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By John Helmer, Moscow

Not  One Inch” is the title of a new book by American historian Mary Sarotte after the notorious promise which US Secretary of State James Baker (lead image, 2nd from right) gave Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, and which now has come to its final test on the battlefields of World War III against Russia.

The work was recently awarded the Pushkin House prize for best book of the year, which is not less promising than Baker was. This is because Pushkin House is a London propaganda agency on the side against Russia.  The publisher of the book is Yale University which has been printing a stream of Russia warfighting tracts for years.  

Sarotte acknowledges the principal sources for her version of the story are Baker himself – “[he] generously allowed me to access the collection of his papers that he had donated to Princeton University, including documents from crucial meetings in Moscow in 1990” – together with the Bush and Clinton presidential libraries. Out of what Sarotte counts as “more than a hundred participants in events”, the only Russian source she reports consulting in Moscow was the Gorbachev Fund archive and four Russians she says she spoke to:  they are Yeltsin-government officials in retirement like ex-foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev living in the  US where he “has asked [to] keep his exact location off the record.”  

The money to pay Sarotte  she says she received from the Henry Kravis fund created from his tax-deductible KKR investment dividends;  the German Foreign Ministry through the German Marshall Fund;  the US State Department; the US Agency for International Development; and the US Embassy in Moscow.

Following this money trail to Sarotte’s conclusion one inch from the end of her book, she reports having discovered that for the future of Europe, “European security remains centered on Washington. US withdrawal would create a massive security vacuum in Europe… The Atlantic Alliance, as an expression of deep American engagement in Europe, remains the best institution to take on this mission.” To respond to what she calls President Vladimir Putin’s “violent aggression” against Georgia and the Ukraine, she recommends “putting out the fire and keeping the structure stable.”

With NATO war-fighting talk like this, why read on?

Because Sarotte provides fresh proof of the stab in the back for the Kremlin and the Soviet Union in 1990, and consequently for the Russians fighting today; and because Sarotte has revealed whose hand wielded the dagger – Gorbachev’s.

From her uncovering of official German and US records, Sarotte credits Chancellor Helmut Kohl (3rd from right) and his staff, along with Baker and the White House staff of President George Bush (extreme right) with outsmarting the Russians. In fact, her records show the Russians knew what the NATO game was, anticipated their every move, were prepared in advance, played them off against each other, the Germans against the Americans, who – they admitted to themselves – had no comparable idea of what the Russians were thinking.

They didn’t need to. Gorbachev saw to that. As quoted and retold, the records also reveal it was Gorbachev who refused and rejected every position the Politburo, the KGB, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev,  the Foreign Ministry and the Central Committee’s experts on Germany had advised, recommended, decided.

The stab in the back came from Gorbachev:  the Russians knew it then, they knew later; they know it now. But Sarotte doesn’t understand the Russian meaning of what she’s written, or the implications for the way the Stavka  is directing the war today.

Left: President Gorbachev meeting Secretary of State Baker at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 9, 1990. The Russian behind Gorbachev was his interpreter, Pavel Palazhchenko.  Right: the cover of Sarotte’s book with the subtitle indicating “stalemate”.

Out of the Berlin and Washington records and interviews Sarotte has conducted, she judges Kohl, his national security adviser Horst Teltschik, Bush, his national security adviser General Brent Scowcroft, and Baker, to have been the masters of their Russian counterparts. Arithmetically it appears to be so in the book – Scowcroft is mentioned 185 times; Teltschik 97 times. Their Russian counterparts, Marshal Akhromeyev, Gorbachev’s military advisor, 5 times; Valentin Falin, head of the Central Committee’s International Department and principal negotiator on Germany, 90 times.

Falin lived in Hamburg between 1992 and 2000 and died in Moscow in 2018,  but he was ignored during Sarotte’s research interviewing, just as Gorbachev had ignored him during the negotiations over Germany in 1989-91. Sarotte quotes from Falin’s 1997 memoir in German: “On February 10 the unification of Germany was announced as, de facto, an already completed task without any conditions, without clearing up the connection to the foreign aspects.”

