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Russia's war in Ukraine has NATO on alert. Here's how we got to this point


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Russia's war in Ukraine is testing NATO. What can it do to support Ukraine against Russia without leading to World War III? Russia has bombed a Ukrainian city just 15 miles from the border of Poland, a NATO country. This week, NATO's secretary general said NATO needs to reset its military posture for this new reality. President Zelenskyy has pushed for NATO to admit Ukraine as a member. But this week, Zelenskyy said he realized that door had been closed. Putin would see it as a grave threat if Ukraine joined NATO. That would open the possibility of NATO weapons along the long border shared by Russia and Ukraine.

My guest, Mary Elise Sarotte, is the author of a book about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's called "Not One Inch," and it helps explain how NATO, Ukraine and Russia got to where they are today. It's based in part on papers she got declassified after fighting for years to get them released. Sarotte is the Kravis professor of historical studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and she's a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She's also the author of an earlier book about the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We recorded our interview yesterday.

Mary Elise Sarotte, welcome to FRESH AIR. Zelenskyy has given the message that Ukraine is just the first battle in the fight against democracy being waged by Putin. Do you think that Ukraine is just the start?

MARY ELISE SAROTTE: I fear that Zelenskyy may be right. I fear that we may be entering a new Cold War, only this Cold War could be very different from the last Cold War because many of the guardrails from that competition have disappeared. So, yes, I am very much worried about what is happening. And I see the moment that we are in as a watershed moment.

GROSS: If Putin decides to move further past Ukraine into a NATO country, some people think it would be the Baltics - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. Zelenskyy seems to think a Baltic country would be next. How would that test NATO?

SAROTTE: The Baltics are members of NATO, and the heart of the NATO treaty is, of course, as many of your listeners will know, Article 5. Article 5 is the clause that stipulates any member state of NATO must treat an attack on one as an attack on all. And there are 30 members of NATO. The United States has given this guarantee to 29 other countries. Sometimes I think that there isn't sufficient awareness in the United States of the strength of the commitment that we have given to 29 other countries, including the Baltics. So if Putin were to move into Article 5 territory, then the question immediately becomes, how do you respond? It doesn't guarantee that there will be a war, but you do, as an alliance, have to decide how to respond. And obviously, if something started happening on Article 5 territory, there would need to be a very serious discussion inside NATO, a very difficult discussion about how to respond. And one of those responses could be military, could be war. So if Putin moves into the Baltics or if the fighting spills over onto the countries that border Ukraine, such as Poland, then we would be in a very dangerous situation.

GROSS: Do you think Putin wants to test NATO's resolve?

SAROTTE: That is hard to say. And I very much hope that we won't find out. And that is one of the reasons of getting out (ph).

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

SAROTTE: That is one of the reasons why I believe it is important that we maintain our contacts with Beijing because Putin is increasingly isolated. He's increasingly becoming a pariah. And he's having to rely increasingly on China. And so I hope our diplomats are making clear to Xi Jinping that this is a risky course for China to support Putin in what he's doing, especially as it - if it rises to the level of threat to NATO. I hope, for example, our diplomats are saying to China they should look to the example of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was clear which country was going to be the dominant military power, the dominant economic power of the 20th century. And that country was Germany. But then Germany made the fateful decision to ally itself with a crumbling empire on its border, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And that led to a war which took down German power with it. So I hope our diplomats are saying to China, do you really want to go down this path yourself? Since the Chinese are always very conscious of examples of other empires in history crumbling. I hope that they're pushing that point so that we don't get to a moment where Putin feels emboldened to test NATO.

GROSS: So NATO now has 30 member countries, and they're all pledged to see an attack on one as an attack on all. Compare that to the original vision of NATO before it expanded into Central and Eastern Europe.

