Uncertainty and tensions over Ukraine’s future were not diffused following the latest meeting between the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last Friday, January 21, 2022, in Geneva. Russian President Vladamir Putin is determined to leverage a potentially devastating military conflict to reverse the post-Cold War Western order and dissuade Ukraine’s admission into NATO―what the Kremlin terms “security guarantees” from the U.S. government. Thus far, he has deployed over 100,000 troops and heavy artillery, including short-range ballistic missiles, on the border with Ukraine.
The rhetoric on all sides is concerning. While President Biden predicts that Russian forces will invade Ukraine and promises a “disaster” for Russia if their forces pursue an offensive, Russia’s military build-up on the border continues. Putin’s grievances include NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of U.S. and NATO strategic weaponry in neighboring countries. Putin sees Ukraine’s potential admission into NATO as an existential threat to Russia’s security. In this explosive situation, the costs for Putin’s drawback of troops are too high.
“Europe whole and free” became the motto of American leaders and policymakers after the end of the Cold War to explain the policies pursued in Europe, including the expansion of the NATO alliance. Although the inclusion of Eastern and Central European countries has provided security and stability to the region, the enlargement has also poisoned the relationship between the West and Russia. This has contributed to the pursuit of aggressive policies and the use of force by Russia in neighboring countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia. As long as the Russian government perceives NATO as a threat, it cannot become the pillar of European security order – which the U.S. policymakers intended by accepting the requests of new aspiring members – without provoking new conflicts and crises with a revisionist and increasingly hostile Russia.
But NATO’s eastward expansion is as much of a strategic and military concern as a question of status, influence, and symbolism. NATO, in the eyes of the Kremlin, is the foremost tool of American power, influence, and primacy in Europe. Expanding the alliance to include Ukraine would be the final victorious blow to a former superpower in the quest for status and a new global role in world politics. What the Russian government demands from the U.S. is the reversal of the post-Cold War order and security architecture in Europe, which reaffirmed the victory of the U.S. and its allies in the Cold War with Soviet Russia, consolidating this victory within an American-led security framework. The U.S. and its Western allies expanded NATO after the end of the Cold War, making it the primary security framework of Europe and sidelining more inclusive frameworks such as the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
With the U.S. ordering the evacuation of American diplomats from Ukraine and placing 8,500 troops on alert to be deployed in Eastern Europe, the invasion seems imminent. Despite ongoing improvements of Ukraine’s military since 2014, strong support from EU states, and NATO’s shipments of weapons and military aid, Ukraine stands no chance against the far superior Russian military. Russian forces, given their superiority in the air and sea, would overwhelm and destroy much of Ukraine’s military capacity very quickly. At the same time, Ukraine’s Western partners, including the U.S., have clearly indicated that no NATO troops will fight for Ukraine. Military aid and the threat of severe economic sanctions for Russia is all that the West is offering to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Experts have offered various analyses of what a Russian invasion could look like―from a small incursion, to a large-scale offensive that could result in Ukraine’s East or Black Sea regions falling under Russian control. Regime change in Kyiv is also a possible scenario, as the Kremlin sees the replacement of the anti-Russian government in Kyiv as a possible solution to the “Ukraine question.” In reality, however, considering the scale of the possible invasion and predicting which scenario would play out are not as important. Regardless of the scale of a Russian offensive, the status quo in Ukraine will be altered in a way which is likely to bolster the diplomatic (and most probably military-strategic) goals of President Putin, while putting the U.S. and the West at a disadvantage in the further negotiations with Russia. The diplomatic setback and the crumbling of trust in the West’s ability to deal with threats to European security will come on top of the material destruction in Ukraine: loss of territory and human lives, and perhaps even the collapse of the Ukrainian statehood―exactly what the U.S. policy is trying to prevent.
The fear of severe economic sanctions, promised by President Biden if Russia invades Ukraine, is unlikely to deter Putin and his regime. Not only have sanctions been unsuccessful in changing the Kremlin’s policies―Russia currently has hundreds of billions of dollars in currency reserves and has taken steps to minimize vulnerability to U.S. sanctions―but in this specific case, the costs of backing down are too high for Putin’s regime. Ukraine is too strategically, militarily and economically valuable for Russia and for Putin personally to accept the “loss” of Ukraine to the West (that is the zero-sum view that the Russian government holds). Furthermore, the deep historical, cultural, and ethnic ties between Ukrainians and Russians mean that the Russian government will go to extraordinary lengths to bring Ukraine back to the sphere of Moscow’s influence.
