NATO, Back From the Brink

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S1: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Please, if you have a seat, be seated.

S2: The speech President Biden gave this past weekend in Warsaw, Poland. If you watch the whole thing, it has the cadence and the language of a grim kind of pep rally. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into Poland since Russia invaded Ukraine a month back. Warsaw’s mayor has warned of being at a breaking point, and Biden seemed to be saying all of this is not going to end anytime soon.

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S1: This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves. The long fight ahead.

S2: As much as this speech was about what’s happening right now, though, it was also a history lesson.

S1: We stand with you, Kerry.

S2: At one point, Biden ticked off one battle and then another, framing war in Ukraine as part of a much longer struggle against Russian aggression, one that stretched back to the 1950s and sixties.

S1: Until finally in 1989, the Berlin Wall and all the walls of Soviet domination, they fell, they fell and the people prevailed.

S2: His message here was that Western leaders are not just trying to tamp down the conflict in Kiev. They’re trying to stamp out sparks of authoritarianism before they spread and become full blown wildfires.

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S1: We can not go back to that. We cannot.

S3: I think he was realistic to convey that sense. I think we’ve really crossed a Rubicon in international relations, and I believe that things will be different for a long time.

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S2: Mary Elise Sarotte has studied conflicts on Russia’s borderlands. She says When you do that, it’s a little easier to know what to pay attention to in this current conflict. Take Biden’s speech, for instance. Many people focused on what the president said at the very end when he improvised a rebuke to Vladimir Putin.

S1: For God sake, this man cannot remain in power. God bless you all. And may God defend our freedom. And may God protect our truth.

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S2: Some observers heard this and wondered, is Biden calling for regime change here? Mary says this was Biden’s attempt at being realistic. The West is no longer in a peacetime posture.

S3: Anything that makes it less likely for Putin to back down is obviously problematic. And Biden’s comment does fall in that category. My lack of concern over it, however, comes up from the fact that that’s a relatively minor issue compared to everything else that is going on, compared to the extent of the bloodshed, the context of the brutality in Ukraine. Given that we are where we are, it is clear that Naito and Russia are enemies once again.

S2: And the fact that Naito and Russia are enemies. Once again, it’s changing everything. Just a few months ago, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was considered a black eye for Naito, and even earlier than that, Western leaders were warning that Naito was becoming braindead. I don’t really remember. The last time Naito was a rallying cry.

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S3: Yes, absolutely. Obviously, the Russian aggression against Ukraine is horrific. But if there’s any silver lining to the dark cloud of that aggression, it’s the cohesion in the West that has resulted. There’s actually a political science theory that posits it’s useful to have an enemy because it concentrates minds and causes fractious allies to cooperate.

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S2: Today on the show, how Naito got its groove back and whether this cohesion can last a mary Harris you’re listening to what next? Stick around. The irony of NAITO is that it was born out of the failure of a different alliance between the West and the Soviet Union. In World War Two, Soviets fought alongside the allied powers to defeat the Nazis, and when Germany surrendered unconditionally, all of the allies occupied the country, dividing it into Western zones run by the U.S., Britain and France, and an eastern zone run by the USSR. The city of Berlin was divvied up the same way, but cooperation between the West and the Soviets was short lived. The Western allies wanted to put in place democratic structures. The USSR not so much. The Western allies were concerned about revving up a market economy. The USSR was not.

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S3: So gradually it becomes apparent that not only are the allies now failing to cooperate, but there’s actually new hostility arising between what is increasingly becoming the Soviet zone and the Western Zone, because the Western actors merge their zones and start to act together and things just keep going from bad to worse. For example, Stalin, blockades, all of Berlin, so the West has to airlift supplies into the Berlin airlift. Meanwhile, the Western European countries like Britain and France are getting very nervous about what this means for their own security. If Moscow was now going to be hostile and they’re looking to Washington and saying, hey, we need some kind of, you know, security guarantees here. You also have the famous diplomat, George Kennan. The American diplomat in Moscow sends what is known as the long telegram, saying, you know, there can be no modus vivendi, there can be no live and let live with Moscow. And so you have this this profound sea change in American thinking, kind of like the sea change we’re seeing now in European thinking that, in fact, we don’t have an old ally, we have a new enemy. And out of that sea change comes the spirit of, okay, now we need, despite the fact that World War Two is over, despite the fact that we actually took our troops home, we Americans are actually going to go back to Europe and set up this new alliance together with our Europeans to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union.

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S2: And the idea is we’re stronger together, right?

S3: You’re going to be stronger together and you’re going to give each other Article five. That’s a guarantee that an attack on one member state will be treated as an attack on all, and that will deter the Soviet Union from entering Western Europe. Now I should add that Naito initially is kind of a paper tiger. Nobody’s quite sure what that really means. Article five. But then there’s three events that, as people like to say, that put the O in naito that turn into a real organization.