“This carelessness” — Sarotte quotes Falin, interpreting him as  speaking literally of Gorbachev, not euphemistically — “will take its revenge on us.” Sarotte missed the subtlety; as a source Sarotte dismisses Falin as “combative”, “disgruntled”, “sarcastic”, and “bitter”. What she claims to know about him came, she has footnoted, from the archive of former Chancellor Willy Brandt.  

Sarotte provides enough of a record, however, to reveal that in addition to Falin, Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, Akhromeyev, even Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were very clear in their understanding of what the Germans and Americans were planning, and what Gorbachev should do in response. They told Gorbachev many times over in case he was hard of hearing. He wasn’t. Sarotte relies on Scowcroft to have realised their opposition to Gorbachev’s line at the negotiations as “an insurrection in real time” and “the most remarkable I have ever seen.”

Compared to Scowcroft, Sarotte is uncomprehending.  Towards Akhromeyev she is discreditably stupid.  “He increasingly began to oppose Gorbachev, offering his support to the leaders of the coup attempt that would take place a little over a year later. When it failed, he took his own life.” Sarotte calls this Akhromeyev’s “downward slide”, adding contemptuously of his suicide note that it    “was addressed to no one”.

“No one” – that’s Sarotte’s guess: no source, no footnote, no comprehension of the note’s Russian language, no interest in the sequence of events preceding when Akhromeyev had participated in the plan to put a stop to Gorbachev’s scheming; no conception that Akhromeyev was addressing his successors on the Stavka today.    

The point Sarotte misses completely —  the Russian point —  is how Gorbachev’s betrayal escaped his colleagues when they realised it full well; and why they decided not to eliminate him at the Foros dacha  in Crimea when they could have done in August 1991, and when Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, expected them to do.  

Quite another point:  the mentality which Sarotte lets slip towards Akhromeyev explains why this war is being fought now by the Russians the way it is, and the way it will be – and also why Sarotte’s side remain as uncomprehending in real time forward as she is towards the past.

How did Gorbachev agree to the US terms over the unanimous advice of his advisers and ministers? Why did he accept the “not one inch” undertaking from the US when no other Russian official did? And why did he agree to withdrawing the Soviet military forces from Germany without reciprocal US troop and nuclear arms withdrawals, thereby preventing the Soviets from having the counterforce to ensure Baker’s promise was kept?

In Sarotte’s retelling of the story, the secret assessment of the German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, dated January 12, 1990 – one month before the fateful Baker promise to Gorbachev – was that “Moscow was undecided as to what to do next”. According to Sarotte, it was also the American view that “Gorbachev himself apparently did not yet know what he wanted and both Washington and Bonn noticed this indecisiveness.”

The alternative Russian reading is that the Americans and Germans were in the dark. She quotes White House intelligence assessments that the Soviet leadership was losing its will, desperate for cash and food loans from the west, and panicking. They had begun to view Gorbachev as susceptible to entrapment, their target to exploit. So that’s what the Americans did – and Gorbachev did as the knowing men on both sides anticipated.

At the end of January 1990, Falin had articulated the consensus position of the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the General Staff,  the KGB, the Politburo,  and the Central Committee that the reunification of Germany would be acceptable on condition the new state was neutral between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the west and the east. That meant the simultaneous withdrawal of both the Soviet and US and British armies from German territory. It meant exclusion of Germany from NATO.

Gorbachev responded by punishing the messenger – he excluded Falin from his meetings with the Americans and the personal circle of his advisers — while concealing from them that he had decided to ignore the message. On January 27, Gorbachev was two weeks away from telling Baker, then Kohl, then Genscher that he would accept their word and allow reunification without conditions. He told Kryuchkov, according to Sarotte’s record, that “the presence of our troops will not allow that”; Gorbachev was implying Soviet forces would remain in the reunified state as a guarantee of neutrality. “No one should count on the united Germany joining NATO”.

