The U.S.-Russia Stalemate, With Mary Elise Sarotte

Mary Elise Sarotte, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis distinguished professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what the United States got right, and wrong, in its relations with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

December 14, 2021 — 35:47 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Mary Elise Sarotte

Show Notes

Mary Elise Sarotte, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis distinguished professor of historical studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what the United States got right, and wrong, in its relations with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

 

Articles Mentioned in the Podcast

 

George Kennan, “Long Telegram” to the State Department, February 22, 1946

 

“X” (George Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs (July 1947)

 

Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” The Kremlin, July 12, 2021

 

M.E. Sarotte, “Containment Beyond the Cold War: How Washington Lost the Post-Soviet Peace,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2021)

 

Books Mentioned

 

M.E. Sarotte, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (2021)

 

M.E. Sarotte, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (2014)

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Hi, podcast listeners. Want to keep up on what's happening at home and abroad? Check out the podcast Axios Today. It's a daily news show covering the biggest stories and why they matter. Every morning, host Niala Boodhoo talks to Axios journalists around the country and experts around the world to give you what you need to know to start your day. They cover everything from politics to space to race and justice, all in just 10 minutes. Listen to Axios Today, wherever you get your podcasts. Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is the US/Russia stalemate. With me to discuss what the United States got right, and just as important, what it got wrong in its relations with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is M.E. Mary Sarotte. Mary is Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She is also a research associate at Harvard University's Center for European Studies. Mary is the author of several books. Her most recent one has just come out. It is titled Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. It was just named as a 2021 Foreign Affairs Book of the Year. Mary's article, "Containment beyond the Cold War: How Washington lost the Post-Soviet Peace," which was adapted from the book, appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs. Mary, thanks for being here with me.

Mary Sarotte:

Thank you for inviting me. Great to be here.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, Mary, with more than 150,000 Russian troops massing near Ukraine and president Joe Biden warning president of Vladimir Putin about the prospect of punishing sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, it's worth asking how we got here. When the Soviet Union collapsed some 30 years ago this Christmas, optimism abounded that Russia and the West were opening a new chapter of rapprochement and cooperation. There was even talk of partnership. What went wrong, Mary?

Mary Sarotte:

Ha. So we're having a special seven-hour episode, right? To get through all this? Excellent. Okay. Yeah. As a historian, I believe in looking at the long-term causes of events. And when I look back at the 1990s, I come to the following conclusion: Cold Wars are not short-lived affairs, and so thaws are precious, and neither of the United States nor Russia made the best use of the thaw in the 1990s. And in my historical research, I can just trace the decline from this moment of extraordinary optimism at the end of the Cold War, which I witnessed firsthand as a young student studying abroad in West Berlin. That's where my interest in this topic comes from. And I saw the optimism. I felt it. And you can see it in the documents now as a professional historian, the level of cooperation, particularly on the nuclear level. And then, fairly quickly, you start to see the animosity rise. And already by the end of the 1990s, when Putin comes into the presidency, you're already starting to get some grim portents of what is to come. And so my book tells the story of this decline. One way to describe what I've done, not in terms of detail, but in terms of big picture emotions, is as follows. By way of explanation. Let me say that during the pandemic, one of my other books, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, was optioned for production as a limited TV series along the lines of Chernobyl.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, congratulations.

Mary Sarotte:

Thank you. But I'm not buying the beach house yet because apparently this means instead of a one and a million chance of having a TV show, I have a one in a hundred chance of having a TV show.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it's still better than one and nothing chance of having a TV show.