S2: What are those events?

S3: The first event is that the Soviet Union successfully detonates its own atomic bomb in the late summer of 1949. Americans thought they’d have their nuclear monopoly for longer. Then you have the success of the Communist Revolution in China in October 1949 and then in 1950, North Korea launches an invasion of South Korea. So suddenly it seems to the West, this is not entirely historically accurate, but suddenly it seems to the West that the communist world is expanding in size, is armed with nuclear weapons, and is willing to cross disputed borders and invade neighboring countries, i.e. South Korea. And so everyone looks at this, thinks, oh, my goodness, the next thing is going to be an invasion of West Germany.

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S2: After the Berlin Wall fell, Naito went through this rapid evolution that you chronicle. Can you explain what happened?

S3: Yes. So NATO’s starts out at 12 countries in 1949. But by the end of the Cold War, it’s already enlarged to 16. But obviously, once the Berlin Wall comes down and once the Soviet Union collapses, obviously you’re in a new geopolitical situation. And so the big question was, you know, what happens now to European security? Do we give up NATO’s entirely since NATO’s was designed to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union, basically. Can we just say mission accomplished and disband? What happens now?

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S2: Was that ever on the table? Just like, Oh, we can just get rid of it.

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S3: It was never on the table for the Americans or for the West Germans who were driving the process. But there were dissidents from Eastern European countries who proposed that. Now, this is an interesting and little known fact. For example, Vaclav Havel, the leader of Czechoslovakia, proposed dissolving all military blocs naito in the Soviet Union. Many of these brave dissidents in the peaceful revolution of 1989, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany, the people who had bravely overthrown Soviet control. Many of them were committed pacifists who wanted no military blocks. And there was actually a serious proposal launched by basically people who had gone from prisons to presidencies when they overthrew Soviet control to turn all of central and Eastern Europe into a perpetual neutral zone of peace, to dissolve the borders between places like Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, demilitarised and denuclearize it and make it a bridge of peace between East and West forever.

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S2: That’s so radical.

S3: Isn’t that radical? Exactly. You can say that’s crazy, but that would have been a new world order.

S2: It’s interesting you bring up Havel, though, because didn’t he change his mind?

S3: Because that’s why this is forgotten. Because when it becomes apparent that George H.W. Bush feels strongly that the West needs not only to retain NAITO, but also to retain its ability to enlarge, there’s going to be a narrow line. So the smart move, given that that’s the case, given that our alternate vision is not going to work, given that another alternate vision for a pan-European security organization is not going to work either, then we want to be on the right side of the line this time. So then the name of the game is to get into Naito. And so Havel changes his mind and he and the leaders of Poland and of many states then begin actively pressing for membership in Naito.

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S2: Mary says there’s a type of cycle that starts to play out after the Berlin Wall falls. Eastern Bloc countries want to join Naito for protection. The Russian government bristles and then the U.S. offers financial inducements and Russia resentfully capitulates. All this started pretty much right away with the unification of Germany.

S3: So in order for Germany to unify, Moscow had to be convinced to give up both its troops and its legal rights in divided Germany. And so, as part of a speculative early conversation about what it might take to get Moscow to agree to that. Secretary of State James Baker, the American secretary of state, had said speculatively, how about this Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the last leader of the Soviet Union? How about this? How about you let your half of Germany go? And we say that needle will move, not one inch eastward.

S2: This offer has become part of Kremlin lore. Vladimir Putin describes what happens next as a betrayal because while the American Secretary of State, James Baker, saw this deal as an excellent compromise, his boss, then President George H.W. Bush.

S3: Disagreed because of NATO’s moves, not one inch eastward. That means, among other things, it’ll stay frozen in the middle of divided Germany because the narrow front line was the front border of West Germany, the eastern border of West Germany, which is in the middle of what’s going to be united Germany. And so Baker has just hurriedly sent around a letter to various colleagues saying, sorry, sorry. I said that, causing confusion. Not going to say that anymore. The problem is that it takes a while to notice. And Gorbachev later tries to get that in writing, but can’t. And finally, in the end, he gets really frustrated, but he agrees instead to give up his hold on East Germany for financial inducements. And this is the important punch line which Putin ignores. There is a formal, legally binding treaty to this effect, and that treaty explicitly allows Netto to extend Article five eastward beyond the Cold War line. And Gorbachev authorized a signature of that document.

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S2: But to Vladimir Putin, he tells this story as if we were offered that Neda would not move one inch and you took it back from us. Even though Gorbachev signed on to this.