SAROTTE: Well, the salient fact is that that is still the original vision of NATO. But obviously the circumstances have changed. NATO came into existence in 1949 as an alliance of 12 countries against the Soviet Union. Basically, its job was to prevent Soviet tanks from rolling into Western Europe, and it tried to do that through a combination of nuclear deterrence and conventional forces on the ground, including in West Berlin, which was an island inside East Germany, where I was studying in 1989 as a student abroad, which is where my interest in this topic comes from. And that alliance is, in essence, a Cold War alliance. And Article 5 came out of that construct. But Article 5 endures to this day. NATO persisted through the end of the Cold War into the post-Cold War era. And the new member states all enjoy that very same guarantee. There were critics at the time that Naito was expanding to the Baltics. Of course, the decision to expand NATO in the post-Cold War world was a very controversial decision. And there were critics who said, among other things, we should not give Article 5 to countries on the assumption we'll never have to live up to it.

But now we have given Article 5 to the United States, and NATO members collectively have extended it to 30 countries. And so we are bound by this article to defend the Baltics. And this is no small challenge. There was a war game conducted by the American think tank Rand in 2016. The goal of the war game was to estimate how long it would take Russia to conquer the Baltics, and the answer was measured in hours. So given, you know, that kind of challenge, if NATO really were to face a Russian, shall we say, incursion in Article 5 territory, this could swiftly become very difficult and be a very serious issue.

GROSS: Has NATO ever been tested like this before?

SAROTTE: Well, obviously, the Cold War itself was one giant test. The Cold War was a thermonuclear standoff, as you, of course, remember and as I remember. So in a sense, yes, NATO has been tested in a big-picture sense, but there was never a, you know, direct land war between NATO and Russia on the Russian border. There were, of course, many proxy wars where the people of Vietnam suffered terribly. The people of Afghanistan suffered terribly. I mean the Cold War invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in this case. So the Cold War was, in many places, also a hot war, but there was no direct military conflict between, to put it bluntly, Americans and Russians. And so this is a new situation where we're looking at Americans and their European allies directly fighting with Russians. That is something that has - did not happen in any serious extent. There might have been isolated incidents but not to any serious extent during the Cold War.

GROSS: Joining NATO had been a priority for Ukraine, for Zelenskyy. But this week, Zelenskyy said he realized that the door to NATO is closed to Ukraine. Did NATO ever promise Ukraine or lead Ukraine to believe that it could become a NATO member?

SAROTTE: Well, NATO actually stated Ukraine will become a NATO member at its Bucharest summit in 2008. By 2008, many countries had already joined NATO, and Ukraine and Georgia were showing interest as well. There was a NATO summit in the Romanian city of Bucharest, and at that summit, there was a fight essentially between President George W. Bush and his advisers, such as Condoleezza Rice, and Europeans who thought it would be a bridge too far, because of the friction with Moscow, to put Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. And so what resulted was a compromise, which was unfortunately the worst of all possible worlds.

NATO did not take any practical steps to make Georgia or Ukraine members. In other words, if a country is really going to become a member, once that's clear, there's a series of practical steps that immediately kick in. None of those happened. But as a compromise, the alliance issued a summit declaration with the words, Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO. The idea was on some distant day in the future, and we're not actually going to take any steps to implement it. And so that was a compromise to make President George W. Bush and the Americans happy.

The problem was that when President Vladimir Putin of Russia saw that, he took it at face value and said, Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO over my dead body, and immediately found an excuse to take military action in Georgia in 2008. And that de facto put an end to Georgian hopes of membership because the NATO alliance is loathe to take on a new ally that already has a preexisting conflict on its territory. And that makes sense because as we discussed before, if you take on a new country and you extend Article 5 guarantees to it, you've immediately made yourself party to that conflict. So in 2008, Putin took violent action in Georgia, and that, I think, is a clear precursor to then what followed in Ukraine.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch," about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch," about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and that contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Did Putin hold that against Ukraine? Is that part of what's - what we're seeing playing out now?

SAROTTE: Yes, absolutely. If I could provide a little bit of context on Putin and then address your question directly, Putin, to all appearances, likes to mark birthdays and anniversaries in gruesome ways. And by that, what I mean is there's a clear correlation. He seems to have made it clear to subordinates that he likes birthday presents. Now, here, I'm not speaking on the basis of my research. This is not the kind of thing we can go to the archive and see this in the archive. But this seems to be clear from the evidence.