The indecisiveness on the Russian side at that point was how far to trust what Gorbachev was telling his chiefs, ministers and staff.  Sarotte relies on the diary record of Anatoly Chernyaev, officially Gorbachev’s foreign policy advisor at the time. He was one of the few Gorbachev trusties then and later. Chernyaev’s diaries he donated himself to George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Unlike the combative Falin,” Sarotte has written, “Chernyaev was resigned to German reunification”. What she means is what she, the Americans and Germans believed they could get out of Gorbachev – reunification inside NATO, Soviet troops to withdraw,  US troops to stay.

This was Gorbachev’s stab in the back; Chernyaev was his loyal accomplice. 

On February 7, 1990, as Baker was arriving in Moscow, Scowcroft’s deputy on the National Security Council, Robert Blackwill wrote a note to Scowcroft that it was “the Beginning of the Big Game [his capitalization]…there is a good chance that Gorbachev will give Kohl his bottom line on German unification.” How to stop Kohl and the Germans from agreeing if Gorbachev stuck to the neutrality-troop withdrawal conditions —  Blackwill told Scowcroft. The answer was first to make clear and certain to the Germans that the US would not tolerate such a deal because it “would forfeit the prime assets that have made the United States a postwar European power.”

The second point was in Baker’s guidance which he took into the Kremlin talks with Gorbachev — this was that the Germans could be compelled, so Gorbachev had to be suckered. The record reported by Sarotte shows that Baker tried the tactic on Shevardnadze beforehand, proposing on February 7 with calculated hypothetical in a subjunctive tense whether there “might be an outcome that would guarantee that there would no NATO forces in the eastern part of Germany. In fact, there would be an absolute ban on that.”

Of course, Baker understood, as Shevardnadze could not have missed, that this left US forces with nuclear weapons in western Germany. Sarotte quotes from Baker’s “generously” provided handwritten notes: “End result: Unified Ger. Anchored in a * changed (polit) NATO– * whose juris. would not move * eastward!” The stars and exclamation point were Baker’s marks of his confidence in his ploy.

The fateful meeting between Baker and Gorbachev followed two days later on February 9. Sarotte reports no record of what transpired on the day in between, Thursday February 8.   

Instead, she reports what Baker told Bush in a memorandum dated that day, summarizing what had been said in the meeting with Shevardnadze the day before. She also reports what White House officials led by Scowcroft agreed with Bush, in order to make sure Kohl stuck to the US line on keeping Germany inside NATO with US troops and nuclear weapons. Between Scowcroft and Bush that meant “keep[ing] the lid from blowing off in the months ahead.” Scowcroft wanted to send a man to tell Kohl before he was scheduled to arrive in Moscow after Baker departed.  Baker stopped Scowcroft’s move. He thought he had the better measure of Gorbachev; he didn’t trust Scowcroft with Kohl. As Sarotte reports her own judgement: “the two men [Baker and Scowcroft] balanced each other temperamentally, with Baker inclined to push for action and Scowcroft inclined to consider all consequences carefully.”

The truth of the matter — if Sarotte had understood Scowcroft and met him more than once —  was that as a military officer he had a much better grasp of the way the Russians were thinking than Baker. Baker was the lawyer tactician; he was more confident his hypothetical subjective ploy would trick Gorbachev, as it had Shevardnadze, than Scowcroft was confident that even if tactically tricked, Gorbachev would succeed in imposing a strategy of deception on his own people.

Not a single Russian record of February 8, 1990, has been identified in 313 pages of Sarotte’s footnotes and references.  She failed to look for Shevardnadze’s memorandum of the Baker conversation; she asked no other Russian participant; she didn’t find in the Gorbachev archive the briefing papers he was given during the intervening day. She ignored Gorbachev himself, then still loquacious with his trusted American friends Stephen Cohen and William Taubman; Sarotte ignored them too.