Mary Sarotte:

It's still better than one and nothing. And even if it doesn't happen, what's been great is it meant that I've come into contact with television producers and screenwriters, and that's been a really interesting process. And the reason I mentioned that here is I've learned from the screenwriters that when you're trying to pitch or summarize a big, complicated piece of writing, you don't actually start with all the details. You start with the emotional significance. And when they said that to me, I thought, "Gosh, what would I say to describe the emotional significance of a book on NATO expansion and the tension it caused between the US and Russia, if you just phrase it in terms of kind of emotion?" And I came up with the following image, which helped me when I was writing the book. And the image is as follows. Imagine you're in the ocean and you been carried out by a rip tide, and it's really dangerous. You see a log that you grab onto, a floating log, and you think that's going to be your deliverance. My book is about the moment that deliverance slips away. So in other words, we had this thermonuclear standoff of the Cold War, which cast a long shadow of my whole childhood and yours. And then through a remarkable series of event, some of them accidental, some of them attributable to Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, some of them attributable to Lech Wałęsa and all these brave protesters, we were delivered from that conflict. And this book is about the nineties, when neither we nor the Russians cherished that deliverance enough and we let it slip away. So even though I can overwhelm your listener with details about NATO expansion, that's the emotional core of what this book is about.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay, let me take you up on that, Mary, and match your big picture with a big picture of my own. Using this image of the swimmer holding on to log that slowly they lose control of, was it inevitable or a mistake because they made the wrong choices?

Mary Sarotte:

I think a mistake. I think there were better alternatives known at the time. And I really can't stress this enough. This is a story of both American and Russian agency. I'm not here to just blame Washington. But on the other hand, what I've presented in my book is, in essence, a non-triumphalist take on the end of the Cold War. Put differently, it's a reframing of the end of the Cold War. One of the most important consequence of the end of the Cold War is the rise of Putin, right? That's not how we usually think about the end of the Cold War, but if you start to look at it long term, you see that that is having a lasting impact and is bringing the world to the brink of the biggest violent conflict, potentially, since World War II today. So the book, is in some ways, in some ways it's a tragedy, right? I mean, as I was writing it, I kept hoping it would turn out differently. Because it starts with this moment of incredible cooperation, especially in the nuclear sphere. I start with this image of President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Secretary of State James Baker agreeing to talk about what are some of usually the most secret, top-secret bits of information that any state has, which is how it would launch a nuclear attack. James Baker is concerned in 1991 because the Soviet Union is falling apart and he doesn't want it to turn into Yugoslavia with nukes. And he drops everything when he realizes what's happening, and he goes to Moscow in December '91, and basically just says to Yeltsin, "We need to know how your launches work. We need to know that command and control is secure here." And this is a hostile style country and he's basically saying, "Give us your secrets." And Yeltsin basically says, "Great. I will tell you that." And for me as a researcher, it was astonishing to find Baker's handwritten notes where he's writing down as quickly as he can the details of Soviet nuclear launch command, control and so forth. And that's an extraordinary moment of cooperation. And now obviously, Yeltsin's doing that not just out of altruism. He's trying to get rid of his hated nemesis, Mikhail Gorbachev, so he's partly doing that to curry favor with the West. But it is also an extraordinary amount of trust that he's showing. And then subsequently, Moscow and Washington go on to all these measures to increase control over the arsenal and dismantle, I don't need to tell your listeners this, dismantle the former Soviet strategic arsenal, secure materials, and so forth. And then that descends into this acrimony. By the end of the nineties, you've got Putin talking to Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton's Russia hand, and the idea that Putin's going to reveal launch protocols is laughable. And Putin is saying things like, you know, "It's the greatest catastrophe ever that the Soviet Union collapsed, and there's so much chaos now that in regions where they used to be order, now terrorists are playing soccer with the decapitated heads of hostages." This is just the way the tenor declines. And in between there, there's a whole host of choices, both American and Russian, and they lead to that outcome. And so in the book, I detail these choices.

Jim Lindsay:

I want to get to those choices in a second, Mary. First, I just want to point out, for people who didn't get the reference to Yugoslavia with nukes, that was because at that time, Yugoslavia had broken up and there were wars going on between some of its constituent republics. But I want to actually just tackle this issue of inevitability just a little bit more because, as you know, there are a number of schools of thought which would take a different position than you have. I'll just name two of them. One, let's call it the realist school, which argues that great powers compete because that's what they do, and so it was always inevitable that Russia and the United States would square off just as it was inevitable that as China became more powerful, good relations between the United States and China would sour. There's another school of thought, maybe it's a cultural school of thought or a historical school of thought. I could point to it in the writings of George Kennan, who in his long telegram, which he sent 75 years ago this year later became the X Article, laid out the policy of containment, which essentially argued that because of its history, because of the volatile position of Russian leaders, that Russia is hostile to the West and it's threatened by Western ideals, Western way of doing things. So why are those arguments wrong?