S3: So even though in. February 1990, there’s a speculative discussion that Natal moved not one inch eastward by the time push comes to shove. And you’re actually inking a treaty in September 1990. Not only has that language disappeared, but the opposite language goes into the treaty, explicitly allowing Article five to extend eastward across the Cold War line and to repeat Moscow authorize a signature of the treaty and then ratifies it. But Putin does want to talk about that. Once the Nazi threat was gone. You know, you don’t have that Nazi threat forcing the West and Moscow to work together. And then it becomes apparent that Moscow has a very different idea of what security order it wants in Europe. It wants a buffer zone. And there I think we do have a parallel to today because I think a lot of what is going on is Vladimir Putin is saying, I do not like the post-Cold War security order, I want more of a buffer. I want control over lands where Slavs live.

S2: Back after a break. Three years after the Berlin Wall fell, President George H.W. Bush was out of office and President Bill Clinton was in. And Mary Elise Sarotte says Clinton and his European allies faced this choice. What do we do about Nieto? Eastern Bloc countries were clamoring for Article five protection, but everyone knew that expanding the alliance would make Russia defensive. Workarounds were considered.

S3: The British, for example, at one point said, You know, what we should do is we should expand NATO’s once in the post-Cold War world just once, because any more is going to just increase friction with Russia to the point where it’s going to have unpredictable consequences. Again, this was another really prescient remark that I was amazed to see from the early nineties. And so the Brits said, the British said, let’s just pick a large set of countries that we think would make good allies, let them in and be done with it. No further rounds of enlargement and Washington pushed back very, very hard against London in particular. Clinton’s Russia adviser, Strobe Talbott, said That is exactly the wrong thing to do. That is the exact opposite of what we should do. We need to make clear that Naito has an open door, that it will it will not stop expanding.

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S2: But this open door policy had a downside. Never knew it.

S3: Ukraine basically as early as coming into office, Clinton is saying things like, again, I’m paraphrasing, but the exact quotation from my book. Ukraine is the linchpin of peace in Europe. If we basically just give Article five to a few countries, we’re going to draw a new line across Europe and Ukraine is going to be on the wrong side of that line. And that’s not right. Ukraine is a big country. At that point, it had over 50 million people. So it’s on the size of England or France. It’s geographically enormous. It’s becoming a democracy. It’s becoming a market economy. Why should we draw a new line and leave Ukraine in the lurch?

S2: So another workaround was offered up, something called the Partnership for Peace. This was a way for NATO’s to work together with Russia while keeping it at a safe distance. Other non-NATO countries were encouraged to join along with Russia. It provided structure for Ukraine in Moscow, in the West to all work together without moving the Article five line. Some thought of it like a naito halfway house.

S3: It’s actually referred to as the NATO’s waiting room. And Russia agreed with this. It didn’t love it. Nobody loved it. But at least everyone could be in it. And so it provided, among other things, options for managing contingency, which, by the way, would be really useful right now.

S2: So what happened with the Partnership for Peace? Because I don’t hear about it these days.

S3: What happens is the third big decision about NATO’s enlargement because of some tragic Russian choices and also American domestic politics, Clinton essentially changes his mind. Boris Yeltsin, who is on the one hand trying to democratize Russia, but on the other hand struggling with alcoholism, facing a huge number of domestic enemies, some of whom are fascists, some of whom are really extreme. Yeltsin makes a fateful decision in October 1993 to start shedding the blood of his political opponents. In other words, to not keep things on a peaceful level.

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S1: A live picture of the battle for control of the Russian parliament. The words now of President Boris Yeltsin on Russian claiming this tragic night has taught us many things. We had not been getting ready to make war. We had been hoping that it was possible to make a deal and preserve peace in this capital.

S3: And so he fires he has army tanks, fire on his own parliament. And then even worse, in 1994, he decides to invade Chechnya, which he does brutally. And so those decisions are game changers, because suddenly places like Poland and Hungary say, you know, we said we’d put up with the Partnership for Peace, but now that Moscow is shedding blood again, that’s not enough. A partnership is not enough. So all of this changes Clinton’s calculus. And having said, I don’t want to draw a new Article five line across Europe, he decides in the end to do that anyway.

S2: It’s kind of funny to me to look back at how people were talking about NATO’s just a few years ago. Like, my favorite quote was from French President Emmanuel Macron, who called Naito brain dead in 2019.

S3: Right.

S2: People had varying opinions on it, but it didn’t seem like very many people were in a great headspace about it.

S3: Right. So this overlaps what we discussed a bit before, which is a questioning of NATO’s mission prior to this 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. There’s a long history of France questioning. NADEAU In fact, when it became clear, for example, that the French wanted American service personnel to leave. One of the responses I got from Washington is, does that include the ones in cemeteries, too, who died in World War Two? Deliberate, you write. Yeah. That’s a. Pretty cutting comment, but NATO’s survived and NATO’s survive. Macron’s brain dead comment. And now it is cohesive and united. And as I said, if there’s any silver lining to the truly horrific events that are happening in Ukraine, and again, I have to express my admiration for the people in Ukraine who are bravely resisting that. It’s the cohesion that their bravery has inspired. Inside, NAITO.

