“We missed a precious window”: why did America and Russia squander an opportunity for peace in the 1990s?
US and Russian leaders squandered the opportunity to forge a lasting partnership at the dawn of the 1990s, says post-Cold War historian Professor Mary Sarotte
Nearly 30 years ago, US President Bill Clinton and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin (president of Russia from 1991–99) embarked on an unlikely ‘bromance’ defined by optimism, a willingness to cooperate, and the possibilities of partnership. It was, says Professor Sarotte, the greatest opportunity for nuclear disarmament since the dawn of the atomic age. So, what went wrong?
Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast in December last year, Professor Sarotte explained how a rare opportunity to forge a bright new future for US-Russian relations in the 1990s was squandered by a series of diplomatic missteps. Among them was America’s decision to pursue a more aggressive form of Nato expansion.
These missteps helped fuel Vladimir Putin’s resentment towards the west and ushered in a new period of hostility, says Professor Sarotte.
“Not one inch”: America’s hypothetical proposal
To understand what went wrong, we must first look back at the unexpected tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War order. Having been divided during the Cold War, it was clear that the country of Germany now wanted to unite. But, crucially, as a result of the Soviet victory over the Nazis during the Second World War, decades later Germany still had occupying forces on its territory – including 400,000 Soviet troops, which had the legal right to remain there. In short, Germany was still technically an occupied country and so could not unify until those occupying countries agreed to let it do so. Mikhail Gorbachev, the then-leader of the Soviet Union, would need to be persuaded to give up his troops before hopes of German reunification could be realised.
So how might Gorbachev be convinced?
The west wanted to support Germany in its efforts to reunite. So, as part of a host of negotiations, in February 1990 the US Secretary of State James Baker held a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. There, as part of a hypothetical bargain, Baker suggested that if Gorbachev would, in effect, be willing to let his part of Germany go, Nato would agree to shift “not one inch” eastward from its present position, Professor Sarotte explains. “In other words, Nato would stay permanently frozen on the Cold War line”. Gorbachev reiterated that any extension of the zone of Nato would be unacceptable – but, crucially, none of this was formalised or written down.
“A controversy erupted over this exchange almost immediately, at first behind closed doors and then publicly,” says Prof Sarotte in her book, Not One Inch.
When Baker returned to Washington and told President George HW Bush what he and Gorbachev had agreed, he discovered he had been mistaken in his assertion that Nato could stay frozen on the Cold War line – because if it did, united Germany would be half in and half out of Nato, “which of course would make no sense,” says Professor Sarotte.
So, President Bush floated a different strategy – instead of agreeing not to shift one inch eastwards, he said Nato would retain its ability to expand (as it had done before the Cold War) and instead offer concessions (some of them financial) as it moved in the direction of Moscow. In particular, Nato would limit what it could do on eastern German territory – the end result being that the former territory of East Germany would be the only part of Europe that is guaranteed by treaty to be nuclear-free. “To this day, there can be no nuclear weapons on what used to be the former territory of East Germany, which today includes Berlin, the capital of Germany, in the middle of it,” says Professor Sarotte.
“Gorbachev was a proud son of the Soviet Union and wanted to save it, not destroy it. He certainly did not intend to let divided Germany go,” says Professor Sarotte.
Ultimately, though, Gorbachev did let his part of Germany go. He had been up against Bush and Baker, who were expert negotiators but who had also teamed up with the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, to “bribe the Soviets out” (as the later US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates would describe it).
The trio was successful: Gorbachev accepted Nato’s aforementioned concessions without a promise of Nato non-enlargement. Further still, despite having originally said that any extension of the zone of Nato would be unacceptable, in September 1990 Gorbachev authorised the signature of a legally binding treaty that confirmed the complete opposite – that Nato could extend beyond the Cold War line.
On 12 September 1990, The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which reunited the two German states and saw the Soviet Union agree to withdraw its troops by the year 1994, was signed. It was signed by the four non-German powers (France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union), as well as the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Crucially, the treaty formally recognised that United Germany would be free to join the alliance of its choice – which was Nato – meaning that Nato structures would be extended to the territory of the former GDR (German Democratic Republic) after the departure of Soviet troops. This legally binding treaty, signed by the Soviet Union, effectively said that Nato – by virtue of West German membership – could extend beyond the Cold War line, to East Germany.
Did Washington betray Russia?
Baker’s initial suggestion that Nato would move “not one inch” eastward had been crucially important in helping to persuade Gorbachev to recall the hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops that were stationed in East Germany – a move he knew was unpopular with the Soviet public and Soviet military especially. [In fact, military officers became so embittered with Gorbachev’s plans that they eventually launched a coup against him in 1991.]
