Why Must We Keep Hearing About the NATO Inch?

Russian cruiser Aurora, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Russian cruiser Aurora, St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2014. The ship is said to have fired a blank shot to signal the storming of the Winter Palace at the start of the October Revolution. (Photo by John Griswold)




A Russian acquaintance I will call Ivan, the Head Supervisor of Cultural Education at a state cultural site, was kind to me and a friend on our trip to Russia in 2014. Since then, Ivan and I have exchanged greetings by email a few times a year.

“Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones!” a typical email from Ivan said. “I wish you and your sweet home much health to withstand all storms as well as high and low tides (if any) in the coming 2015…! Looking forward to get your reply.” [All quotes sic.]

We only ever had a few things to discuss: thin slices of Russian and American literatures and cultures, the well-being of our respective families, and, rarely, our own Cold War military service (when we were meant to be training to kill each other) and historical understandings of the difficulties of fighting Nazis. Mostly the emails were meta-appreciations of the spirit of trying to find shared values across international borders.

“Without kindness there is no happiness, and we can no longer live,” Ivan wrote me once. “Anton Chekhov – is a symbol of human goodness and tolerance. […] Chekhov tells us that everything starts with yourself. Meet people with a kind word and a smile. Kindness will save the world! We live in a better time, since this is moment of our life. It is your kindness I am feeling all the time of our communication. And I appreciate it very much. Thank You for this. I also want to wish you a Happy New Year!”

In truth Ivan is a nationalist in the Putin mold and during our visit mistook me, at least, to have some American equivalent of his native love for authoritarianism, grudging sense of resentment against other ethnicities and races, and his belief that soon—and probably by violence—things would be made great again.

The year we met, Russia occupied Crimea and sent unmarked troops into the Donbas. Ukraine, he said, was Novorossiya, not an independent country. He loved the idea of a neo-Confederacy in the United States and later became a Trump fan. I asked around and was told he was probably KGB as well as a cultural-site administrator, which would not be unusual. He began to add political asides to his emails, and by summer 2023, he sounded like this:

“The West is implementing a plan to destroy the Slavic peoples. Former member of the Bundestag, member of the German right-wing party ‘Alternative for Germany’ Waldemar Gerdt voiced plans for the destruction of the Slavic peoples by the West. ‘The Anglo-Saxon elite chose Ukraine as a springboard for the total self-destruction of the Slavic people, provoking a military conflict in Ukraine,’ Gerdt said. According to the politician, the political elites of the United States and Great Britain are behind the idea of self-destruction of Ukrainians as a nation. Gerdt supported the point of view of former US President Donald Trump that the armed conflict in Ukraine can be stopped within one day. Fox News Russia – Subscribe.”

(Wikipedia says this Fox is a Russian subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, since rebranded to FX.)

Now, after Putin’s bloodiest month of the war, Ivan sends greetings: “This is the whole essence of Western ideology and democracy – never fulfill your promises and agreements with Russia, because for you we are like wild Indians who can be deceived. But the Lord sees everything!”

Here and in other emails he refers to the supposed promise by NATO to move “not one inch eastward” after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is incorrect; then-Secretary of State James Baker said the phrase informally, as a hypothetical to Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1990, as Russia wanted reassurances for pulling troops out of East Germany after reunification. President George HW Bush rejected the idea outright.

Mary Sarotte, Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins, dissects the phrase and its context in Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate (2022). Sarotte shows that no agreement between the US/NATO and the then-Soviet Union on NATO expansion was ever made, let alone written down or signed. (Among other things, most of the countries of Eastern Europe were still in the Warsaw Pact then.) The 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was limited to German reunification.

It is easy to find other explanations for the falsehood of the “NATO inch”; see pieces by The Brookings Institution, Harvard Law Today, and the London School of Economics blog.

Still, Putin uses it often as an excuse and threat. “You promised us in the 1990s that [NATO] would not move an inch to the East. You cheated us shamelessly,” Putin said in this speech in December 2021, two months before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

American right-wing personalities such as Candace Owens echoed Putin’s excuses at the time of the Russian invasion, and The New York Times reported, “Support for Mr. Putin and Russia is now being expressed online in a jumble of facts, observations and opinions, sometimes entwined with lies. In recent days, commenters have complimented Mr. Putin and falsely accused NATO of violating nonexistent territorial agreements with Russia, which they said justified the Russian president’s declaration of war on Ukraine…. In all, pro-Russian narratives on English-language social media, cable TV, and print and online outlets soared 2,580 percent in the past week….”

The idea of Ukraine joining NATO goes back to “when newly independent Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (1991) and the Partnership for Peace programme (1994),” NATO says. Putin spoke against its admission (and against Georgia’s) to NATO in 2008.

It seems possible a contributing motivation for ill-advised Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine might be as stop-gap against NATO admission, since, as the media network Euractiv says, “Under NATO rules, countries with territorial conflicts cannot join NATO.”

(NATO’s 1995 “Study on NATO Enlargement” actually says, “States which have…external territorial disputes, including irredentist [“advocating the restoration to their country of any territory formerly belonging to it “] claims…must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.”)

Using a “you too” fallacy, Ivan’s latest to me offers “a list of countries that were bombed by the United States of America after World War II,” as published by “the Chinese Embassy.” Many countries on the extensive list are hard to quibble with, though I would note that Japan, for example, was bombed during WWII. Several others involve proxy wars, not direct US “bombings,” and if you want to play the tu quoque game, the Soviet Union/Russia has its own long list of invasions, armed conflicts, and occupations since WWII. I would add that US leaders do not (currently) throw their rivals and critics out high windows or murder them in penal colonies, and our elections are not (currently) being condemned by an organization like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Ivan writes, “China urged to ‘never forget who poses the real threat to the world.’ […]  All this hypocritical world class sits quietly, with its tongue stuck in one place, when the United States is terrorizing countries, like a real bandit.

“Not a cry from you, not a shadow of reproach, not a glimmer of indignation. Cowardly, shameless, hypocritical creatures! […]

“This list must be broadcast on all possible channels 24 hours a day, continuously. Make videos that would fuck up all this Western riffraff and wouldn’t let them sleep peacefully! Fuck them and fuck them, reminding them of every fact of a US crime against other countries.

“Help me understand these facts,” Ivan adds in the spirit of trying to find shared values across international borders.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.