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S2: Was enlarging NAITO beneficial for Western allies, or did it push Russia closer to the war that’s happening in Ukraine right now? Or is it maybe both things at the same time?

S3: There’s no way to answer that question without first saying good for who? A lot of the debate about native enlargement has been binary, right? Either it was good, it was bad, and you believe one or the other and people yell at each other. And I’m trying to say, wait a minute, that’s not nuanced enough. There were a spectrum of possibilities for enlarging NAITO. So my argument is that NATO enlargement made sense. It was the people who wanted it were brave new democracies like the Baltics, like Poland. They had every right to want to be a native Naito had every right to take them on. The problem with the enlargement was how it happened. And I think if we’d stuck with this Partnership for Peace, which gave us useful ambiguity, which gave us the ability to manage contingency, that would have created less frictions and importantly would have given a birth to Ukraine.

S2: This week there’s been a little bit of an indication that maybe Russia’s changing strategy in Ukraine is doing that by floating the idea that maybe our mission is accomplished and we want to focus on Donetsk and Luhansk, these two regions where Russia had already been engaged in warfare since 2014. I wonder what you make of this shift in tone.

S3: Hard to know what is real and what is not on the ground to Russia. Russia, of course, as we all know, was saying for months it was not going to invade Ukraine and then it invaded Ukraine. But that is a positive development in a truly awful situation, because there may be an endgame coming into sight. Again, I’m speculating here. I’m a historian. I don’t have access to classified information, so I’m just speculating here. But it seems that you could start to see an endgame where Russia says, oh, what we really wanted all along was to secure an eastern area that included a land bridge to Crimea and Ukrainians, although it is horrific what they’ve suffered. Ukraine decides it can better live with that than with continuing to watch maternity hospitals get bombed.

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S2: But just because the conflict in Ukraine could have a foreseeable end doesn’t mean this geopolitical tangle is going to go away. Mary Elise Sarotte sees this moment, this war, as having irrevocably shifted the world order for years to come.

S3: If Russia ceased military activity today, it’s not as if in the West we’d say, okay, that’s fine. Let’s go back to the way we were before. That’s just not going to happen. The shift in attitude towards Russia is too profound. This new division between Russia and the West is going to last and I think will increasingly have many characteristics of the previous Cold War. And I should caveat that and say, for example, Putin does not want to recreate communism. He also does not want to recreate the entire Soviet Union. He has this more this idea of sort of Russia as the head of a kind of what he refers to as risky or a sort of Russian or Slavic world. And that, I think, is going to endure beyond him. It’s going to take a long time to move beyond this new division that’s now happened between a moscow centric block and a Washington centric block. And, of course, this is in a more complicated context in the Cold War, because, of course, we have China’s power, we have Iran, we have North Korea. So I think we are genuinely in a new and lasting phase of geopolitics.

S2: You’ve said that this new Cold War will be far worse than the first. I’m wondering why you said that.

S3: I fear that it could be worse. And the reason I fear that it could be worse is that we are missing many of the guardrails that we had during the previous Cold War. So during the previous Cold War, which evolved over years and decades, we developed, for example, a whole set of arms control agreements. What’s scary about now is we seem to have spun back up to Cold War like conditions in a matter of weeks. And we don’t have those guardrails. We also don’t have a popular awareness of the risks of a Cold War confrontation. And so that, I fear, could be more dangerous than before. Yes.

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S2: To bring it back to Naito. If you had to guess in. A decade. Do you think Neda will still be at 30 countries? Or do you think it’ll be more?

S3: I think it probably still will be at 30 because we have such a strong, bright line now across Europe. I think the moment for natal enlargement has passed and I think it’s unlikely that NAITO would expand certainly to any large or significant countries. I would, however, carve out potentially Finland and Sweden, which are sort of in a separate category because there’s been a long discussion about, you know, could they ever be members, particularly now that we have the Baltics in and they would provide strategic depth for the Baltics, they would turn that area into a natal lake. That may happen. That would, I think, be the one area where I really could see new members being added. But I don’t think, for example, Georgia and Ukraine are going to become members now.

S2: Mary Alice. I’m really grateful for your scholarship here. Thanks for telling me more.

S3: Sure. Thank you for your attention to these important issues.

S2: Mary Elise Sarotte is the author of Not One Inch America, Russia and the Making of post-Cold War Stalemate. Go check it out. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson and Elina Schwarz. We are getting a ton of help these days from Laura Spencer and Anna Rubanova. We are led by Alisha Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. I’m handing the reins over to Lizzie O’Leary in the What Next TBD crew. And I will be back in this feed Monday morning.