For example, the human rights activist and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who bravely illuminated the crimes that Putin was committing in Grozny and in Chechnya - she was a perpetual thorn in his side. She was killed by a contract killer on October 7, 2006. October 7 is Putin's birthday, and he gave a speech immediately thereafter where he referred to her as insignificant and couldn't conceal his pleasure that she was gone, essentially. Similarly, if you fast-forward ten years, the - in the United States, the leak of emails that were hacked from John Podesta's account - that happened on October 7, 2016, Putin's birthday. And if you start to go back and look, you see a lot of these cases. There was particular violence in Chechnya on October 7, 1999. Putin also similarly likes to mark anniversaries, particularly the anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is late 1991. So on the 25th anniversary of Soviet collapse - that was again the year 2016 - he hacked the U.S. presidential election.

So for me, as a scholar of this period, as I looked at the calendar, I realized that the 30th anniversary of Soviet collapse was coming up at the - in late 2021, so last December. And I had this sense of foreboding that he might try to again mark it in some way because, to get back to your question, that was also the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence. And obviously, Putin believes that there is this unique relationship between Russia and Ukraine. He personally does not think Ukraine deserves to be a separate state or a separate nation. He does not think the Russian and Ukrainian people are different. Now, obviously, the Ukrainians disagree vehemently and are willing to die for that belief very bravely. But it was - it seemed to me likely that Putin would in some way, consistent with this pattern, mark the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Ukraine violently. What surprised me is that he's done this so violently, that it has escalated so dramatically. It really - even though I was worried that something like this might happen and that's one of the reasons why I published the book at this time, it has shocked even me just how brutal and how violent it is.

GROSS: When Ukraine did declare its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became the third-largest nuclear power, but it gave up its nukes in a bargain. What was the deal that led Ukraine to denuclearize?

SAROTTE: Yes, as you rightly say, Ukraine was born nuclear. I have to caveat that a little bit. What that means is that because of the amount of Soviet arsenal on its territory, it was on paper the third-largest nuclear power in the world - bigger than Britain or France, for example. But the Soviet arsenal was set up with command and control in Moscow. So even though the Ukrainians were physically in possession of those weapons, in essence, Moscow still held the keys to the nuclear car. And so for Ukraine, if it had decided to keep those nuclear weapons, it would have had to find a way to shift command and control into local hands, which would not have been simple.

So Ukraine decided to peel away from the Soviet Union December 1991, as you rightly said. That was one of the reasons that the whole structure of the Soviet Union collapsed. Another big reason, of course, was that Boris Yeltsin hated the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. And Yeltsin realized that if he could destroy the Soviet Union, it would make Mikhail Gorbachev president of nothing, and then he, Boris Yeltsin, could rise to power as the head of the new independent Russia, which he succeeded in doing.

But then, of course, you - and then had this issue, as you rightly identified, that the Soviet nuclear arsenal had fragmented into multiple hands, not just Russian and Ukrainian but also Belarus and Kazakhstan. And in Washington and other Western capitals, that got everyone's attention. The U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, went to his boss and friend, George H. W. Bush, and said to him privately, there is no other foreign issue more deserving of your time or attention than the Soviet arsenal fracturing into multiple hands.

And there was actually a fight inside the Bush administration because the then-secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, said, you know, maybe this isn't so bad, right? A nuclear arsenal in the hands of four weak states - three of whom don't really have control, don't know how to use them - maybe this is actually better. And Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, was on Cheney's side. But Baker was adamant. He said, no, this is worse. This is Yugoslavia with nukes. We must get all of the nuclear weapons back into Russian hands. And the Bush administration was badly split. This was not apparent until recently when the documents became available.

And Baker won. So Baker then starts a process, which is carried over into the Clinton period, of getting the other post-Soviet republics to denuclearize. And ultimately, Ukraine does in 1994 in exchange for something called the Budapest Memorandum. And that document assures Ukrainian territorial integrity. But I say that word assures very specifically because an assurance is not a guarantee. And obviously, that is a huge issue now that Ukraine is being brutally invaded by Russia.

GROSS: Was there a tacit understanding that other signatories to the Budapest Agreement would have come to Ukraine's aid when Russia violated the agreement?