Mary Sarotte:

Yeah. So, interesting, just before I get into the details, for me as a historian, who's worked on the end of the Cold War for a while, it's been interesting to see a shift in thinking. When I originally started working on how the Berlin Wall came down, what I heard was the opposite, which is, why is that interesting? It was inevitable that it was going to come down. Peace, love and understanding broke out. If it hadn't come down that night, it would've come down another night. I mean, seriously. It was all peace, love and understanding. It didn't really matter. And I thought, you know, I really don't agree with that because, for example, Vladimir Putin was in East Germany in 1989. Now, obviously he wasn't East German, but if someone of his mentality had been running matters on the Berlin Wall that night, things could have turned up very differently that night. I think there was a lot of contingency that night and the world was very lucky. So now, you're saying the opposite, which was, of course it was inevitable that we were going to come to blows again. Of course. That's how great powers compete. So for me as a historian, it's rather amusing to hear this. I don't believe in inevitability. I do believe in punctuational moments. So let me explain what I mean by that. My students will be rolling their eyes because they've heard me say this so many times, but let me explain this to your listeners. So I use a model developed by Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist. Stephen Jay Gould said roughly the following: When I, as an evolutionary biologist, look at the fossil record, I don't see a little bit of evolution one day and then a little bit another day. In other words, I don't see gradualism. Instead, what I see are long periods of relative stasis or equilibrium, where there's changes, but big picture, not that much. And then suddenly, there's what I call a punctuational moment. Perhaps the most famous one, of course, being the massive asteroid that slammed into the earth and threw so much debris into the atmosphere that it basically blocked out the sun, lowered the surface temperature of the earth, and drove the dinosaurs to extinction. Now you open the door to mammals. Right? Now that they're not getting eaten by dinosaurs, they can become dominant. And then once you get past that punctuational moment, you then establish a new stasis or equilibrium where you go back to relatively little change, but now the environment is dominated by mammals. So I have found that very helpful to me as a historian, because I believe in these punctuational moments. Contingency matters more than structure. In the periods of stasis or equilibrium, then yeah, things start to be more about structure, but in these punctuational moments, contingency is king. And that's why it's fascinating to me as a historian. And so when I look at this punctuational moment of the 1990s, which are an amazing decade. Nineties has got it all going on: empires, collapsing states being formed, doors opening to new forms of democratization, neoliberalism market economies, but also ethnic cleansing, de-democratization. You see there's a lot of contingency. And I think that the choices that Russians and Americans made are important. So for example, on the Russian side, I don't think the Russians are constitutionally incapable of being democrats. 30 years ago, this year, 1991, when hard liners tried to reassert centralized Soviet control, there was a massive popular uprising against that. It was, in the words of Andrei Kozyrev, the former foreign minister, the highest moral point ever reached by the Russian people, because it showed their genuine desire for democracy, right? But you do have a series of Russian leaders, starting with Yeltsin, making tragic self-harming choices. So Yeltsin decides to shed the blood of his political opponents in Moscow in 1993, and then in Chechnya in 1994. In other words, he crosses that threshold, going back to violence as a means of cowing your opposition. And he also makes a series of choices that opened the door to corruption, both his own personal corruption and that of the state, he starts to undermine this nascent democracy that he's helped to build.

Jim Lindsay:

And why was that, Mary?

