A realistic approach may help master the crisis in Ukraine

At present, the only great power combination that can really threaten America’s global position in our new age is an ironclad alliance between revisionist powers China and Russia. And, for all their shared antipathy to the U.S., and for all that they strategically tilt toward one another, Beijing and Moscow are not there yet.

Russian resentment at taking a back seat to China does not fit comfortably with President Vladimir Putin’s Great Russian nationalism. On the other hand, China’s desire to economically — and eventually, militarily — challenge Russia for dominance in Central Asia does not make the two easy bedfellows. At the highest level, all American foreign policy must be about not throwing its two rivals into each other’s arms.

Of the two, China — the only possible peer superpower competitor — is the greater threat. Given that Russia is an uneasy part of Western civilization, it also makes it a better long-term option to pry away from the dangerous, putative Sino-Russian alliance. Even the outspoken Russia critic, former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell, recently said that “it is too bad we cannot have closer relations with Russia, because it could be a strategic partner with us against China.” This is why it is overwhelmingly in America’s interests, if it can be managed, to avoid open conflict with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.  

But how does this long-term geostrategic reality mesh with the immediate crisis in Ukraine? To be clear, the harsh, recent U.S.-Russia negotiations had an old, Cold War vibe. However, there are important differences between now and then. The current conflicts with the Kremlin are about Russia’s real or imagined security phobias and idiosyncrasies, not a fight over competing global ideologies. This is a new great power struggle, but not an ideological battle. As such, theoretically, the chasm between the two could be bridged.

Second, present weaknesses in the Western alliance are only spurring on Putin, even before Russia strikes. De facto neutralist Germany took unplugging the Kremlin from the global SWIFT banking system off the table, and the new governing coalition of Olaf Scholz is hedging on Germany’s earlier commitment not to allow the massive Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany to come online in the case of Russian invasion.

President Biden, in his news conference last week, suggested that a limited invasion might trigger only limited sanctions. Such weakness is no way to make fraught negotiations work. 

Instead, Washington and all the NATO allies must make it clear to Moscow that no effective “win-win” negotiations can be undertaken with the Russian military threat imminent. Any significant U.S. step toward Russia under current circumstances would be interpreted as just another sign of weakness by the Biden administration.

Instead, allowing that a cooling-off period can be managed, negotiations should be held with the clear intention to strengthen America’s geopolitical posture, while proposing to Russia a fair deal.

Some of Russia’s concerns can be acknowledged, in terms of verbal understandings, if not treaty obligations. George Friedman put it explicitly: “Russia has been invaded in the 17th century by the Swedes, in the 19th century by the French and in the 20th century twice by the Germans. In each case, they won the war or survived it by strategic depth.” 

Obviously, Ukraine is the number one priority for Russia, as far as a goal to reinstate some of the strategic depth lost with the fall of the USSR. They fear that another sudden outburst of aggression will — as it has done time and again — come from Europe, and they will have to defend themselves on frontlines dangerously close to Moscow. This is particularly relevant in our era of hypersonic missiles.

But the U.S. should make clear to the Kremlin that Russia’s neighbors also have an understandable historical dread of Russian aggression. Such trepidations may be alleviated by the further expansion of NATO to their territory, if they so wish, and when all other NATO members agree — which (crucially) so far, they do not. We must remind Putin that no NATO expansion to the East has happened since 2009 because of Germany’s and France’s fervent opposition, and that this is unlikely to change. While the U.S. cannot give in on the theory of further NATO expansion, reality can be directly conveyed to the Russian delegation. In practice, politically there is absolutely no appetite in the alliance for expansion to Russia’s borders, nor will it occur in the near term.

Leading European NATO powers (Germany, France and Italy) openly oppose further NATO expansion. This is not only because of the energy crisis and the German dependence on Russian gas but also because of their long-term interest in developing Russian markets and natural resources. The last thing any of these states wishes to do is to take a stick to the Russian beehive.

Putin’s preference, in time-honored Russian fashion, is to secure the country’s western borders. Negotiations on a renewed European security system could offer Russia enough strategically and tie Moscow’s hands for many years while the intricacies of a compact are developed, greatly reducing the dangerous incentive for it to form a military-political alliance with China.

The Russian proverb says that “a bad peace is better than a good war” — especially if the war can escalate in an age of nuclear weapons. Instead, a realistic approach could allow us time to find solutions acceptable to both sides, including agreements on limitations of strategic weapons deployment in Eastern Europe, military maneuvers, and offensive arms sales to Russian neighbors.

Quiet, realistic understandings, short of flashy treaties that are impossible to pass in the U.S. Congress, may be possible regarding NATO’s Eastern borderlands. Given the geostrategic stakes in play, thinking creatively is worth the effort.

This post was originally published in The Hill.

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