A huge controversy followed over whether, by uttering the words “not one inch” and then changing its mind, Washington had betrayed Russia, says Professor Sarotte. The debate raged on for years – in 1998 the then-Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov complained that there had been no agreement in writing. “This is not dusty history – Vladimir Putin complains about it to this day; he justified what he did in Crimea in 2014 because of this huge betrayal, as he sees it,” says Sarotte.
Putin repeatedly cites the hypothetical discussion between James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 as if it were a promise, says Sarotte.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. “Suddenly, Washington realised it could not only win big, it could win bigger,” says Sarotte. “With the Soviet Union out of the picture, whole new horizons opened up. And gradually, those words ‘not one inch’ came to take on the exact opposite meaning – they came to mean, in Washington’s eyes, that not once inch of territory needed to be off-limits to Nato.”
Listen: Professor Mary Sarotte discusses how diplomatic missteps after the fall of the Berlin Wall soured US-Russian relations and fuelled the rise of Vladimir Putin
How did these events contribute to the rise of Putin a decade later?
At the time of Baker’s hypothetical proposal to Gorbachev in February 1990, Putin was a mid-to-low-level agent within the KGB [the Soviet secret police]. He watched “in horror” as Soviet and East German control collapsed and the Berlin Wall opened – he could not believe that they weren’t fighting back. In his memoirs, Putin recalls asking Soviet military officers to come to his aid with force and being told ‘We can’t do anything without an order from Moscow, and Moscow is silent’.
“That phrase, ‘Moscow is silent’, haunted him for years”, says Professor Sarotte. “In his memoirs, Putin says, in effect, that ‘we should have pushed back so hard that our opponents could not rise to their feet again’… Many of the lessons he took from these events helped to shape how he rules as president of Russia.
“We tend to think of the end of the Cold War as this period of triumph. But there is another way of considering it… Perhaps the most important outcome of the end of the Cold War was how it shaped Putin and fuelled his rise.”
- Read more | What brought a thaw in the Cold War?
Were America and Britain right to want to expand Nato all the way to Russia’s borders?
It’s easy to understand why Nato wanted to expand, says Professor Sarotte. “Nato expansion was neither unprecedented nor unreasonable – Nato had expanded multiple times during the Cold War. And the states of central and eastern Europe wanted to join Nato – they had bravely thrown off the Soviet yoke and they had the right to choose their own security alliances.”
But the problem, says Professor Sarotte, lies in how Nato chose to expand. The US had initially opted for a slow and steady form of expansion with what became known as the Partnership for Peace, whereby post-Soviet states like Ukraine could affiliate with and then gradually gain Nato membership in phases. But ultimately the US did a U-turn and chose to embark on a more aggressive form of Nato expansion.
Explaining the Partnership for Peace, Sarotte said: “The idea behind it, as expressed by President Clinton himself, was to, as he put it, avoid drawing a new line across Europe. Clinton stated the need to think not just about central and Eastern Europe (i.e., Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic), but also the post-Soviet states – and, in particular, Ukraine. Ukraine was a country with a population of more than 50 million people, on par with the size of Britain or France; it was becoming a democracy; and it was the third-largest nuclear power in the world. So Clinton concluded that they couldn’t ignore Ukraine, but acknowledged it would be unreasonable to simply ‘put’ it in Nato, not least because it shared a huge border with Russia as well as extensive cultural ties.
“What we need, said Clinton, is some kind of intermediate organisation which various countries, including post-Soviet states like Ukraine, could affiliate with and then gradually gain Nato membership in phases. It’s worth pointing out that this idea was not very popular with either side, but it was a compromise. And it would have been, I think, a more sustainable way to expand Nato that would have caused less aggravation,” says Professor Sarotte.
- Read more | Is the future of Nato under threat?
Clinton personally went to Poland and also sent his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili, who was born in Poland, to speak to Lech Walesa, Nobel laureate and president of Poland, to urge him to back the Partnership for Peace. “And so, even though they didn’t like it, through gritted teeth the Poles and the Russians agreed to it, and the Partnership for Peace started doing its work.”
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So, what went wrong? Ultimately, the Americans changed their mind. Their U-turn was inspired partly by “some very tragic choices by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin – most importantly, his decision to shed the blood of his political opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, which forced the west to recalibrate and think ‘maybe the new Russia isn't so different from the old Soviet Union’,” says Professor Sarotte.