SAROTTE: The problem with the Budapest Memorandum was that it, as I said, was vague on specifics and gave assurances, not guarantees. The Ukrainians at the time, they were savvy. They sensed that the Budapest Memorandum was a weak document. You can even hear it from the name. It's not the Budapest Treaty, right? And Ukrainians at the time, as I discovered in my research, said to each other - and this was, to me, quite remarkable because this is 1994. Ukrainians said to each other and to their American partners - they said, you know, we know this is a weak document. All we're hoping is that this will get us a forum, this will get us a hearing in the world when Russia violates our territorial integrity. And I found that kind of breathtaking, that they were clear-eyed and realistic even at that point.

But the other problem for Ukraine is that its economy was in freefall. And so not only would it have been financially difficult for a new, poor state in economic crisis to finance a nuclear arsenal, it also - it needed help. It needed financial aid from the West. And basically, Western countries made clear to Ukraine that if it didn't denuclearize, it would be a pariah, and it would not receive that aid. So Ukraine was really in a vice. It was really in an awful situation.

And its leaders made what I think was a sensible choice, which is to, you know, help their failing economy. They took a bargain with the West and gave up these nuclear weapons that they didn't control anyway. But it was a hard choice. And many in Ukraine now are looking back and saying, you know, what if we had found a way to keep them? Hard to say how realistic it would have been, but that is something that people are talking about in Ukraine now.

GROSS: Your book starts in 1989 when the Berlin Wall falls and Germany is unified. So East Germany is no longer aligned with the Soviet Union. It's no longer communist after the wall falls. So Gorbachev didn't use force to keep East Germany in the Soviet sphere, but Putin, who at the time was stationed in East Germany in the KGB - and you describe him as a bit player in the KGB at that time. Putin thought that Gorbachev should have used force. And you say that Putin actually called KGB headquarters to get permission to shoot protesters near his office.

SAROTTE: He actually called Soviet troops based nearby because he wanted firepower right away, and he was amazed that Moscow was not using force to maintain its dominant position in East Germany. And this apparently was a searing event for him because he kept mentioning it years later in interviews. He called nearby Soviet forces who were still in - the Soviet Union had occupied East Germany since 1945, since the end of World War II. And he called a nearby base and said, you know, I want to shoot these peaceful protesters. And the person who answered the phone said, I'm not going to support that without explicit authorization from Moscow, and Moscow is silent. And Putin repeatedly said that those words have haunted him - Moscow was silent - and that that was a huge mistake. And obviously, Moscow is not being silent anymore with regard to Ukraine.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch" about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Elise Sarotte. Her latest book, "Not One Inch," is about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book helps explain how NATO, Ukraine and Russia got to where they are today. The book is based in part on papers she got declassified after fighting for years to get them released. Sarotte is the Kravis Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

You described how Putin loves anniversaries and loves, you know, quote, "gifts" on his birthday. So in late 2021, around the time of the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union, Putin made a speech in which he said, not an inch to the east. We were told in the '90s that NATO wouldn't move an inch to the east. They cheated us vehemently, blatantly. Your book is titled "Not One Inch." Can you explain that reference?

SAROTTE: Sure. So once the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was obvious the Germans wanted to unify. The problem was that Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally. So all those years later, there were still four victor powers de facto in charge of Germany in the last instance. That was the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union. In the Soviet case, this meant there were 380,000 troops still there. So in order for Germany to unify, Moscow had to be convinced to give up its legal rights and its troops. The Western countries were willing to do that, but they had also set up the NATO relationship which let their troops stay.

So the question was, what would it cost to get that kind of agreement from Gorbachev? And in a hypothetical conversation, talking about what might be possible, the U.S. secretary of state uttered those words. He said, Mikhail Gorbachev, how about this? You let your half of Germany go, and we agree that NATO will move not one inch eastward. That was hypothetical. What ended up being agreed was different. And I can explain that if you want. What Putin does is he keeps referring back to that moment as if that were a formal written treaty pledge, which it was not. And he's essentially instrumentalizing this history to justify brutalizing Ukraine, which it, of course, does not.

