How to Avoid War Over Ukraine
by Mel Gurtov
The threat of a major war hangs over eastern Europe.
Four different negotiating forums between Russia and NATO on the Ukraine situation have not gone well. The two sides cannot agree on the central problem and therefore cannot agree on an agenda. They are trading threats, delivered with very little subtlety and suggesting the possibility of a war far beyond the boundaries of Ukraine.
Meantime, Russian forces are deployed all along Ukraine’s eastern border, and are about to be deployed in Belarus. The US and some NATO allies—Britain, yes; Germany, no—are increasing military aid to Ukraine, adding to small military units deployed in Poland and elsewhere along Ukraine’s western border. Reportedly, the US is discussing both overt and covert aid that would enable Ukraine to fight a guerrilla war should Russia invade.
I have previously addressed Vladimir Putin’s motives for wanting a showdown over Ukraine. Though his speeches suggest an exclusive concern about possible Ukraine membership in NATO and the fact of US and NATO military units in other countries bordering Russia—“NATO creep,” in short—longtime observers believe Putin has other concerns.
He wants to enhance his legacy as the man who restored Ukraine to its rightful place within the Russian empire. Putin probably also worries that Ukraine’s path to democracy might influence opposition forces in Russia to demand that Russia follow the same path. But Putin can hardly admit to having these ulterior motives; he will speak only to Russian security concerns.
As low a regard as I have for Putin’s rule and for his veracity, I do believe he has a fair point when he insists on a NATO pullback from Russia’s borders. His official demand for an ironclad commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO is unacceptable to the West.
Nor can Russia dictate the conditions under which NATO can operate in defense of the rest of Europe. Still, it should be possible—and I believe it is essential—that a formula be found to reassure Russia of respect for its security interests.
Ukraine’s membership in NATO is not up for consideration anyway; nor is its membership necessary for it to continue receiving outside assistance from the West. US and NATO military ties to Russia’s neighbors likewise can be finessed so as to make clear that no threat to Russia is intended.
The US and European position that, on principle, Ukraine as an independent country is free to make its own choices of association is correct in theory but dangerous in practice if it provokes a war.
Meeting expressed Russian security concerns is, however, only one piece in the puzzle.
European security is the larger issue, and one thing it requires is revival of the US-Russia Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was scrubbed by Trump; otherwise, Russia might carry out its threat to introduce tactical nuclear weapons in central Europe.
Second, Russia must reaffirm an old pledge, made after the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons. Under the December 1994 Budapest Declaration, the parties—the US, Russia, and Great Britain—promised to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” as well as to “refrain from economic coercion” and render assistance to Ukraine should it be attacked.
Russia has already violated that pledge by seizing Crimea. Now, Russia must remove its “little green men” from eastern Ukraine, pull back its regular army from the border, and maintain normal economic relations with Ukraine.
In return, Ukraine should follow the 2015 Minsk Accord, to which the US, Europe, and Russia are also parties, and provide substantial autonomy to the two regions of eastern Ukraine that Russia has been supporting.
Third, all the parties should convene a new round of European security talks focused not only on military deployments and threat reduction, but also on two other controversial issues relevant to security: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine—a pipeline that Republicans in Congress are pressing the Biden administration to oppose; and Russian interference in European politics in support of right-wing authoritarianism.
Agendas often determine outcomes. NATO creep must be on the European agenda with Russia, just as Ukraine’s independence must be on Russia’s agenda. War or peace is at stake, and practical steps to keep the peace are available.
Some people may think principles must be rigidly adhere to—I’m thinking of US chief negotiator Wendy Sherman’s statement that the US “will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy.”
Let’s not forget that avoiding a catastrophic war is also principled behavior.