NATO and the War in Ukraine

Sarotte Not One Inch NATO

Our Holy Father said recently that “NATO has barked at Russia’s door” and “perhaps facilitated” Russia’s “reacting badly and unleashing the conflict in Ukraine.”

The Wall Street Journal took stern exception to this statement, in a staff editorial. The WSJ editors write:

Since the invasion, Francis has called for an end to the war and criticized the violence, but he hasn’t directly called out Russia for starting the conflict. Now that he finally speaks, he blames NATO for accepting members that want to avoid being invaded by Russia. What a terrible moral signal to send to dictators.

Let’s consider this argument, with the help of a book I just finished, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, by M.E. Sarotte.

1. What is NATO?

The US and the Soviet Union shared in victory over Germany in World War II. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped for peace and friendship with the USSR.

But our alliance cooled very quickly. The Soviets moved to control the governments of eastern- and central-European states. They had long since taken effective control of Ukraine, as we discussed in March.

The US and the USSR began to perceive each other as a rivals for world-wide dominance. FDR’s successor Harry Truman gave an address to Congress in 1947, announcing the Truman Doctrine: We must “contain” Soviet geopolitical expansion.

US foreign-policy specialist and Russia expert George Kennan had a different point-of-view. Kennan did not believe that the USSR actually had the resources to attain world dominance, even if the Soviets aspired to it. Rather, we should understand Russia as a regional power. Kennan thought a permanent US military alliance with western Europe would raise the stakes with Russia and thereby go against ‘containment.’

But then: The Soviets blockaded the city of Berlin in 1948. The communist party took control of China in 1949. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, with the support of the USSR and China.

This sequence of alarming events led a critical mass of US decision-makers to think that we needed a military commitment to western Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization came into being in order to protect the signatories from Soviet invasion.

Cold War map of Europe
Cold War map of Europe. Ukraine lies within the Soviet Union.

2. Germany divided and re-united

At the end of World War II, the victors divided Germany into four occupation zones. The American, British, and French sectors became “West Germany,” the Soviet sector “East Germany.”

The city of Berlin lay in East Germany, but US/UK/France retained control of the western part of the city.

When West Germany joined NATO in 1955, the Soviet Union formed the “Warsaw Pact” in response, and the Cold War line was drawn. The East German government built the “Berlin Wall” to keep East Germans from fleeing the country though West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall became the symbol of latter-20th century east/west division in Europe. Winston Churchill dubbed the boundary between Warsaw-Pact states and NATO states “The Iron Curtain.”

Things changed in 1989, and that’s where M.E. Sarotte picks up the story in her book.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the Iron Curtain to fall. At one point in 1989, Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, proposed to US Secretary of State James Baker: “Let’s disband both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Let’s release your allies and ours.” Shevardnadze also proposed the idea of merging NATO and the Warsaw Pact into a single European security alliance.

Baker had a counter-proposal, which he put directly to Gorbachev: “How about a NATO-allied united Germany, with assurances that NATO jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward?” (from the former West-German border)

Gorbachev responded that, of course, “any expansion of the zone of NATO” was “not acceptable.” Gorbachev later claimed that Baker “agreed on that,” and Gorbachev proceeded to agree with the chancellor of Germany about how the re-unification of the country would proceed.

But when Baker returned to Washington, President Bush would not agree to retain the decades-old NATO border. Bush put it like this: “The Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany’s relationship with NATO. We prevailed, and they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat… To hell with that.”

Gorbachev had lost control of the situation. He later agreed to a revised bargain, which did not include any assurances about NATO. He even affirmed the ‘Helsinki Principle,’ which holds that all independent nations have the right to choose their own military alliances. (And ironically enough, now in 2022, long-neutral Finland has itself applied to join NATO.)

In 1990 Germany re-united, and the Soviet Union began to withdraw its hundred of thousands of troops from what had been East Germany. The NATO border began to move east.

The crumbling Soviet government asked the Warsaw-Pact nations Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland to pledge never to join NATO. They refused. Instead, they made an agreement among themselves, called the Visegrad alliance, to seek membership in NATO.

The second part of Sarotte’s book narrates the history of NATO expansion through the rest of the 1990’s, in two parts. She calls the first phase, from ’91-’94, “Clearing.” She calls the second phase, from ’95-’99, “Frost.”

In 1991 Boris Yeltsin became the president of post-Soviet Russia and sought friendship with the US.

When the Soviet military command structure fell apart, the US government became understandably concerned about who had the launch codes for the nuclear weapons. The missile silos were spread out over what had now become four independent countries: Russia, Belarus, Kazakstan, and Ukraine. (Ukrainian soil held the most up-to-date, lethal missiles.)