GROSS: Yeah. Because James Baker brings this idea back to President George H.W. Bush, and Bush says, no way. We're not going to promise them that. So Putin was never promised that.

SAROTTE: Well, at the time, Putin was a junior KGB agent. So they're dealing with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. When Baker gets home from that conversation and talks to President Bush, President Bush says, in essence, Jim, you lean too far forward over your skis there. I, President Bush, I think we're going to keep NATO and its ability to expand. We don't have to give that up. He isn't asking for that. What we're going to do instead - and this is now in the words of Bob Gates, who was later secretary of defense, but was the deputy national security adviser then - Bob Gates said, our strategy is going to be, quote, "bribing the Soviets out."

In other words, we're going to give them a large amount of money to let their part of Germany go rather than giving them concessions about NATO. And that's what happens in the end. There is actually a legally-binding treaty, and that treaty includes a clause that allows Article 5 to extend eastward across the Cold War line. And Moscow authorized a signature in exchange for large amounts of financial inducements.

GROSS: So this agreement was made with Gorbachev. It wasn't made with Putin, but Putin still sees it as a betrayal.

SAROTTE: Yes. So Putin talks only about the first part of that sequence of negotiations where Secretary of State James Baker did say in a hypothetical fashion, how about you let your half of Germany go, and we agree NATO moves not one inch eastward? But the negotiations moved on, in part because it became apparent that if NATO didn't move one inch, it would stay forever where it was on the Cold War line. And that line ran through the middle of Germany. So it put Germany in the weird situation of being half in and half out of NATO, and President George H.W. Bush thought that was untenable.

So in the end, what actually is signed - the legally-binding treaty at the end - explicitly allows Article 5 to move those inches across the Cold War line into eastern Germany. And Moscow signs that. And so the legal document at the end is actually the opposite. But Putin ignores that because that's not useful for what he wants to do. So he instrumentalizes the early part of the negotiations and then ignores the result.

GROSS: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO starts adding countries in Central and Eastern Europe that had been part of the Soviet bloc. Why didn't they still want to expand? Maybe the answer is obvious, but I'd like to hear the answer.

SAROTTE: Sure. Well, it's not just NATO. It's many countries in Central and Eastern Europe who want to become NATO members. In particular, places like Poland, like Czechoslovakia, which then breaks up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia and Hungary. These are countries that had bravely thrown off Soviet oppression, had become democracies, had become market economies, in other words, had similar values to existing NATO members, because NATO often talks about itself not just as a military alliance, but an alliance of values. And they very much wanted to become members. And they contacted Washington and - already during the George H.W. Bush era. And then once Bill Clinton became president and said, we want to be in NATO. So there was this, shall we say, demand. And the question was, what was Washington going to do in response? And that started driving the process.

GROSS: There was a debate about whether NATO should expansion or not. Was the fear that if it expanded, Russia would see it as a threat and that it would hurt whatever cooperation America and Russia were starting to establish?

SAROTTE: Yes. So the cost per inch of NATO expansion increased the closer you got to Moscow. It's one thing for a country like Spain to become a member, which had happened during the Cold War. But it's another thing for a country like Poland, which actually shares a border with Russia because of the Kaliningrad region. It's another thing for that to become a NATO member. So it was a process that threatens to undermine the newfound cooperation between Moscow and Washington. And that cooperation was very important because it was mostly dedicated to disarmament.

There was extensive cooperation, first under President Bush and then under President Clinton, to dismantle, destroy and secure much of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. And since that arsenal was generally pointed at the United States, this was in American interest. So the secretary of defense under Clinton, Bill Perry, in fact, when he became aware that NATO was going to expand, went to President Clinton and said, sir, don't do it. He said, I have the greatest respect for Central and Eastern Europeans, but I'm currently decreasing the number of missiles pointed at the United States. And anything we do that aggravates Moscow is not in our interest. It's not in U.S. interests. Please don't do this, sir. Clinton went ahead, and Perry considered resigning. He didn't, but he later said that he wished he had.

GROSS: What was the impact on nuclear disarmament?