Gorbachev with his two American spokesmen, left with Stephen Cohen, 2011;  right, with William Taubman in 2018. For more on Taubman’s version of Gorbachev’s story, read this.  

Baker opened with the hypothetical: if the Russians insisted on troop and nuclear weapons withdrawal from Germany and reunification with neutrality, the Germans might resume Adolph Hitler’s old ambition and “create [their] own nuclear potential” after NATO withdrew. “Would you prefer”, he said to Gorbachev, “to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent, and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?”

This was a patsy punch. There wasn’t a single Russian at the table who believed that Baker’s, or Bush’s, or any US assurance at all could be accepted and trusted unless the Soviet military retained its counterforce in Germany, including nuclear weapons. But Gorbachev decided otherwise. Aloud, for their hearing, he replied — reports Sarotte — “any expansion of the ‘zone of NATO’ was not acceptable. Baker responded: ‘we agree with that.”

Of course Baker did. Of course, Gorbachev would say at the time and repeat until his death that he had accepted the US promise of “not one inch”. But every other Russian at the table, especially Akhromeyev, realised that Gorbachev had accepted the reunified Germany would remain inside the “zone of NATO”;  and with that, Gorbachev had begun the process of withdrawing all Soviet forces to the Russian border, leaving US forces and the nuclear arms inside Germany, and allowing their proxies, including the Germans,  to move eastward.

On February 9 Akhromeyev and Kryuchkov knew that “not one inch eastward” was not the only US undertaking which was worthless. Sarotte records finding in a National Security Agency (NSA) file a memorandum of conversation by Robert Gates of his meeting with Kryuchkov during the afternoon of February 9. The KGB chief told Gates he rejected Baker’s hypothetical, dismissed reunification of Germany for some time to come, and warned that  Gorbachev was on his own, having taken “an important and even dangerous turn”. Gates recorded being “amazed” that Kryuchkov was “openly opposing Gorbachev in a meeting with a senior American official.”  

Gates and his superiors up the line to Bush then decided not to meet Kryuchkov again. Gorbachev had become their man. Their strategy was to protect him for long enough to fulfil their objectives, and then get rid of him. That, they had already decided, was Boris Yeltsin’s assignment.

Sarotte reports the Americans and Germans were cock-a-hoop. “Bush and Kohl needed,” she concluded, “to persuade Gorbachev to give up his legal [sic] right to keep troops in divided Germany. While doing so, they needed to avoid undermining Gorbachev so much that it might hasten the storm that Kohl feared: a coup that would topple the Soviet leader before he blessed reunification. As Baker put it, ‘ensuring a unified Germany in NATO’ would ‘require every ounce of our skills in the months to come.’ He was more right than he knew.”

That’s another of Sarotte’s faulty ideas.  By the time in August 1991, when Kryuchkov and Akhromeyev had the opportunity to remove Gorbachev for his betrayal,  Yeltsin delivered on the first part of his assignment by rallying support for Gorbachev in Moscow; four months later he delivered the second part – the coup the US backed, not the one Kohl had been afraid of.  Not US nor German skills, but the betrayals of Gorbachev and Yeltsin delivered the outcome they were hoping for.

This is how the President of Russia, the Defence and Foreign Ministers, the General Staff, the intelligence agencies – the Stavka – understand the history and judge US assurances to be worth today. Not to understand these things is not to understand why we are at war.

Why didn’t Akhromeyev and Kryuchkov get rid of Gorbachev when they could have in 1990, or in August 1991 at Foros?  That’s another story. Not to be told here yet.

What can be said is what Akhromeyev’s last words mean. “I cannot live when my fatherland is dying and everything that has been the meaning of my life is crumbling. Age and the life that I have lived give me the right to step out of this life. I struggled until the end.” The end for the marshal came on August 24, 1991.  Almost thirty-one years later, on February 24, 2022, Putin and the Stavka decided they did not have the right to step out of this life, and that faced with the war Germany has been planning since the Third Reich, and the US since 1945, Russia would not commit suicide.

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