To understand the historical context of the invasion of Ukraine, it is useful to go back to a meeting held in February 1990 in Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its protagonists: James Baker, Secretary of State for George Bush Sr., and the last premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. At that meeting, Baker proposed German unification with guarantees that "NATO will not expand an inch to the east." Gorbachev answered yes. What happened in the following years may help explain why Vladimir Putin sardonically repeats the phrase “not an inch more” in his denunciations of the West. Since 1990, 14 countries have joined NATO, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states. Soon Finland will enter, maybe Sweden.
Mary E. Sarotte, an American historian at John Hopkins University in Washington, analyzes whether or not there was deception in her new book, titled precisely Not one inch (Baker said "an inch", about three centimeters). Her conclusion: "The thaw after the cold war was a precious and wasted moment."
Do we know for sure that Baker proposed stopping NATO enlargement at that meeting with Gorbachev?
Yes. Baker wrote a secret summary that was delivered to the German ambassador in Moscow. And, in 1998, Helmut Kohl declassified other documents that confirm it. I have never understood those in the West who deny it. Now, Putin ignores the historical background when he denounces the hoax. The whole year of 1990 is a long process of finding out what Moscow is going to ask for in return for consenting to German reunification. In February, Baker offers that of "not a single centimeter". But when he returns to Washington, Bush tells him no.
Why did they have to negotiate this with Gorbachev?
Legally, Germany could not be reunified without the approval of Russia, which was a key member of the alliance that won the war in 1945. Furthermore, there were 400,000 Russian soldiers in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Why did Baker propose it to Gorbachev if Bush did not agree?
Baker listened to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, who advocated a pan-European security system without NATO or the Warsaw Pact. In other words, Gorbachev received the non-enlargement proposal from Baker and the Germans, too. But Bush had another idea. Baker had to send a secret letter to the Germans in which he says: "Forget all that not an inch more." Gorbachev later said: "I have fallen into a trap."
So in the end, what was given to Gorbachev in exchange for supporting German reunification?
Money, mainly German, to prevent the total collapse of the Soviet economy. The 1990 agreement recognizes that Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter – NATO's guarantee of collective intervention in the event of aggression against a member country – can be extended to the border of the former GDR.
Would the option of no NATO expansion have facilitated a better relationship between the US, Europe and Russia?
That is a hypothesis. What can be said is that, with George Bush Sr., it was not an option. For Bush, NATO had won the cold war and the US was the dominant power in NATO. What is strange is that Bush announced a supposed new world order. Because the existing world order was great for the US In reality, Bush had to stop what would have been a new world order if NATO had been dismantled.
Reading in the West is good and bad...
There are those who say that NATO enlargement is the best option. And there are people, like John Mearsheimer, who believe that it will cause the third world war. We must overcome that binary division. I am not against NATO enlargement. The problem was how it was done. There was a wide range of possibilities. We could have reached a more sustainable and less violent relationship.
When Clinton became president, it was already taken for granted that there would be an expansion of NATO. The question was how. Clinton, at first, supported a gradual process so that Russia would not have to suffer humiliation, the so-called Alliance for Peace. A transition period and the possibility of joining without Article 5 were agreed. Russia and Ukraine could have joined as well. But then the Republican right began to push for unlimited expansion, and Clinton changed her mind.
It was a mistake?
Yes. The Alliance for Peace would have been less annoying for Russia. It had the merit of being accepted by everyone, Moscow, Eastern and Central Europe, and the West.
Do you think Putin would have accepted that option?
When Putin came to power in 1999, it was too late. It was necessary to solve it in the nineties and it was not done. They are living memories for Putin. He was in East Germany in 1990 working for the KGB. He lived through the collapse of the USSR. He is still furious.
Does the current situation carry danger?
Much. We have created a tension similar to the cold war in weeks. It is very worrying. And the problem is that we have lost the cultural capacity to understand the seriousness of the danger. Russia is a military power. In my briefings with the US, German and Canadian governments, everyone asks: Why hasn't there been an escalation? Russia has both strategic and tactical chemical, biological, nuclear weapons. She can destroy our power plants with cyber attacks. Things go wrong and they can go much worse.