SAROTTE: The impact is part of the broader deterioration in the relationship between Washington and Moscow. The thaw of the 1990s was this time where Washington and Moscow could work together on nuclear disarmament, but because of choices on both sides, that cooperation fell apart. So there was - we've already talked about the American decision to expand NATO in a way that aggravated Moscow. In Moscow, Yeltsin made tragic decisions, too, such as deciding to shed the blood of his political opponents in Moscow and Chechnya. So these '90s are really this tragic time of lost opportunities where the cooperation on nuclear disarmament fell apart. And now we have Putin raising nuclear threats again.

GROSS: But Bill Clinton's president in part of the '90s, and he gets along pretty well with Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia. So what happened to their relationship? Why didn't that lead to more cooperation on nuclear treaties?

SAROTTE: Yes, their relationship initially is quite remarkable. It's the Bill-Boris bromance. They met more times than any presidents and Soviet leaders or Russian leaders before or since. They met 18 times in formal summits. President Bill Clinton went to Russia more times than any American leader before or since. It really was a remarkable relationship. And that was one of the reasons why I spent years appealing to get documents and records from it declassified from the Clinton Library. And I really have to say a word of thanks to the Clinton Library staff and archivists and declassification authorities who, after three years of appeals, helped me to get those documents into the public domain. They're on the Clinton Library website if people would like to look at them.

And so initially, they had this very close relationship where Clinton was even understanding of Yeltsin's struggle with alcoholism. This was a constant problem in their meetings. In one famous incident at the end of a long day of summitry in Washington, somehow, Yeltsin, through unclear means, ends up on the side of a public road in Washington, D.C., yelling in Russian that he needs a pizza and a taxi, and he is wearing only his underwear. So, you know, that was the sort of extent of his alcoholism. And Clinton, in a sense, would cover for him. Clinton, sadly, had experience with alcoholism in his own family. His father had been an - stepfather had been an alcoholic and had abused his mother. And so Clinton did his best to manage that.

But then the relationship starts to sour in part because Yeltsin is furious about NATO expansion but also because he feels he's not being helped enough by the West. He doesn't like the economic advice he's getting. Shock therapy is falling apart. There's a financial crisis in 1998. And the relationship really sours. The Bill-Boris bromance goes sour. And by the end, Yeltsin is hanging up on Clinton in drunken tirades. It's quite a remarkable and sad arc to their relationship.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch" about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Mary Elise Sarotte. Her latest book, "Not One Inch," is about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It helps explain how NATO, Ukraine and Russia got to where they are today.

You got access to papers, after years of trying to get them declassified, of conversations, meetings between President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. So in addition to learning about Clinton and Yeltsin and their relationship, you learned about Putin 'cause Putin worked with Yeltsin while Yeltsin was president, and Putin succeeds Yeltsin as president of Russia. What are some of the insights into Putin that you got through these declassified papers?

SAROTTE: Yes. These papers come largely from the Clinton Presidential Library but also from the State Department and other government agencies. And I also worked with Russian language sources as well. And in particular, when I got the Clinton Library documents declassified in 2018, the Kremlin protested. And that had never happened to me before with any of my other declassifications. The - Putin's spokesman, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was not right the documents on, quote, "currently serving politicians" had come into the public sphere, by which he meant his boss, Putin, because, as you rightly said, Putin worked for Yeltsin. And so he then emerges in these documents.

And it's clear, for example, that Yeltsin gave Clinton early word that he was going to make Putin his successor. That really surprised me. Yeltsin, by the year 1999, he was struggling with his alcoholism. He had serious heart disease. He'd had multiple surgeries. There had been the terrible financial collapse in 1998. Yeltsin had had enough. He wanted to quit. The problem was that he and his family had - were open to charges of corruption. And so he couldn't leave office until he figured out some way to protect himself and his family in the time after he left office. This, of course, is a problem facing Putin now because how does he leave office, right?

