The diplomatic talks this week deal with the crisis created by Russia’s buildup of more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. What could a deal look like and how likely is it?
The talks began on a Russian timetable and framed by Russia’s draft treaties with the United States and NATO. These proposals — in reality, radical demands — are unacceptable and their rejection may be intended to serve as a pretext for a new aggression against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself remarked on the “skeptical smilesof his audience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when he asked him to prepare them. It is unthinkable that, while Russia threatens a massive use of force in Europe, NATO de facto cancels its post-1997 enlargement, or that America withdraws its nuclear weapons from the continent.
Russia’s demands are, in any case, a misdirection. His immediate concern is not 25 years of NATO enlargement, but his own currently waning influence over Ukraine – whose Western ties are deepening, resistance to local pro-Russian figures like Viktor Medvedchuk sterner and stronger national identity. Since time is not on Putin’s side, he seeks to assert his dominance over Kiev while that is still possible, a goal bolstered by his belief that Ukraine is an essential part of Russia.
The real driver of Russia is therefore more status and identity than security. These are more difficult objectives for diplomacy to achieve. Security can be cooperative and mutual, as shown by the US-Russian agreement to extend the New START nuclear treaty last February. But great power revisionism is incompatible with the principle of sovereign equality that underpins the international order and threatens the security of other states. Nevertheless, the West decided to engage with Russia rather than outright reject its demands. What can he discuss?
Russia’s ostensible and chronic grievance — NATO enlargement — and its real and pressing concern — Ukraine — overlap on the issue of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership. Some seasoned Western diplomats who have no illusions about Russia have long expressed worry on the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, which declared that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO”. The occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia makes it very unlikely in practice that NATO will extend a collective security commitment to Ukraine. Russia’s own aggression has provided the assurance it now demands from NATO.
Does this mean, as some claim, that NATO should now guarantee Russia that Ukraine will never join? Critics condemn this as betraying a victim of assault. But the argument should be dealt with, not condemned. Western governments are accountable to their peoples and guided by the national interest. Last year, they concluded that those interests were no longer compatible with long-standing commitments to Afghanistan and quickly abandoned the country to its fate, a result that likely emboldened Kremlin coercion on Ukraine. Is it in the West’s interest to accommodate Russia’s designs on Ukraine?
No, this realistic case is flawed. Russia’s behavior offers no assurance that a favorable agreement would satisfy it. Not only does Russia’s demands on Ukraine go far beyond the question of NATO membership, but it has never signaled that its interests are limited to Ukraine, nor even to the territory of the former Soviet Union as a whole. On the contrary, through military, cyber, information and energy instruments, Russia pursues a more assertive policy towards Europe – and not just NATO members – than during much of the Cold War. His sweeping demands for withdrawal from NATO only underline the extent of his ambitions. A settlement on Ukraine would not be a solution, but a prelude. It would make the West less, not more, secure.
Similarly, restricting Ukraine’s freedom of choice is not likely to produce even local stability. In 2014, Russian pressure to prevent former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union sparked mass protests that ousted him from power. While 72% of Ukrainians now see Russia as a threat, its diktat will not be quietly accepted. In short, the arguments against realistic accommodation are not only ethical but practical: in the 21st century, spheres of influence neither satisfy the big aggressors nor can they be easily imposed on the small victims.
But the West can usefully discuss some specific Russian concerns, not least because some would involve restrictions on actions the West has no intention of taking, such as deploying missiles in Ukraine that can hit Russia. . But there should be no one-sided concessions – every offer requires consideration. Creatively exploring this nexus offers the best prospect for a deal, even if Russia’s breach of past commitments and the illegitimacy of its current position as occupier of Ukraine make this more difficult.
But even in the best case, the win-set is small. Diplomatic success forces Russia to very substantially reduce its demands. He will only do so if he is convinced that a new attack will entail more costs than benefits. The West can improve the slim chance of a deal by managing the diplomatic process in two ways.
First, it must maintain the agreed trading format. Despite Russia’s clear preference for dealing only with the United States and major European powers, America secured a three-pronged process that includes NATO and the OSCE as well as bilateral talks. It should be clear that all three tracks are equally important. This guarantees the participation of all European states, including Ukraine, and practically guarantees that there will be no quick outcome. An inclusive process demonstrates Western cohesion and slows down the crisis.
Second, the West obviously needs to plan for the worst case scenario to show Russia that it faces a tough and united response to further aggression. This will include severe economic and financial sanctions and could bring Finland and Sweden closer to NATO membership. This would continue a trend of Russian actions producing the opposite effects to those intended, in this case, a stronger and bigger NATO.
In short, the West – not just the United States but also Europe – should design and conduct its diplomacy as part of deterrence, not as an alternative to it. This offers the main hope of averting further Russian aggression and the biggest clash of conventional forces in Europe since 1945.