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A look at the debate over NATO expansion eastward that's at the heart of conflict now

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a grievance at the heart of the standoff between NATO countries and Russia over Ukraine. Russians say the U.S. and its NATO allies broke a key pledge. They claim the West promised Russia in the 1990s that NATO would move not one inch to the east. Putin recently said, you cheated us shamelessly. The U.S. and NATO say that's nonsense and they've always had an open-door membership policy.

Well, NPR's Becky Sullivan has been looking into this heated, historic debate and is here to explain. Hi, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: What's the backstory with this not-one-inch-eastward claim?

SULLIVAN: This goes all the way back to 1990, right before the fall of the Soviet Union. At that point, NATO was a lot smaller than it is now; it's just the U.S. and Canada and the very closest allies in Europe. None of the central and Eastern European countries were in the alliance yet.

SHAPIRO: Those countries were part of the Warsaw Pact, which was kind of like the Soviet version of NATO?

SULLIVAN: Yep. And, you know, both sides have these big military forces facing each other. But then, you know, as you - as we were talking about '89, '90, there are a bunch of anti-communist protests that sweep across central and Eastern Europe and especially in East Germany. The Berlin Wall falls in November 1989 and up comes this question of German reunification. The U.S. thinks that maybe what they could offer the Soviets to get them to allow that is a promise that NATO will not expand eastward. I'm simplifying things here.

But I talked to Mary Sarotte. She's a historian who's written a book about the negotiations over all this called "Not One Inch." And she says this not one inch thing comes from this very early conversation in 1990 between then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Baker floats this idea of letting Germany reunify in exchange for NATO moving not one inch eastward. Gorbachev's like, OK; I'll think about it.

SHAPIRO: So he floated the idea, and then what happened?

SULLIVAN: So what happens next is that Baker goes back to Washington where President George H.W. Bush is like, absolutely not. And so the Americans drop it. It never shows up on the bargaining table.

The Soviets eventually sign a treaty with the U.S. It doesn't have anything to say about NATO expanding beyond Germany. But Sarotte says that afterwards, this residual bitterness just hung around with the Russians.

MARY SAROTTE: Still to this day, Putin is saying, look; there was this other offer on the table. The best friend of the president looked Mikhail Gorbachev in the eye and said NATO will move not one inch eastward. And that's sort of factually accurate in a narrow sense, but it doesn't reflect the reality that we're creating (ph).

SHAPIRO: And, of course, today NATO is much bigger, much farther east. How did we get there?

SULLIVAN: So in 1991, the Soviet Union collapses, the Warsaw Pact is gone and all of these states that were either a part of the Soviet Union or under their influence are starting to look toward the West. And the U.S. thinks that expanding NATO is a good idea, a good way to make sure that the West still controls influence in this, like, post-Soviet Europe. The Russians, of course, are, like, very opposed to this. In their view, NATO is a threat to Russian security.

But NATO expands anyway - so first in the '90s with a few countries in central Europe, again in the 2000s to bring in even more countries further to the east, including a handful of former Soviet republics. And the Russians are just feeling more and more antagonized every time.

SHAPIRO: Which brings us to Ukraine - how does Ukraine play into this?

SULLIVAN: It's the biggest former Soviet republic in Europe besides Russia itself. There are a lot of cultural ties between the two countries. Putin sort of famously thinks that the Ukrainians and the Russians are one people.

I talked to Jim Goldgeier about this. He is a historian at American University who has written a lot about NATO.

JIM GOLDGEIER: The Russians were always concerned about how far NATO enlargement was going to go. You know, it was one thing for Poland to come in or the Czech Republic to come in, but there was always a concern about Ukraine.

SULLIVAN: And this comes to a little bit of a head in 2008 - the U.S. - George W. Bush - pushing for Ukraine to be able to join NATO. But some other members, like France and Germany, pushed back, resulting in this compromise that we have today where NATO promised that Ukraine would be able to join the alliance, but they didn't lay out any sort of path for how to do it. And Goldgeier described that compromise to me as the worst of all worlds.

SHAPIRO: Which leads us to this standoff today.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. So even though NATO has repeatedly said that the alliance has this open-door membership policy - any country can make its own security decisions - the reality is just a lot more complicated here. Ukraine is not going to be joining anytime soon.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Becky Sullivan - thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIROCRATIC'S "NESTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.