Call Putin Out by Negotiating
As Russian and Belarusian forces gather around Ukraine’s borders in the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War, Western capitals seem stuck between two deeply held desires: to keep the door to NATO membership open and to forestall an invasion that could devastate the Ukrainian military and millions of ordinary people. Calls are growing louder in Washington for President Joe Biden to act forcefully by demanding that Russia stand down and effectively extending the U.S. security umbrella over Ukraine, perhaps by deploying a trip-wire force. This, however, would risk a general war as Russian President Vladimir Putin has forcefully and repeatedly drawn a red line around that outcome, among others.
The most effective policy would be to test the seriousness of Putin’s repeated public claims through a bold act of diplomacy: During his scheduled phone call with Putin tomorrow, Biden should offer to launch talks with Russia about European security on the condition that Moscow demobilizes its looming invasion force. Comprising the agenda would be each side’s most pressing concerns: for Moscow, NATO expansion and the U.S. force posture in the alliance’s east and for Washington, the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Russia’s force posture in its Western Military District, as well as cyber operations and criminality. Both sides will likely be interested in discussing arms control. They could even rejuvenate discussions over the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. Each side should be expected to engage in substantive conversations and to forswear destabilizing moves — political or military — while these negotiations are underway. European countries whose interests are involved will be invited to send delegates, including Ukraine.
Putin’s response to this opportunity will reveal the truth of Russian intentions. If the United States offers such talks and Russia proceeds on its course of military build-up toward invasion, it will become clearer that Putin is both insincere and inexorably aggressive. To deal with that scenario, the United States can do what it seems like the Biden administration is doing now: It can publicize and warn about Russian preparations in order to mobilize, in advance, as powerful a set of planned responses as can be agreed with Europe, including the new German government. This might include cutting Russia off from the international financial system, which the White House has reportedly considered. The Biden administration might even encourage Sweden, and perhaps even Finland, to join NATO. Regardless, Washington would be unwise to make this crisis a test of U.S. military strength.
If Putin takes Biden up on his offer and complies with its conditions, then it will become apparent that there is perhaps a constructive deal to be made, and these negotiations might even become the basis of a new understanding for European security.
This seems to be the most productive way to ensure stability in the short term and gain a more durable long-term understanding with Russia. This proposal tests a series of assumptions on the situation that I hold. The first is that Russian elites — including Putin — are genuinely paranoid: It is an embedded part of Russian strategic culture and history, and while Russian leaders and spokespeople certainly ham it up and exaggerate for propaganda purposes, the paranoia is — at its core — sincere. Washington serially underestimates this basic fact and many think it is all just an act. Second, for Putin himself, stature and acknowledgement carry a great deal of weight. Third, Putin has been consistent on his red lines. He has recently given us a clear statement on his top two: no more eastern expansion of NATO and limiting the types of U.S.-supplied weapons systems in Ukraine. On the latter, Putin seems mostly concerned with U.S. defense cooperation with Ukraine, U.S. military presence in Ukraine, what U.S. weapons are deployed there, and the transfers of select technologies. Fourth, Russia’s recent mobilization is not just a signal and it is certainly not a bluff. Putin is indeed planning to invade Ukraine unless something changes. And finally, Russia’s behavior vis-à-vis Ukraine, its destabilizing cyber operations and tolerance of cyber criminality from within its borders, and its general disregard for international norms are of a greater whole.
Why should the United States and its allies entertain such talks in the face of all this aggression? Quite simply, it would be in their interests to do so. And it would be an effective way to test the assumptions I laid out above and chart a realistic path forward on U.S.-Russian relations. There is a deal to be explored, at the very least. Doing so might thwart or at least meaningfully delay a further Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In the years since Russia’s 2014 assault on Ukraine, decision-makers and elected officials in Western capitals have told us that we should keep relying on more of the same to deter Moscow: sanctions against Russia, military-to-military training and aid for Ukraine, and military build-ups in the Baltic Sea region. But that is, in part, what led us to the current crisis. Under three administrations, Washington has developed a robust military-to-military relationship with Kyiv. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior Biden administration officials repeatedly affirm that NATO’s door is open to Georgia and Ukraine. When it comes to supplying materiel and weaponry to Ukraine, this would turn on what can practically be done and what the Ukrainian armed forces can meaningfully absorb and employ. Supplying hardware is rarely a military panacea. Unfortunately, Kyiv failed to reform or modernize its military since 2014. Its defense spending stands at less than 3 percent of its gross domestic product.
The case for diplomacy is powerful. Unfortunately, however, diplomacy is often portrayed as a sign of weakness, a gift to the other side, and representative of a naïve view of the world. This is a dangerous sentiment. If we decline to negotiate with those countries that we have serious problems with, the world will become a far more dangerous place. We negotiate because we do not trust. Furthermore, ceasing NATO’s eastward expansion would be wise. It would serve European and U.S. security interests. It would avoid leveraging U.S. credibility for a state that represents, at best, a peripheral interest. It would avoid an expensive security commitment to Ukraine, a highly corrupt state that is under mortal threat but cannot bring itself to be serious about its own defense. The path to Ukraine in NATO would contribute to insecurity, not security. The same is true for Ukraine in NATO itself.
There is a bizarre argument on Ukraine and NATO that is now commonly surfaced: that Washington would be encroaching on the rights and independence of Ukraine by agreeing to halt NATO’s eastward expansion. This makes no sense to me. Ukraine is free to be an independent actor. But so is the United States. NATO is a club with a clear first among equals. Joining NATO does not just affect Ukraine, of course. It affects the entire alliance. The idea of outsourcing important strategic decisions to another country and abdicating America’s independence would be nonsensical.
In private discussions and social media exchanges, I am often told that my recommendations involve acknowledging a Russian sphere of influence. That is simply not the case. This is about restricting entry into an alliance that not every country ought to have the right to join just because they meet certain requirements. It is high time to revisit NATO’s open-door policy. The talks I recommend could be a constructive and stabilizing mechanism to do so. This policy is traditionally justified with reference to the North Atlantic Treaty’s 10th article, which states:
The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.
It is far from clear to me how Ukraine, which is quite far from the North Atlantic, meets this criterion. Even some of Ukraine’s biggest boosters in Washington acknowledge that the country would be hard-pressed to ever meet the requirements to be admitted to the alliance. If that is the case, then, why accept such a destabilizing policy for a distant fantasy?
To those who insist that American strength can overcome Russian aggression, it would be wise to reflect on the fact that Russia has shown the world for the last decade at least that it is happy to accept pain, setbacks, and sanctions — over Ukraine and Syria, for example — because its leaders have a clear conception of how they prioritize various objects and interests.
It is not obvious that there is a constructive and stable way to end the current crisis and longstanding tensions between Moscow and the West. But the Biden administration ought to give diplomacy a chance. Sometimes, when tensions between two countries grow, opportunities present themselves which, if handled tactfully, might paradoxically contribute to more lasting peace.
Ryan Evans is the founder and CEO of War on the Rocks. His opinions are his own.