So Yeltsin was essentially on the search for someone who would protect himself and his family after he exited. And he had other choices. And he even talked about those with Clinton. That's some of the most remarkable parts of these documents, where Yeltsin is saying to Clinton, maybe this person, maybe that person. But eventually, he learns about Putin, who has a reputation for protecting corrupt - basically, corrupt politicians. He's - Putin has made a name for himself for doing that in what is called St. Petersburg. Again, it used to be Leningrad. And Yeltsin and his family say, you know, we need someone like him. And they bring Putin to Moscow, and he is promoted rapidly through the ranks. And on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin abruptly resigns effective immediately and makes Putin acting president. And since that day, Putin has, in one form or another, de facto been in charge of Russia.

GROSS: So the deal was Yeltsin could keep his money and possessions that he got in corrupt ways if he appoints Putin to be his successor.

SAROTTE: Yes - more broadly speaking, Yeltsin and family and friends and associates around him. And unsurprisingly, once Putin becomes president, he de facto pardons Yeltsin and protects Yeltsin until his death. Now, there's no, you know, formal written document that says this, but this is the, you know, clear sequence of events - that Yeltsin was right in his expectations of Putin. And Strobe Talbott, Clinton's main Russia adviser, has said that when he later talked to Yeltsin's daughter, who was one of Yeltsin's main advisers, Yeltsin's daughter said words to the effect of, wow, getting Putin into the presidency was one of the hardest things we ever did, but, you know, it was a good idea, right? So, in other words, it worked out the way we wanted.

GROSS: You know, when President George W. Bush met Putin for the first time, he said, I looked into his eyes, and I saw his soul. How did some people initially get Putin so wrong? Did Putin change that much over the years, or did a lot of people just, like, misread him, including President Bush - George W. Bush?

SAROTTE: Yeah, I think it varied. So, for example, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is a fairly sharp observer - she sensed early on - she, of course, was the secretary of state for President Bill Clinton in his second term. She sensed early on what a cool customer Putin was. And other people around Clinton noticed it as well. For example, at one of the first meetings with Putin - this is in the fall of 1999, after Yeltsin has privately told Clinton he is going to be my successor - Clinton is trying to establish a rapport with Putin, and usually Clinton is very successful at that. He's very warm. He's very engaging. People want to be with him. Other leaders like him. But for some reason, that's not working on Putin. Putin is just very reserved and very different, and it's just clear this is going to be a different relationship. But Clinton, by that point - it's 1999, 2000. He's going to have to leave office. So he doesn't really have time to ramp up that relationship in any way.

And then initially, I think, it's just, you know, there's - it's just not clear that Putin is still motivated by these grievances. And there are moments where the relationship is better, such as when he expresses sympathy to the United States after the 2001 attacks. But by the mid-2000s, when you start to have the so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet republics, which unsettled Putin because he saw democratic revolutions, talk of East Germany, and he doesn't want one toppling him as well - by then, it's clear that Putin is, you know, not going to be the reformer that people in the West had hoped.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch," about the history of NATO in the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mary Elise Sarotte, author of the book "Not One Inch," about the history of NATO and the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What's left of our nuclear treaties with Russia?

SAROTTE: Almost nothing, sadly. That is something that worries me greatly, as I mentioned in a New York Times op-ed a couple of weeks ago. Those arms control treaties were, in a sense, guardrails on the Cold War, and those are largely gone. For example, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev - that was unfortunately abrogated by Donald Trump in 2019. And that is deeply worrisome. In fact, there's only one treaty left between Washington and Moscow. That's the New START treaty, and it runs out in 2026. It could be renewed, but something tells me the chances of renewal are slim. And then we have no constraints on the world's two biggest nuclear powers. More than 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow still control 90% of the world's nuclear warheads, and after 2026, they will be unconstrained. And that I find deeply, deeply worrisome.

GROSS: When Trump was president, he complained a lot about NATO, about how other countries weren't paying their share of their dues, and they'd better shape up. How close did Trump come to pulling out of NATO?

SAROTTE: That's exactly what Trump said. That was, however, a misunderstanding of how NATO finances work. So that was - it showed Trump's lack of understanding of NATO. Countries, in essence, fund their own militaries. They don't fund NATO directly. So that was a sign that Trump didn't understand how NATO worked. My understanding - I only know what I read from Maggie Haberman and others in The New York Times, but my understanding is that Trump did consider very seriously pulling the United States out of NATO, and it is, in my opinion, very fortunate that that did not happen.

