The Ukraine/Russia Crisis: The Mistake Wasn’t Expanding NATO, It Was Promising Gorbachev Not To


Pent-up resentment over four decades of Soviet domination drove the captive peoples of Eastern Europe to throw out their Kremlin puppets in a sweep of pro-democracy rebellions in 1989. Those defections from Moscow’s repressive empire encouraged independence movements in Soviet republics that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union two years later.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin endeavors to reverse those turns of history, his threats against Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have rekindled a debate over whether it was a mistake for NATO to expand membership to ex-Soviet republics and allies after they defiantly broke from the Kremlin orbit.

What Putin proposes to ease escalating tensions he instigated by massing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border is for the U.S. government to pledge that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the defense alliance. The Kremlin leader further dictates that NATO cease military operations in 14 new member states  — all Soviet-era allies — admitted to the alliance in the post-Soviet era.

President Joe Biden’s administration and NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg have rejected Putin’s demands as nonstarters. To let Putin and Biden decide what alliances the sovereign nation of Ukraine may join would repeat the political error of the 1945 Yalta Conference that ceded Eastern Europe to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s claim to a historic “sphere of influence.”

At that summit of the Great Powers poised for victory in World War II, Stalin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided the fate of more than 100 million Eastern Europeans without their involvement and doomed them to poverty and isolation for the next 45 years.

Putin’s claims to authority over Russia’s lost empire contradict fundamental principles of international law and self-determination. Western democratic leaders speak with one voice in rejecting the Kremlin’s push to ease U.S.-Russia frictions at the expense of Ukraine’s right to chart its own political, economic and strategic policies.

The only White House concession to Putin’s demands to turn back the geopolitical clock was to agree to open talks in Geneva in mid-January in search of measures both sides can agree on to reduce tensions. A meeting of U.S. and Russian security leaders is set for Jan. 9-10, to be followed by a Russia-NATO session on Jan. 12 and a broader conference on Jan. 13 including European diplomats.

Russian foreign policy advisors rightly point to what they see as U.S. duplicity in reneging on a promise made to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1990 during German reunification negotiations that NATO would never expand eastward.

“What if Gorbachev allowed unification to proceed and Washington agreed ‘that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?’” then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III proposed to the last Soviet leader during the Two-Plus-Four talks, according to U.S. records on the exchange.

In “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate,” historian and international studies professor M.E. Sarotte traces the current hostility in U.S.-Russia relations to what she describes as Baker having “unwittingly overstepped his bounds by offering Gorbachev a now infamous hypothetical bargain.”

Sarotte concedes NATO expansion was justifiable, as is the right of newly independent states to choose for themselves how best to protect their countries after throwing off their Warsaw Pact tethers to the Kremlin. What was unwise, she argues in the long look back at the squandered opportunity for a better relationship with post-Soviet Russia, was “adopting a one-size-fits-all”  membership strategy that ignored the geopolitical reality of a weakened and humiliated Russia surrounded by a strengthened adversary.

“The closer the alliance borders moved to Russia, the greater the risk that NATO expansion would derail the newfound cooperation with Moscow and endanger the dramatic progress being made on arms control,” writes Sarotte in an essay for Foreign Affairs coinciding with the publication of “Not One Inch” in December.

Other analysts of NATO’s expansion from 16 member states to 30 in the years after the Communist bloc’s downfall argue in favor of customizing the relationship for countries like Ukraine along the lines of post-war Austria’s neutrality or Finland’s strategy of military non-alignment. Both thriving democracies, the two countries opting out of NATO operations in Russia’s periphery have more collaborative economic and political relations with Moscow than do most NATO countries.

Rajan Menon, a senior scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, lays out the plusses of Ukraine embracing neutrality in a commentary for the Los Angeles Times last week. He then shoots down the prospect of Kyiv taking that path, or of the Biden administration pressuring the Ukrainian leadership to do so. Ukraine was offered a path to NATO membership in 2008 and although the country is still at least a decade away from meeting the requirements to join the alliance, it remains committed to seeking full coverage of NATO’s security umbrella.