With the tools of American foreign and security policy unsuccessful in forcing Russia to back down, the U.S. government must recognize the reality of the changing geopolitical landscape in Europe and rethink its strategy vis-à-vis the continent, NATO, and Russia. Washington may recognize that the further alienation and exclusion of Russia from the European security architecture is bound to provoke a harsher response from a major global player with nuclear capabilities. More importantly, U.S. policymakers should recognize and account for the China factor. Sino-Russian solidarity is growing every day, and the three countries must improve strategic dialogue to address common security issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, COVID-19, and climate change. When Putin provoked the Ukraine crisis to prompt America’s presence at the negotiating table last December, the Kremlin received the support of China’s President Xi Jinping in the renewed confrontation with the West. A Sino-Russian alliance, which seems more likely now than ever, will be the most significant threat to U.S. national security and interests abroad.
While the calls to be tough on Russia and stand up to Putin are plenty in the West, no one seems to recognize that Russia has already scored a victory. Western tanks will not roll into Ukraine to fight against Russian forces, given that such a confrontation can spark a global war with a nuclear state. Severe Western sanctions will devastate the Russian economy, but will also result in a disruption of energy supply throughout Europe. NATO allies are already showing signs of discord. French President Emmanuel Macron called for a new security order and renewed talks with Russia, while Germany recently blocked the transfer of some weapons to Ukraine.
The Kremlin understands that a country that has an ongoing and unresolved territorial conflict with a nuclear power will never be granted NATO’s valuable security guarantees. NATO’s Article V guarantees the armed support of member states. It is clear, therefore, that in the current situation, Ukraine will not be offered formal NATO membership. What Putin seeks to prevent is the militarization and the de-facto inclusion of Ukraine into the alliance without the formal accession of Ukraine to membership.
The Biden administration has committed to leading with diplomacy. While containing Putin’s ambitions and possible attempts to shape the European order remain critical, engagement with Russia and measures to stabilize the relationship, including reversing policies that have isolated Russia, are necessary to move past the current deadlock. One positive form of engagement could be to invite Russia to re-join the G7 group (making it G7 + 1, as it was before). This could become a useful forum to re-engage with Russia and explore ways to overcome the NATO-Russia mistrust and launch a qualitatively fresh dialogue with Putin’s Russia. Engaging Russia on substantive arms control initiatives to decrease the likelihood of a dangerous arms race in Europe will also be a positive concrete step that the Biden administration can take to stabilize the relationship over the long term.
Diffusing the current crisis, avoiding bloodshed in Ukraine, and preserving stability in Europe requires U.S. policymakers to rely less on ideology and more on reality and pragmatism in rethinking the American policy towards Europe, NATO, and Russia. The Russian president clearly does not accept the idea of “Europe whole and free in NATO and without Russia.” In Putin’s eyes, this is what the West ultimately strived for after the end of the Cold War. While NATO should not compromise on its founding principles, the U.S. can and should provide, as a sovereign state and leading member of NATO, credible assurances that NATO or the member countries of the alliance will not station troops, destabilizing equipment, or infrastructure in the territory of Ukraine.
Whatever step Putin decides to take, the U.S. government must accept the urgency of reviewing existing auto-pilot policies and rethinking how the European security order must be organized. Aside from the more immediate steps that the U.S. is taking to deter Russian aggression, it is time for Washington policymakers to formulate a clear, concrete, and long-term strategy. Confidence-building measures between NATO and Russia must be relaunched, despite the issue of the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The U.S. must engage with European allies to craft a new, innovative approach that can redefine the current modus operandi in Europe to account for Russian security concerns that are legitimate and well-founded. At the same time, the U.S. must begin incentivizing the Russians to change its aggressive foreign policy. As deterrence and punitive measures have proven to be ineffective, incentivizing Putin to pivot from his use of force and assertive policies must be a priority for Western policymakers. Unless U.S. policymakers integrate long-term strategies to deal with Russia, Ukraine will be at the risk of collapse, and Europe at the risk of a long and unnecessarily hot war.