Mary Sarotte:

That has a lot to do with Yeltsin's personal choices, but it also has to do with the fact that he was facing just an immense number of challenges, right? His country is democratizing and introducing a market economy. At the same time, via a shock therapy method, and he's doing this amid very serious challenges from, for example, something called the liberal democratic party, which was neither liberal nor democratic, but fascist. And it basically wins a plurality in the 1993 elections. At one point, president bill Clinton says to German chancellor Helmut Kohl in late '93, "I'm not really sure what's going on in Russia, but all I know is that, of all the options, we basically trust Yeltsin the most." So you've got Russia descending into this internal fighting and flailing as it tries to democratize. And at a time when it is most in need of friends, you then have, in the United States, a shift from a cooperative to an aggressive mode of NATO expansion. And that's what I describe detail in my article "Containment: Beyond the Cold War," and in my book, Not One Inch. And that was a choice. That did not have to happen. At a time, when there was this fragile relationship, the United States shifts policies to ones that maximize confrontation with Russia and the effect becomes cumulative. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry recognized this at the time. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry said, "You know, I have the greatest respect for Central and Eastern Europeans. They threw off the yoke of Soviet command. I understand they are sovereign democracies. They have every right to want to be in NATO. But Mr. President, Bill Clinton, I'm the Secretary of Defense of the United States. I represent the United States government. I'm trying to make the United States safer. And I'm doing an amazing job because I'm working with Moscow to dismantle or destroy the former nuclear arsenal. This is the greatest moment of nuclear cooperation since the dawn of the atomic age. No one has ever made the United States this safe, this quickly. And if you're going to move to this very aggressive mode of NATO expansion, that's going to tick the Russians off and that's going to decrease my ability to do my job. So please don't do it." And he couldn't convince Clinton. He thought about resigning, he didn't. But in his memoirs later, he said, "In hindsight, I wish I had resigned because the impact of premature NATO expansion, not NATO expansion, but premature NATO expansion, was even worse than I'd imagine."

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. So let's drill down and talk about NATO expansion. I want to be clear here at the outset. As I understand it, your argument isn't that NATO expansion was wrongheaded. It is the way it was carried out and the pace with which it was carried out. Now, I will note that NATO expansion as a policy was pretty popular in the United States, certainly in the United States Senate, which was called on to act in terms of the expansion of NATO. So lay out for me your argument as to why you think the means by which it was carried out were a mistake.

Mary Sarotte:

So my book is not an anti-NATO expansion book. I believe NATO expansion in the abstract was as a appropriate policy for the time. As I've already said, the Central and Eastern Europeans had become sovereign democracies. They wanted to join. There was also the Cold War precedent that NATO had expanded to take on new members before. So, in short, NATO expansion was neither unreasonable nor unprecedented. The problem, as you've rightly summarized, was how it happened. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, for a long time, the debate over NATO expansion has been, I think, too simplistic, right? It's basically been some people saying, "NATO expansion was great, greatest thing ever, thank God we did it while we could," and then other people saying it was a disaster. George Kennan, you've already referenced, said it was the greatest strategic mistake in the post-Cold War era. So basically, you've got people saying NATO expansion was good, people saying NATO expansion was bad, and they're basically yelling at each other. And I would like to stress for your listeners that NATO expansion was not one thing. There were multiple ways to expand NATO, and this was known at the time, and there were debates about ways that would have a lesser cost-per-inch than aggressive modes. In other words, a number of policy makers realized that the closer you move the Alliance to Moscow, the greater the cost-per-inch of expansion. Some of the people who figured this out most quickly were, of course, Scandinavian and Nordic countries. For example, Norway as the only original member of NATO with a border with the Soviet Union, Norway knew that if it joined the Alliance as an original member, that would have a different significance than Western European countries that didn't have a Soviet border. And so Norway had to square the circle, of on the one hand, becoming a member, but on the other hand, keeping frictions with Moscow manageable. And so what Norway did is it came up with a bespoke membership where it has no foreign troops placed on its territory in peace time and it has no nuclear weapon on either its lands or in its ports. And I summarize this as the Scandinavian strategy. I know we can nitpick whether Norway is Scandinavian or Nordic, but I like the alliteration.

Jim Lindsay:

I'm not going to get into that argument. I know that tempers flare over that.