GROSS: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, were there things the U.S. could have done differently, including in nuclear talks and including in the expansion of NATO, so as to not have antagonized Putin?

SAROTTE: Sure. So I argue in my book that NATO enlargement itself was a perfectly justifiable policy. The problem was how it happened. In other words, it happened in a way that maximized friction with Moscow at a time when Moscow was most in need of friends. For the first time in its history, Moscow was democratizing, and it was turning into a market economy. And that was a very fraught, very difficult process. And the '90s where just a horrific time period in the post-Soviet states and particularly in Ukraine and in Russia. And as this was happening, as Washington is interacting with Moscow, there is a lot of self-serving advice, economic advice coming from outside advisers about shock therapy and about privatization. That doesn't help. And then, of course, there's internal Russian problems. So the way privatization is carried out is hugely corrupt. And then there is also a huge financial collapse.

So in this context of enormous difficulties, the United States decides to lead needed to expand in a way that maximizes friction with Moscow. I talk in my book about alternatives that were known at the time to decrease that friction, such as via an alternative known as the Partnership for Peace. And the Clinton administration initially adopts that strategy, which I think was very wise, but then pushes it aside, partly because Boris Yeltsin starts shedding the blood of his political opponents in Moscow and in Chechnya. And that rightly causes people to be worried and think, well, we need to enlarge NATO more assertively, partly because of the mid-term congressional elections in the United States in November 1994, where Republicans won a stunning victory based on a Contract with America calling for more assertive NATO enlargement, and partially because of Ukraine, which is, as Clinton says, a linchpin in this whole process. It starts to denuclearize, having originally been the third-biggest nuclear power in the world. And then that makes it less important. So it makes it less important that, you know, you have some kind of a solution that includes Ukraine and post-Soviet states.

And if I could just add one more thing. President Clinton, when he initially came into office, said, you know, why should I draw a new line across Europe, having just erased the Cold War line? If I give countries Article 5, that will draw a new line across Europe between the countries that are Article 5 and the countries that don't have it. And that will leave the post-Soviet states in the lurch, especially Ukraine, which is the linchpin of Europe. When I read that as a researcher, I was just shocked at how prescient that was. But then, because of all of these factors coming together, Yeltsin shedding blood, the Republican victory, Ukraine denuclearizing, Clinton changes his mind, and he ends up drawing that new Article 5 line after all. And that then create a new source of friction with Moscow. And it does leave Ukraine on the wrong side of that line, as we're seeing today.

GROSS: Your book is titled "Not One Inch: America, Russia, And The Making Of Post-Cold War Stalemate." Are we still in stalemate?

SAROTTE: Between NATO and Russia? Yes. And that is why it is so painful for us right now, because we are stalemated. We see the horrors happening in Ukraine. We see the maternity wards being bombed. We see that woman and her two kids, you know, dying as they try to flee, not just one family, but there were particularly striking images. We see - as you and I record this on Wednesday, Zelenskyy showed a video to Congress of very moving scenes of destruction. We see all this, and yet we can't do anything to help. That is a stalemate. We are stuck.

And the tragedy is that we were in a much better place with Russia at the end of the Cold War. Put differently, cold wars are not short-lived affairs. So thaws are precious. And neither Washington, nor Moscow made the best use of the thaw in the 1990s. And we lost that deliverance that we had in the 1990s. And my book is an effort to explain how that happened. It's not a simple story. There's agency on both sides. It's not, you know, oh, just the United States did everything wrong or Russia did everything wrong. But it is an important story because, you know, the United States and Russia, we are the two countries that can devastate life on earth. And now we are back at daggers drawn. So I believe it is an essential story of our time.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you for using your knowledge of history to help us better understand what's happening now in Ukraine and with NATO. So thank you so much for talking with us.

SAROTTE: No, thank you for bringing attention to this important issue. I'm really grateful.

GROSS: Mary Elise Sarotte is the author of "Not One Inch." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Seth Meyers, host of "Late Night," and Marie Yovanovitch, a star witness in the first impeachment of Donald Trump which revolved around Ukraine, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and John Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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