Blake Fleetwood International Original

‘Not One Inch Eastward:’ How the War in Ukraine Could Have Been Prevented Decades Ago

America broke its promises about Eastern Europe. Now Ukraine is paying the price.
[spoilt.exile / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Blake Fleetwood / Original to ScheerPost

Thirty years ago the current conflict with Russia was foretold and feared. George Kennan, James Baker, Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Sam Nunn, and Thomas Friedman, among others, all warned in the 1990s of a new Cold War if NATO was expanded without including Russia.

In order to understand what’s going on in Ukraine from Vladimir Putin’s point of view, you have to go back to 1990 when the Soviet Union was collapsing. Talks were proceeding about the pending unification of Germany, which the Soviets could have vetoed. 

There is no question that the U.S. and NATO — President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker — made a deal in early February 1990 with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. 

According to documents declassified in 2017, the deal essentially was that the Soviets would allow German unification with the written “ironclad guarantees”, that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward”, in the words of James Baker. 

‘Not One Inch Eastward:’ How America Broke Its Promises About Eastern Europe

A week later Gorbachev began German reunification talks. So what happened next?

At this point with Russia in chaos and its nascent democracy and free market was just emerging.  They needed help. The U.S. could have entered into a real Marshall Plan arrangement, as we did after World War II with our enemies, Germany and Italy.  This plan could have included Russia and all of the Eastern Bloc and offered an opportunity for a long standing partnership to nurture the roots of democracy and capitalism in the region.  

But this opportunity was lost because Cold War hardliners, within President George H. Bush’s foreign policy circle could not see the enormous differences between an emerging Russian democracy/capitalism and the Soviet Communist Empire. 

These hardliners proclaimed the Wolfowitz/Bush doctrine in 1992 which held that the US was the only remaining superpower and should thus project its dominance over any region in the world.

Senator Edward Kennedy described the doctrine as “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.”

The Bush/Baker promises regarding NATO expansion into eastern Europe were kept through the Republican administration.

But in 1998 after the Democrats took over,  Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team said “we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russian’s throats because Moscow is weak…, The cold war is over for you but not for us.” according to an article in The New York Times. 

The Democratic administration essentially took the position that the cascade of promises  to halt NATO expansion were made to the Soviet Union not Russia, and anyway didn’t apply to the new administration.

The Beginning of a New Cold War

To the great humiliation of Boris Yeltsin and the Russian people, Clinton would not allow Russia to join NATO, but it started a process which would lead to 14 other former Warsaw Pact members joining what was an anti-Soviet military alliance.

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, joined first and were eventually followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

Russian journalists felt that America had taken advantage of a weakened Russia to impose a new world order that did not include them or their historical need for a buffer zone.

While the Senate was first debating NATO expansion, excluding Russia, New York Times Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Thomas Friedman, reached out to the dean of American scholars of Russia, George Kennan. He said “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war.”

“I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.”

Kennan believed that expanding NATO would forever damage America’s efforts to transform Russia from an enemy to a friend.

Kennan was right. From that point on Russian leaders felt that America had taken advantage of a weakened Russia to impose a new world order, that did not include them or their historical need for a geographic buffer zone.

The shame that NATO’s expansion bred in Russia was critical in fueling Putin’s 2000 rise to power after Boris Yeltsin moved on. Russia’s crumbling economy, with millions dying from malnutrition, also helped doom the decade of Glasnost, democracy, and capitalism from taking root. The Russians were desperate, and Putin exploited their desperation by promising a return to greatness. He also turned away from the hard-fought reforms of democracy and free speech. which didn’t seem to be making life better for the Russian people. 

America Made Putin Who He is After 2007

But from 2000 to 2007 Putin remained relatively subdued, according to American raised, Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner. Desperate to revive his economy and plagued by growing Islamic terrorism, Putin again inquired about Russian membership in NATO and the European Union and was told that he could not join. Russian was too big.  Maybe Putin  thought that America and Russia, after 9/11, could become partners in the war against terrorism, which was then plaguing both countries. Pozner, no great fan of the Russian dictator,  suggests that America made Putin who he became after 2007

The fires of Russophobia, stoked by many neoconservatives as well as partisan Democrats, were still burning strong in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing in 9/11/2001.

The Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had been one of the cornerstones of superpower relations for nearly 30 years. But George W. Bush again infuriated the new Russian leader by pulling out of the treaty in December 2001 and directing the Pentagon to build a new system in Eastern Europe, under the pretext that it would ward off the threat of missiles from Iran.  

If Ukraine draws closer to NATO, Putin thundered this month, “Modern offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory just like in Poland and Romania.”   

Washington has argued that the two missile sites in eastern Europe do not have offensive capability, but independent experts believe that they could be rejiggered to fire offensive missiles.  The US Navy did not respond to a request by the New York Times for a visit.

Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 deeply affronted by the broken promises and Russia’s reduced status in world affairs.  In 2002 Putin asked again about joining NATO and the EU and was refused.

So today, with hundreds of thousands of troops massing on both sides of the Ukrainian border, the fate of millions of  civilians hangs in the balance at the possibility of a new European land war. What should we do?

America should understand that this is not only a conflict in the Ukraine, there are larger, long standing issues at stake. Russia wants to revise the European world order that was forced upon it in the chaos of the 1990s.

Russia doesn’t want NATO arms or military equipment on its borders in Ukraine or anywhere else. They don’t want Ukraine to join NATO, a military alliance that was formed to aggressively confront the Soviet Union.

Discreetly, the US and other NATO nations agree that membership is not in the cards for Ukraine as a practical matter for some time. It has long been one of the most corrupt nations in Europe with a kleptocratic legal and judicial system, a corrupt economy, a fragile democracy and a crude defense sector.

The US is not willing to say that in writing, though they are saying it privately to the Russians. America should do away with all the diplomatic gibberish.

Putin thinks that America is lying and has broken promises over the last 30 years. Vladimir Putin is no saint. He is ruthless and brutish, intolerant of free speech, democratic elections or an unbiased judicial system. Clearly an autocratic leader.

But most rational people would say Russia has somewhat of a point. Would the US permit Russia to send military assets to Cuba or Venezuela? Of course not. Nor should we. 

But neither should we assume the role of the World’s Policeman anymore. That time has passed. Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, are countries that we invaded in the name of “democracy”. When will the hardliners learn that America’s strength lies in soft power: its economy, its values, its democracy, its example, not military intervention.

If the Ukraine tinderbox is ever to be defused, Putin must be allowed to save face. He has to walk away with something. Russia feels it is being slowly put into a cage and Putin has the support of the Russian people with a 68 percent favorable rating.

Give the separatists a measure of autonomy. There are a few pockets in Ukraine on the Russian border that are still loyal to Russia. Give them small bits of land, a decentralized status. No doubt, within a few years, they will rethink the wisdom of their decision. Just as Ukraine wants self determination, so too do the pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas. They don’t want Kiev to appoint their governors and mayors;  and they want to be able to speak the Russian language, which they have spoken for many centuries.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire, which threatened the free world, was a war that America won without firing a shot. But America didn’t follow up its historic victory by welcoming Russian democratization and Westernization. Instead we are now facing another autocratic state and a New Cold War with nuclear bombs. 

In 1993 James Baker, Bush’s Secretary of State, who made the original promises to Russia, wrote a prescient Op Ed in The Los Angeles Times in which he argued for admitting Russia into NATO.  He wrote, Russia’s membership “is key to any long-term vision for NATO.”

“The Russian leadership in the months ahead should be given the choice of aligning with the West. Ruling Russia out of NATO would only undercut the hopes of Russia’s Westernizers while fueling the fear-mongering neo-fascists.”

Bringing other Warsaw Pact members into NATO, without including Russia, would be “ill-advised” Baker asserted, because it would sow the seeds of revanchism and a revived Russian empire.

Baker further argued that bringing Russia into NATO would strengthen  the perestroika reformers and encourage Russian democracy. In the 90’s during the period of  Glosnost, many elements of democracy, and a nascent turn to capitalism, Russia’s further integration with Europe seemed possible. But it was not to be and a great opportunity was lost.

George Kennan, who helped create NATO and fashioned America’s original  cold-war containment policy, said years ago of NATO expansion, “This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end.”

Blake Fleetwood
Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood was formerly a reporter on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times MagazineNew York MagazineThe New York Daily News, the Wall Street JournalUSA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic, and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at

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