Mary Sarotte:

I know tempers flare. I know. I'm going to call it Scandinavian strategy. And the point there is that's a recognition that the cost-per-inch goes up to closer you move to off when you're in an area that is Soviet adjacent, but not Soviet controlled. And this, I think, could have been a model for a lot of Central and Eastern Europe or the Baltics because those countries in the post-Cold War era find themselves in analogous situation, which is that they're in a neighborhood that is Russia adjacent, but not Russia controlled.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you about that point about Norway or the Norwegian model for NATO. In the case of Norway, Mary, Norway chose that strategy. It chose not to have troops based on its territory. It didn't make that decision at the behest of Washington or London or Paris. In the case of the Baltic countries, are you arguing that they should have made that choice or that the United States, as a leader of the Alliance, should have pushed them toward a Norwegian style membership?

Mary Sarotte:

Let me give you a sort of broad answer and then come back to that specific question about the Baltics. Okay? So I think it might be helpful for your listeners if I just summarize how NATO expansion shifted, and then let me get back to the Baltics at the end. Let me start this answer by explaining the title of the book. The title of the book is Not One Inch. Now, most readers will, if they know or are familiar with this period, they'll associate that with the controversy between Secretary of State James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. It's at the heart of a controversy over whether or not the West promised the Soviet Union that NATO would never expand. And that goes back to a February 1990 conversation where Secretary Baker said, in a hypothetical way ... There was nothing being written down. This was not a formal negotiation, where he said, "How about this idea?" He's tossing out ideas. "How about the idea that you, Mikhail Gorbachev, you let your half of divided Germany go in the wake of the opening of the Berlin Wall so it can unify and we agree not to move NATO one inch eastward?" And Mikhail Gorbachev thinks, "That's actually not a bad idea. We should talk about that." But as soon as James Baker goes back to his boss, George H.W. Bush, George H.W. Bush makes clear to Baker that Baker has leaned too far forward on his skis. Bush says to Baker, "What we want is not only to keep NATO, but to keep its ability to expand." And this is the first of three crucial decisions about how NATO will shape the future. So in other words, this Baker idea that NATO will stay frozen forever on the Cold War line is dismissed by Bush right away. It takes Gorbachev and the Soviets a while to notice, which is why, to this day, they're still complaining, because that was a very time-limited opportunity and they wish they could have gotten it back. And one of the new findings in my book and the research is that Baker almost immediately had to write back to allies secretly, this documents that just came out this year and say, "Whoops, sorry. Erase that. Rewind. That's causing confusion. That's not what we meant here in Washington."

Jim Lindsay:

He wanted a do-over.

Mary Sarotte:

He wanted to do-over. Yeah. But what happens, I realized, is that beyond this controversy, what's actually really important is the decade to follow, where those three words, "not one inch," actually gradually take on the exact opposite meaning. They come to mean not one inch of Europe needs to be off limits to NATO. So that's the story of the book, is that shift from the one meaning to the other. And that happens via a series of three decisions.

Jim Lindsay:

And that's the fundamental mistake, in your view?

Mary Sarotte:

That's the fundamental mistake. And that's the fundamental mistake. And so the three decisions, just to summarize them, there's one under George H.W. Bush and two under Clinton. The one under George H.W. Bush, as I've just described, is that post-Cold War security will rest on a NATO that can continue to expand. And in contrast to Baker's comments, that is formalized in the treaty on the settlement of Germany, which includes an agreed minute that makes clear that NATO can move eastward beyond the Cold War line with the permission of the German government, and Moscow signed that document. So that's the first to three crucial decisions. But then, George H.W. Bush loses the election of 1992, so it's up to Clinton to take the next steps. And Clinton, so he makes two decisions. His first decision is one that's consistent with the Scandinavian strategy that we were just discussing. In other words, I think it's a smart choice. He recognizes that the cost per inch of moving a NATO Alliance closer to Moscow was high. And he knows this at the time. That was the amazing thing to me as a researcher. He's saying at the time, "We shouldn't just draw a new line across Europe," not least by the way, because of Ukraine, right? And the other post-Soviet states. He says, "We can't just ignore these post-Soviet states, particularly Ukraine," which at that point has over 50 million people. So it's the size of Britain or France. It was also born nuclear, was born the third-biggest nuclear power in the world. So those are statistics that get your attention. So he says, "We can't just draw a new line across Europe because it's going to be impossible just to put Ukraine in NATO now." And it amazed me how much discussion of NATO membership for Ukraine already comes up in the early nineties, especially on the part of Tony Lake, who's very supportive of it.