US Sec’y of State Baker visited Moscow and asked Yeltsin to explain to him the missile-control system. Yeltsin proceeded to do so, in full. An act of complete mutual trust.

In January 1992, Yeltsin announced that the nukes would no longer be aimed at the US. Then President Bush hosted Yeltsin for a friendly weekend at Camp David, outside Washington. At the end of their time together, Bush and Yeltsin issued a joint statement declaring: “The US and Russia are no longer adversaries.” They tentatively planned a joint US/Russia space mission to Mars.

Russia President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton, 1994

Bill Clinton became US President in the election of November 1992. He went on to develop what Sarotte calls a “bromance” with Yeltsin. The two presidents met in person seventeen times.

But the question of NATO expansion hung like a Sword of Damocles over the new US-Russia friendship. It wasn’t just the Visegrad alliance that wanted to join; all the former Soviet republics wanted in, too. Would Russia become a democracy, and the US’s friend, only to find NATO military bases lined-up right along its borders?

It is stunning to read, in Sarotte’s book, page after page about how preoccupied President Clinton was about Ukraine, in the spring of 1993.

At that time, Ukraine was an even more-populous country than it is now. Clinton recognized that peace and stability in Ukraine was the key to the security of all of Europe. Clinton did not want to move the NATO border east–to encompass the Visegrad-alliance countries–only to leave Ukraine outside. The US remained rightly preoccupied with all the nuclear missiles still sitting in silos in Ukrainian soil. The worst-case scenario involved Ukraine keeping its weapons and becoming the enemy of both the US and Russia.

Sarotte calls the American diplomatic moves of 1993-94 “squaring the triangle” of Russia, Ukraine, and the Visegrad-alliance states (which now numbered four: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia). Instead of full NATO expansion, what about a loose-affiliation program, called the “Partnership for Peace?” (which would include Ukraine, Russia, and other post-Soviet republics as well.)

The idea was not to draw a new East/West line. Rather, open up the long-term possibility of joining NATO by way of short-term phases.

Sarotte has a heartbreaking map in her book, of Europe in 1994, with all the countries’ membership in international security organizations indicated by shading.

The heartbreaking thing is: the map has no east-west dividing line. For one brief moment in time, the possibility opened up of a security alliance stretching “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” That was the slogan, and it meant: no more enmity between the US and Russia.

But the moment passed as quickly as it had come. A Clinton-Yeltsin summit in Budapest, Hungary, devolved into mutual recriminations. The Russian army marched on the breakaway region of Chechnya, and the First Chechnyan War–which would horrify the world with displays of Russian brutality that have echoed a quarter century later in Ukraine–began.

Clinton decided to welcome the Visegrad alliance into NATO, thereby drawing the line on the eastern border of Poland which, to this day, defines the conflict currently underway in Ukraine.

“Not one inch” stopped meaning: NATO will not move one inch eastward. It now meant: not one inch of territory is off-limits to NATO.

Last Monday Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Moscow, at the annual military parade. He referred to the Russian point-of-view on what happened in the 1990’s, namely that the Americans went back on the “promise” that James Baker had made to Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO eastward.

Sarotte’s book amply demonstrates how dishonest a historical claim this is. Gorbachev, and then Yeltsin, accepted Western financial assistance in exchange for agreeing to NATO expansion, over and over again.

Not One Inch concludes with the tale of how Putin became Yeltsin’s anointed successor, at the turn of the milennium. Putin assured the Yeltsin family that he would not prosecute them for all their corrupt financial gains.

Now, a lot of reasonable people–including a majority of Ukrainians–would have been willing to concede that Ukraine joining NATO would provoke Russia. That is, they would have been willing to concede that before the Russian invasion began in February.

Since then, however, one thing has become clear: NATO is now the most-important international organization on earth. It is in the process of re-defining what Europe is. Meanwhile, the Holy See’s level of international influence is about as close to zero as you can get.

Maybe we should lament what this means about international militarization. George Kennan had a different vision, one in which Russia and eastern Europe would have been fully integrated into the European Union by now.

But history has unfolded as it has. And if you want to meditate carefully on the heartbreaking difficulty of trying to build peace on earth, Sarotte’s book will reward your effort in reading it.


2 thoughts on “NATO and the War in Ukraine

  1. Yeah, I guess that’s what happens when your country is run by a mob boss that acts violently towards his weaker (well, maybe not) neighbors. This is Putin’s doing. Blaming anyone else is ridiculous. If you look at the Holy Father’s statements, he certainly isn’t blaming NATO, just speculating.

    BTW, any closer to getting reinstated. I think it’s good you are giving a wide berth to the nuts over at Church Militant.

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