Also in the mix was mounting pressure on President Clinton to support a more aggressive form of Nato expansion. In the midterm congressional elections of 1994, the Republicans won a dramatic victory, taking both the House and the Senate, largely on the basis of a Contract with America – a long list of positions on various topics, including Nato expansion.
“Instead of having an intermediate organisation to modulate the process, which would allow a wide array of countries to have a loose affiliation, the Contract argued for the total opposite – an ‘all or nothing’ manner of expansion where either you give countries the Article Five guarantee right away, or nothing,” says Professor Sarotte. “The Article Five guarantee is, of course, the heart of the Nato treaty, which states that all members of the alliance shall regard an attack on one as an attack on all.”
In short, the Republican victory forced Clinton to reconsider his position on the post-Cold War world order. So, despite having initially said he would not draw a new line across Europe, that’s exactly what he did. “He decided that instead of incremental accession to Nato by a large number of states, the alliance would extend the full weight of the Article 5 guarantee to a small number of countries and then just keep going,” says Sarotte. In doing so, America had “switched the mode of Nato enlargement”.
This is the manner of Nato expansion that we’ve ended up with today, says Sarotte. “I would argue that that maximised Moscow’s irritation and left Ukraine (which is not a member country of Nato) in the lurch, which became very problematic,” she explained. “There was a gradual shift away from what I argue was a sustainable method of expanding Nato, and that was when things started to unravel.
“I am not arguing that the only reason relations between the US and Russia declined after Soviet collapse was because of Nato expansion. I don’t believe in mono-causality. But it fed into what was already a deteriorating relationship. And it happened tragically when Russia, for the first time, was becoming a democracy; right at a time when Russia was most in need of friends.
“Cold Wars are not short-lived affairs, so thaws are precious. There was a precious window in the 1990s. And it is clear to me that neither Washington nor Moscow made the best possible use of this thaw. And now we’re back to a new period of hostility.”
Clinton and Yeltsin’s ‘bromance’Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his American counterpart – ‘Boris and Bill’, as they became known – developed the closest relationship ever to exist between a Russian and an American leader, says Professor Sarotte: “I think it’s not inaccurate to call it a bromance.” They visited one another 18 times in total, more than any American and Soviet or Russian leaders before, and Clinton went to Russia more than any other American leader. They enjoyed one another’s company and during their visits they indulged in good meals together.
But the relationship declined tragically. “What started off as a bromance descended by the end into alcohol-fuelled tirades by Yeltsin, who had a serious drinking problem, and with Yeltsin hanging up [the phone] on Clinton”, says Prof Sarotte.
The deterioration of this personal relationship between Clinton and Yeltsin had grave consequences for the relationship between the two nations, she says.
Why did the US miss the opportunity to forge a partnership with Russia?
“There was this precious thaw in the Cold War that President Clinton was very conscious of – he would say, ‘we have this chance that hardly any other previous leaders have had to establish peace across all of Europe. We could write a new chapter in the history of the world’,” says Professor Sarotte. “This was the greatest opportunity for disarmament since the dawn of the atomic age – there was so much willingness to cooperate”.
But the opportunity was squandered, in large part by the move to more aggressive Nato expansion in 1996, says Sarotte. The then-American Secretary of Defence Bill Perry urged President Clinton against what he described as rushed and premature Nato expansion, warning that it would scupper his efforts to decrease the number of Russian missiles pointed at the United States. But his efforts were in vain. Perry considered resigning but, in the end, stayed put – later, in his memoirs, he said he wished he had resigned, “because the consequences of premature Nato expansion were even worse than he had imagined”, says Sarotte.
How do we explain America’s missed opportunity? “Putin has shown a willingness to solve crises – or what he thinks are crises – by escalating them; by using force and violence,” says Sarotte. “America did not anticipate this. I think one of the problems going back to the thaw in the 1990s is that we didn’t understand that Putin’s true character is brinksmanship; we didn’t appreciate his willingness to leave behind the cooperation of the post-Cold War period.
“I don't think we understood that, for him, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a tragedy. And he carried with him a great sense of grievance that he shared with all displaced servants in the Soviet state.”
Elaborating on this in her book, Not One Inch, Sarotte says both the Bush and Clinton administrations “failed to understand the extent to which the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe, when viewed from Moscow, looked more like imperial collapse.”
Having nursed his grievances about Soviet collapse over the course of many years, once elected president of Russia they became integral to the way in which Putin ran the country, says Sarotte.
Mary Sarotte is Marie-Josée and Henry R Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is an expert in post-Cold War Europe and her most recent book publication is Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (Yale University Press, 2022).