Jim Lindsay:

He being National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton?

Mary Sarotte:

National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton. So Clinton, together with Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff John Shalikashvili, start to look for other ideas. And they come up with what I think is a terrific idea, which is the Partnership for Peace. Right? Now, the Partnership for Peace is not popular. It's not sexy like NATO expansion, right? People want to be in NATO, not in the partnership. But the point is that the Partnership for Peace works, even if it's not popular, because it modulates NATO expansion, it provides a way that NATO can have a diffuse link to a wide range of countries without drawing a new line through Europe, without the lurch.

Jim Lindsay:

It's like a waiting room.

Mary Sarotte:

It's like a waiting room. And people called it that at the time, which obviously isn't desirable unless you're the United States and you need to manage contingency, in which case, that's actually really useful because you can let people out of the waiting room at different paces, depending on what's going on, right? You can speed things up, slow things down. You can also see if they're ready to be in NATO. And this makes a lot of sense. And so this is not popular. Shalikashvili, who was born in Poland, has to personally go to sell it Lech Wałęsa, the president of that country, who of course, had earned a Nobel Prize for running the solidarity protest movements. Hugely brave man. Lech Wałęsa hates it. Amazing transcripts of these meetings. But Lech Wałęsa comes around to it, right? And he says, "We're willing to do it. We'd rather be NATA, but we're willing to do it." And Clinton actually says to him, "You, the Poles, of all people, should understand the danger of drawing new lines across Europe. And that's what we're going to do to Ukraine." Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much Ukraine is bound up in this story. I'm now convinced you cannot understand this story of NATO expansion without talking about Ukraine, which is why it makes tragically perfect sense what's going on today.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, particularly when Vladimir Putin views the loss of Ukraine as a great geopolitical and national loss for Russia.

Mary Sarotte:

As we faced the 30th anniversary of Soviet collapse, which, by the way, Putin has called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, Putin is acting like a man who wants his stuff back, right?

Jim Lindsay:

Yes. Well, that was certainly the case of Ukraine in the essay he wrote this past summer. Some 5,000 words on why Ukraine and Russia should be together.

Mary Sarotte:

Yes. I think that the upcoming anniversary is being underestimated is a driver of what Putin is doing. Now, he's not going to say this in public, right? Because it's a deeply tragic anniversary for him. But if you've said publicly that the collapse of the Soviet Union is the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, it destroyed the country of your birth, the country that you served as a KGB agent, and that anniversary is coming up, you're going to do nothing? I mean, at a rock bottom minimum, he's now poised to mark that anniversary with a massive deadly force crouched on the borders of Ukraine. And I don't think that is a coincidence that is happening now. So in my answer to the question of why is this happening now is because of the driving factor of that anniversary.

Jim Lindsay:

Going back to my question about the Norwegian models, is your argument that the West and the United States should have encouraged those countries to take that option? That they should have chosen it themselves? And what would've been the consequences if they had done so? Wouldn't that have signaled that some members of NATO are full-fledged members and then some members were like kind of members, but they couldn't have weapons or infrastructure on their territory?

Mary Sarotte:

I think that kind of ambiguity would've been useful. And also policymakers at the time, like General Shalikashvili thought that too. So I still owe you and your listeners and answer to your question about the Baltics. So let me finish my too-long-winded answer and then get back to the Baltics. So, just to recap, there's these three big decisions that shape how NATO expansion occurs and how it causes friction in US/Russian relations. So first, you have George H.W. Bush insisting on retaining NATO and its ability to expand. Then you have president Clinton making a second important decision, which is that you're going to expand in a way that is diffuse with weak links to a number of countries, including post-Soviet states. And you're going to let them out of the waiting room at your own pace and as they become ready for membership, because many of these states were simply not prepared to be members. In other words, you're going to put actual NATO enlargement at the end rather than at the beginning of the process. And by the way, in the meantime, you're going to create a peacekeeping organization, which is kind of useful because the Balkans are disintegrating and you could use some peacekeeping. So there's a lot of good factors going on here. And Clinton and Perry are amazed at how successful the partnership is. Clinton says pretty quickly, "This has become a big deal, much bigger deal than we expected." But then there is a third decision and the third decision is driven by a host of factors, not directly related to NATO. So the third decision is that, it's by President Clinton and having created this, I think, successful policy, he then marginalizes it and switches to what I call all-or-nothing expansion. So in other words, you're going to give people Article 5 or nothing. This means you really can't, this greatly limits your ability to manage contingency, because basically you just have this blunt instrument, right? Article 5 or not. This also, by the way, leaves Ukraine and most post-Soviet states in the lurch because it's not realistic that you're going to just hand Ukraine Article 5. And the factors behind that have to do with things like domestic politics. In the United States in the 1994 congressional midterm elections, the Republican Party won a decisive victory, won back the House and the Senate on the basis of a contract with America that advocated this kind of expansion. Also, you have Russian choices, the truly tragic choice of Boris Yeltsin to invade Chechnya in a brutal manner. That meant that people like Lech Wałęsa, who had just been talked into the Partnership for Peace, could turn around and say, "Look. New Russia's like the old Soviet Union. They're invading people. We needed Article 5 yesterday. I said I was going to put up with Partnership of Peace, but this changes everything." So that was another surprise in my research, is how important Chechnya was as well. And so for all of these factors, Clinton basically shifts his opinion and he shifts to this all-or-nothing mode of expansion. Having said he didn't want to draw a new line across Europe, he draws a new line across Europe. So that means that when you start to get to the Baltics, you no longer have that option of the Scandinavian strategy of a diffuse manner of expansion where you've got bespoke memberships for countries. So as a practical matter, to get back to your question of the Baltics, the Baltics don't really have that choice. By the time expansion gets to the Baltics, it's Article 5 or nothing. It's all or nothing. But I think it would have been better if we'd stuck with the Partnership for Peace, because that would've given the US a pallet of options that would've created more flexibility for how the United States moved to the Baltics. Which by the way, is something that Strobe Talbott wanted to do as early as, I think, '94, '95. He's talking about getting the Baltics in NATO. So it, I think, would have been better if we had had more options for dealing with the very high cost-per-inch of putting the Baltics in NATO.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, Mary, let me ask you a question I'm sure you've heard in the course of doing your research, particularly on this point of NATO marching eastward, putting infrastructure up near the border of Russia. At the end of the day, why should that bother Moscow? NATO is peaceful. It's defensive alliance. It's not as if Poland is looking to March to Moscow or Germany to revisit history. In essence, it's a choice on the part of President Putin, the Russian elite, to regard this as threatening when in fact it wasn't.

Mary Sarotte:

To answer that question, let me cite an example, going back to mid-1990, when the Berlin Wall has come down and there's all this debate going on about, what next, right? The Cold War order has collapsed. So the obvious question is, what next? And there's all kinds of negotiation going on, as I describe in my book, Not One Inch, trying to define future order in Europe. And one of the big questions is whether or not NATO, Moscow, Gorbachev, should accept not only NATO's persistence, but the persistence of NATO's ability to move eastward and take over East Germany. And one of Mikhail Gorbachev's advisors, Chernyaev, says to him, "You know, maybe we should just accept that NATO can move eastward. We're going to get a lot of money out of this from the West Germans for letting Germany unify, and what really matters is the nuclear balance, not the conventional balance. So does it really matter if conventional forces start moving? What really matters is the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. And there, we are pure competitors. So where the infrastructure or actually moves, perhaps, isn't so important." So in other words, Chernyaev, in essence, is seconding your view. And this is persuasive with Gorbachev, who very much wants to work with Western partners to get the financial and economic aid they're offering. The deputy national security advisor at the time, Bob Gates, said, "Our strategy was simple. It was bribing the Soviets out and the West Germans were going to pay the bribe, and Mikhail Gorbachev needed the bribe." So Gorbachev listens to these emollient words from Chernyaev and decides to sign the paper that lets NATO move eastward into East Germany. But now, fast forward to today, and you do have, obviously, as you said, Putin complaining about NATO infrastructure coming up to the borders. I'm a historian, right? I'm not a government official, so I don't have any inside classified information. But clearly what Putin means now is he's worried about missiles, right? He's worried about things that we say are part of a missile defense. And he says, "No, those look like missile launchers that could have missiles that are aimed at us." And at this point, I think it's almost beyond whether Ukraine is a NATO member or not for him. He doesn't want the placement of NATO infrastructure in Ukraine that could involve things aimed at Moscow. Now, the question is, how serious is the threat that we would do that, and how dangerous would that be to Moscow? But that is his argument. So that's why he's complaining about that. But I should also add that a lot of that is also just, he's repurposing history because he really wants to roll back what happened 30 years ago. So a lot of that is-