To join NATO, according to a 1995 study on potential enlargement, states must resolve ethnic disputes and territorial conflicts with sovereign neighbors. Ukraine’s ongoing war with ethnic Russian separatists in two eastern provinces and Russia’s seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 are obstacles of Russia’s making that undermine Ukraine’s eligibility for NATO admission. That begs the question of why Putin has created a scenario of imminent threat from Ukraine and NATO when he has effectively blocked Kyiv’s path to the alliance.

In “What Putin Really Wants in Ukraine,” a commentary published last week in Foreign Affairs, Moscow Carnegie Center Director Dmitri Trenin suggests the Kremlin leader is trying to stop NATO expansion, not annex more territory.

“The Russian government asked for a formal halt to NATO’s eastern enlargement, a permanent freeze on further expansion of the alliance’s military infrastructure (such as bases and weapons systems) in the former Soviet territory, an end to Western military assistance to Ukraine, and a ban on intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The message was unmistakable: If these threats cannot be addressed diplomatically, the Kremlin will have to resort to military action.”

Trenin concedes Putin’s demands “are probably an opening bid, not an ultimatum,” that the Kremlin would likely settle for a U.S. government agreement making those assurances of NATO exiting its claimed sphere of influence. He offers that observation not as a path to compromise on one of Washington’s nonstarters, rather in consideration of the need for congressional approval of a formal treaty and the snowball’s chance in Hades of America’s polarized politicians ratifying any such pact.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last week that to understand Russia today, one has to understand its history of “attacks from all directions. We had to become a warrior nation defending our homeland.”

Antonov reminded Americans of the George H.W. Bush administration’s broken promise of no NATO expansion, noting that five waves of incorporation of former Soviet states started in 1999 and nearly doubled NATO membership over the past 20 years. Forty major military exercises are held annually near Russian territory, he pointed out, as well as an upsurge of naval activities in the Black and Baltic seas.

“To put matters into perspective,” the ambassador wrote, “according to the latest assessments of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the combined military expenditures of NATO countries exceed Russia’s defense budget by at least 25 times.”

Russia’s posture of victimhood does little to sway the collective Western assessment of Putin striving to recover dominion over vestiges of the former Soviet empire. The White House asserts “unwavering commitment” to shepherding Ukraine into the family of democratic nations.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion now devoted to anti-authoritarian activism as head of the Human Rights Foundation, criticized Biden’s response to Putin’s request for a second video summit last week as the White House having been played by Putin, a career KGB agent before the Soviet collapse.

Kasparov warned in an interview with CNN Saturday that the U.S. president’s openness to dialogue with Putin is portrayed by Russia’s state-controlled media as the Kremlin leader attempting to set the U.S. president straight.

The rival messaging from the Kremlin and the White House on whether NATO is a predatory military force or an alliance dedicated to protecting states still trying to escape Moscow domination 30 years after independence seems to confirm one lesson of post-Soviet history: It wasn’t a mistake for NATO to expand, it was a mistake to make a promise to Gorbachev that proved impossible, and indefensible, to keep.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Let’s look at the politics>

    Are there Americans of Ukrainian (and for that matter, of Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian etc) heritage in any numbers in swing districts/states and which are important to the Democrats? And do those folks still care about their ancestral homelands? Most, as I recall, have been strongly anti-Communist.

    That has to be a factor in the calculations of Biden, of course, but also of Putin.

  2. Not a lot of Lithuanian or Estonian migrants here as they’ve been dedicated to building their democracies but those who emigrated or escaped before independence are virulently anti-Communist.
    There are sizable Polish communities in Chicago and Toronto, mostly 2nd & 3rd generation and anti-Communist.
    But I don’t think any of these diasporas are large enough to push Biden to take on Russia in another proxy war that would end in the way Vietnam or our misguided Afghan war did. We undermine our authority and influence in the world when we engage in unwinnable wars and are forced to retreat in such humiliating fashion (IMHO).


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