borders, he is merely rectifying a geopolitical injustice. At his annual press conference last December, Putin made his version of events clear: “ ‘Not one inch to the East,’ they told us in the nineties. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us!”

The phrase “not one inch” is a reference to a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, in 1990, and in the years since it has taken on the qualities of a geopolitical “Rashomon” moment. Who promised what to whom? At what cost? And who is to blame for the fact that a brief window of coöperation between the West and Russia has turned into years of mistrust and recrimination?

The many arguments, myths, and crises that have arisen from this one utterance led Mary Elise Sarotte, a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University, to borrow it for the title of the book she published last November, “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate.” Sarotte has the receipts, as it were: her authoritative tale draws on thousands of memos, letters, briefs, and other once secret documents—including many that have never been published before—which both fill in and complicate settled narratives on both sides.

“I was trying to write a non-triumphalist history of the end of the Cold War,” Sarotte told me, the other day. That is, the opposite of the version most of us know: a tale of victory, freedom, opportunity. “And that’s in no way wrong,” she said. “Many millions of people saw their lives suddenly open up and expand.” (For an earlier book, Sarotte interviewed former East German dissidents, a number of whom had been imprisoned by the Stasi. “That’s their story entirely,” she said.)

The expansion of NATO to countries once part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact felt like an obvious and intrinsic part of that same process, of freedom and security spreading over the continent. “But what if, from the perspective of today, the impact that same story had on someone like Putin, who saw it as a catastrophe, is no less relevant?” Sarotte asked. “There’s a non-insignificant chance we could see, in 2022, a massive European land war that is a result, at least in part, of the way Russia believes the West handled the end of the Cold War.”

In a way, the argument boils down to “not one inch” and its legacy: Did the West, led by the U.S., promise to limit NATO expansion eastward? “At one extreme, there’s a position you sometimes hear from the American side, that none of this ever came up, it’s a total myth, the Russians are psychotic,” Sarotte said. “On the other end, you have the very adamant Russian position: ‘We were totally betrayed, there’s no doubt about it.’ Unsurprisingly, when you get into the evidence, the truth looks to be somewhere in between.”

Sarotte’s interpretation of the key phrase begins with the context of the moment in which it was said. In early 1990, with the Berlin Wall having fallen just months before, German unification was the central policy question in Europe. But on this matter the Soviet Union had an automatic say: as one of the officially recognized victors in the Second World War, the U.S.S.R. retained a political veto over Germany’s future, not to mention three hundred and eighty thousand troops in East Germany. Thus, West German officials—who were interested, most of all, in securing Moscow’s consent on reunification—were tempted to assuage it on the NATO question. The West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, gave a number of speeches proposing exactly this compromise. “An extension of NATO’s territory to the east, that is, nearer to the borders of the Soviet Union, will not happen,” he said in one address, as Sarotte recounts.

Genscher was proposing a policy position with which his own Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, would eventually come to disagree. The Chancellor ultimately believed that the West should lock in as many gains as it could before the political climate shifted yet again and Moscow’s position became more entrenched. “Foreign policy was like mowing grass for hay,” Kohl explained to the British foreign minister, Douglas Hurd, at the time. “You had to gather what you had cut in case of a thunderstorm.”

In February, 1990, Secretary Baker went to Moscow, where he met with Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union. Baker asked him—“unwittingly touching off a controversy that would last decades,” as Sarotte writes—“Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. 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?” Baker was, in essence, floating his own, updated version of Genscher’s proposed trade-off, presuming that, given the wartime history, Soviet leaders would rather see Germany anchored in a multilateral alliance than left on its own.

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