Jim Lindsay:

Well, that's certainly the case. I mean, his argument that his invasion of Crimea in 2014 was justified because NATO had moved eastward is pretty farfetched. But leaving that aside, maybe we can close by bringing things up to today, where we do see a confrontation, where there is a risk of war, though President Biden says for now, at least, US troop involvement is not on the table. I'm wondering, in your view, looking at the history, what do you think can be done? In President Biden's phone call last week with President Putin, Biden said he would consider Russia's concerns over NATO and convene high-level, multi-lateral talks to find out whether or not we can work out some sort of accommodation. Now, I'm not sure how this is playing in Moscow. It's not playing particularly well in Europe, particularly in East and Central Europe. And I'm struck by your reference before to Secretary Baker wanting a do-over, in his case, getting a do-over. Do you think a do-over is possible at this moment? Or are we sort of locked in because of the choices that were made over the course of the past three decades?

Mary Sarotte:

Yeah. If you're asking me what's the best thing to do, sadly, my answer is get in a time machine and go back to the early 1990s and recreate a time when we had greater ability to manage contingency. And most importantly, we created a berth for Ukraine, right? We had the Partnership for Peace was a way for NATO to be affiliated with Ukraine, which, and this is important, was acceptable to Russia, which also joined the Partnership for Peace. In other words, back in that punctuation moment, and this is what is interesting about a punctuational moment, a punctuation moment is a time when there are many different paths to the future and the choices you make foreclose options. And by shifting to the all-or-nothing mode of NATO expansion, we, the United States, foreclosed options for ourselves. I mean, wouldn't it be nice to have flexibility right now, or some alternatives? We could perhaps speed up Ukraine's process through the partnership or give it infrastructure or weaponry through the partnership, and that wouldn't be quite the red line of putting it in NATO. Wouldn't it be great to have those options now? But, of course, we don't. And so I think that we are now in a time where the parameters of the possible have narrowed greatly. I think, as Richard Haas likes to say, there are some problems you solve and then there are some problems you can only manage. I think the tensions over Ukraine are firmly in the latter category. I think our highest goal should be to keep the events there on a nonviolent level as much as possible to try to resolve these issues as contentiously as they may be by discussion and negotiation. I'm glad high-level officials have been going there. Also, as a scholar, I'm trying to do my part by establishing a shared narrative on the basis of evidence about these events, trying to lower the temperature and talk about the actual narrative on the basis of evidence so we understand how we got to this point. But I don't see any of any really good options. I just see, at this point, avoidance of bad options as the highest priority.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Mary Sarotte, Kravis Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, is out now. It has been named a 2021 Book of the Year by Foreign Affairs. Mary, let me congratulate you on the success of the book. I suspect will be earning more accolades down the road. And let me thank you for sitting down to chat with me today.

Mary Sarotte:

Thank you so much. Was an honor. As a frequent listener, really, really happy to have taken part.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you listen, and leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and articles mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always opinions, expressed on The President's Inbox are solely those are the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with senior producer Jeremy Sherlick. Jeremy also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you very much, Jeremy. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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