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To grasp what's going on at the Russia-Ukraine border, it helps to know some history


To really grasp what's going on at the border of Russia and Ukraine, it helps to know some history. We've called on Mary Elise Sarotte. She's a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Her latest book is "Not One Inch: America, Russia, And The Making Of Post-Cold War Stalemate." Thanks for being on the program, Mary Elise.

MARY ELISE SAROTTE: Thank you so much.

FADEL: So let's go back in time. The Soviet Union falls. There's this moment of opportunity for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Ukraine becomes an independent state. Take us back to that time.

SAROTTE: Yes. As President Bill Clinton said in the early 1990s, it was the first chance ever since the rise of the nation-state to have the entire continent of Europe live in peace. But the big question mark was - what would happen to the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal? What would happen after the collapse of centralized control and command? And Ukraine was particularly important because due to the amount of former Soviet arsenal on its territory, once it became independent, Ukraine was born nuclear. It was born the third-biggest nuclear power in the world.

FADEL: Right. So that's the reason that Ukraine becomes so strategic and the West wants to bring Ukraine into their sphere of influence.

SAROTTE: Yes, that and the fact that Ukraine is a large country. At that point, it had more than 50 million inhabitants. It was becoming a democracy. It's clearly a major European country. So you want to define a place for it in post-Cold War Europe.

FADEL: So what becomes of this moment of opportunity?

SAROTTE: As a historian, I know that Cold Wars are not short-lived affairs.

FADEL: Right.

SAROTTE: So thaws are precious. It's clear in hindsight that neither Russia nor the West took full advantage of the thaw that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, despite initial hopes that he could smoothly democratize Russia and transform its economy into a thriving market economy, instead he runs into a series of enormous obstacles, and he allows corruption to flourish. And this causes the West, then, to gradually doubt that Russia really is transforming into a good neighbor, and it becomes fuel for those who want to pursue a harder line against Russia. And gradually, that leads, in cumulative interaction, to a deterioration of the newfound cooperation.

FADEL: And what does that look like, going from opportunity to hardening?

SAROTTE: Well, one of the big open questions is the question of NATO enlargement.

FADEL: Right.

SAROTTE: And initially, in the early 1990s, President Clinton says, you know, having just erased the Cold War line across Europe, why should we draw a new line across Europe, not least because that would leave the post-Soviet states in the lurch above all Ukraine? He understood back in the 1990s that Ukraine was, as he put it, the linchpin of peace in Europe.

FADEL: So let's move ahead to the late 1990s.


FADEL: The fall of Boris Yeltsin; the rise of Vladimir Putin. And Ukraine holds a special importance for Putin. Can you explain why?

SAROTTE: Yes. There are both identity reasons and strategic reasons for that. Putin feels strongly that Russia and Ukraine are one indivisible nation; they should never have become separate states.

FADEL: Something many Ukrainians would argue is not true.

SAROTTE: Absolutely. He also has this concern about Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. We tend to think in the West of the collapse of the Soviet Union as an event, but I think it would help us to understand the significance of Ukraine if we think of Soviet collapse not as an event but as a process that is still ongoing. So if you think of it that way, then you see that the 1999 war in Chechnya, the 2008 invasion in Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and what's going on now are all part of a long ongoing battle to define the limits of a shrunken Soviet empire.

FADEL: Let's go to 2014. I think a lot of Americans remember Russia's annexation of Crimea, and Ukrainians talk about not an invasion in this moment but long-term conflict that many of them have been living with since that annexation. What was Putin's calculus there?

SAROTTE: He was reacting to clear signs that Ukraine was moving toward the West. In 2008, the NATO Bucharest summit declaration stated that not only Ukraine but also Georgia would become members of NATO. That was one of the things that had prompted Putin to launch military action against Georgia in 2008. And in 2014, as Ukraine was also showing interest in the European Union, he decided to violate what everyone had assumed had become a fundamental tenet of post-Cold War order, namely a prohibition on changing borders in Europe through the use of force.

FADEL: And in Putin's telling, the U.S., the West, are breaking a promise by looking at Ukraine as a possible NATO member, right?

SAROTTE: Yes, there's two controversies. There's a 1990 controversy over whether the West promised Moscow NATO would never move eastward, not one inch eastward...

FADEL: Of Germany.

SAROTTE: Right, exactly. That's the 1990 controversy. Putin is obsessed with that, but he is also obsessed with the year 1997, when Boris Yeltsin belatedly tried to get what Mikhail Gorbachev didn't get, which was a veto over NATO expansion any further - so into Central and Eastern Europe. Boris Yeltsin did not get that in 1997, but he just said that he had anyway, thus creating a whole bunch of confusion. And so now Putin is instrumentalizing this sense of betrayal from both 1990 and 1997 to whip up emotions today, even though that's not consistent with the historical evidence.

FADEL: And so now we're here - 2022, Russian troops surrounding Ukraine right now. What might a diplomatic solution look like?

SAROTTE: NATO is not going to add Ukraine as a member. NATO is not going to put intermediate-range nuclear forces in Ukraine. NATO is not going to invade Russia. So somehow NATO and the West and Washington need to make all of that clear to Putin. And one way to do that would be to revive Cold War arms control treaties that we desperately need again - in particular, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty from which Trump withdrew in 2019 and something called the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. I think if we can make clear that reviving those would be both in our interest and Moscow's interest, there may still be hope, and it may be possible to prevent Ukrainians from dying in large numbers.

FADEL: Mary Elise Sarotte. She's a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you so much.

SAROTTE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.