War Stories

Can Biden and Putin Stop Ukraine Tensions From Becoming a Real Crisis?

Why not give this proposal a try.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony for newly-appointed foreign ambassadors in Moscow, on December 1. (Photo by GRIGORY SYSOYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin in Moscow, December 1. GRIGORY SYSOYEV/Getty Images

As storm clouds gather over Ukraine, with officers and officials here and abroad warning of a possibly imminent Russian invasion, top diplomats in Moscow and Washington are now trying to carve out a peaceful solution to the crisis.

For months, Russia has been mobilizing troops near the Ukrainian border, prompting fears of an invasion much deeper and graver than the incursions into the country’s eastern Donbas region back in 2014. Russian officials have explained their moves as a response to an enlarging U.S. “military infrastructure” in Ukraine, including training bases, weapons, and joint naval exercises in the Black Sea—concerns that even some American experts see as valid.

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On Wednesday, at a Kremlin ceremony, Putin made the following statement, which some news reports called a “demand” but might also be characterized as a proposal for negotiations:

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In a dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on working out specific agreements that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.

The next day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm. Lavrov repeated Putin’s remarks. Blinken warned that the U.S. and its allies would respond to military moves on Ukraine with very harsh economic sanctions, but added this at a news conference after the meeting:

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I also made clear the United States is prepared to work with both parties [Russia and Ukraine] to support a diplomatic resolution through implementation of the Minsk agreements in a way that we can. That diplomatic way forward can avert a crisis that would serve no one’s interests.

In a separate statement, Blinken repeated the point, referring this time not to “both parties” but rather to “our Russian friends” and “our Ukrainian friends.” He also said that he and Lavrov “had candid exchanges on our different perspectives” and that they “agreed to report those back to our presidents, who may have the opportunity to speak directly in the near future.”

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There’s a great deal to unpack here. Let’s begin with some historical context, which is crucial to the story as it’s evolved.

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In 1994, in a secret memorandum which has since been declassified, President Bill Clinton promised Russian President Boris Yeltsin that any enlargement of NATO would be slow, with no surprises, and would help build a Europe that was in “partnership” with Russia. But in fact, over the next few years, with plenty of surprises and no partnership with Russia, NATO expanded to encompass nearly every Eastern European country that had been a member of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. This occurred at a time when Russia was flat on its back, economically, politically, and militarily, and spurred deep resentment among many Russians, not least Putin, who were already traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Among the very few former Soviet allies not absorbed into NATO was Ukraine—in part because the Ukrainians did not want to join at the time, but mainly because U.S. and Western European leaders opposed the idea, realizing it would be far too provocative to push the western military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, incorporating a large country that had been close to Russia for many centuries, as both a vital economic partner and a security buffer.

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In 2014, Putin made the audacious moves of annexing Crimea and making armed incursions into Ukraine’s Donbas region. In part this was in reaction to widespread protests of Russian domination throughout Ukraine, leading to the ouster of its Moscow-backed president and gestures among officials in the capital, Kiev, to ally much more closely with the European Union. None of this justifies Putin’s annexation and incursions. The protests had been sparked by Moscow’s oppression, and Putin’s actions violated international law. But the backstory explains Putin’s behavior seven years ago—and sets the context for his actions of the last few months.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has persisted to varying degrees ever since. This has not been a series of light skirmishes but intense combat, killing more than 14,000 people—mainly Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russia separatist militiamen, but the figure also includes a few thousand Ukrainian civilians and several hundred Russian Special Forces (whose direct involvement in the war Putin has never acknowledged).

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As a result, the U.S. and various Western European nations have stepped up their military assistance to Ukraine—though rarely in the form of lethal weapons. President Trump supplied anti-tank missiles, but Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis insisted that the missiles stay locked up in western Ukraine, far from the battlefield. Biden has frequently proclaimed America’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, though the nature of the commitment has always been to help Ukraine defend itself—not to send in American (or other NATO) troops. Even in his warnings this week to Lavrov, Blinken has said the U.S. and its allies would respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine with much stiffer economic sanctions—not with a military counterpunch.

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In other words, Putin may seem to have little rational cause to worry about NATO expanding any farther eastward—i.e., into Ukraine. Still, just in recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested membership in NATO, and, during a visit to Kiev, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pointedly did not close the door to the possibility. To someone like Putin—the former KGB officer who trusts nobody and who once declared the collapse of the Soviet Union to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century”—the threat is something worth taking seriously.

Or, possibly, Putin knows that NATO membership for Ukraine is unlikely but is seeking a diplomatic off-ramp to the present crisis. I think Biden should test his intentions, give his proposal a try—with caveats.

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The caveats are these: OK, we guarantee that Ukraine will not be let into NATO and that no U.S. weapons capable of threatening Russia will be deployed “in close vicinity to Russian territory” (as Putin put it in his Kremlin speech). But, in exchange, Russia will pull its troops and heavy military equipment out of Ukraine and away from the border; some sort of truly neutral international peacekeeping force will move in to replace them; and Russia will pledge not to interfere with Ukraine’s internal politics.

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This last pledge may seem a non-starter. One reason for Putin’s alarm at Kiev’s westward drift was that he viewed a free and democratic Ukraine as an alternative model of governance for pro-democracy activists in Russia—and thus a threat to his own regime.

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But maybe it’s not a non-starter. It may be significant that, in their recent remarks, neither Putin nor Lavrov said anything about Kiev’s desire for full membership in the European Union. (Ukraine now has “associated” status.) Maybe they’re willing to tolerate some political shift to the west, as long as the prospect of a military shift is barred. It’s worth finding out.

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Some Western officials and politicians oppose even pursing the matter, arguing that Russia has no business making demands on which countries can and cannot join NATO. They’re right, and, if peace talks of some sort really do take off, Biden would have to work out a deal in which Zelensky unilaterally withdraws his request for membership—perhaps in exchange for more military assistance. In that case, Putin would have to clarify what he means by barring the deployment of U.S. weapons from areas “in close vicinity to Russian territory.” Could that mean certain kinds of weapons (those that don’t threaten Russia directly) would be allowed in western Ukraine?

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Hey, diplomacy is complicated, especially diplomacy that touches on core interests of both Russia (preserving Ukraine as a safe buffer state) and the U.S. (preserving Ukrainian sovereignty).

The point here is that NATO will not let Ukraine join any time soon; too many of its members view such an event as needlessly provocative. So it seems odd to insist on the right to do something that we have no intention of doing in the first place—especially if this insistence is a major obstacle to resolving a major danger to Ukrainian and, by extension, European security. It is also unfair to Ukraine to keep the false hope dangling before their eyes.

In this sense, it is very interesting that Blinken, after his meeting with Lavrov, talked of “a diplomatic resolution through implementation of the Minsk agreements in a way that we can.” The Minsk agreements were signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015 as a way to end the fighting and secure a peace. It called for a ceasefire, a pullback of heavy weapons from the battlefield, the disarmament of all militia groups but also amnesty for the separatists involved in the fighting, an exchange of hostages and prisoners, and the resumption of socio-economic links between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied region of Donbas—but also elections in Donbas, which might result in the region’s secession from Ukraine.

In short, the Minsk agreements had something for all parties to like and to hate—which is why neither side enforced them and why almost nobody in Ukraine is keen to see them carried out. But notice, Blinken talked about implementing the Minsk agreements “in a way that we can”—the starting off point, perhaps, of further negotiations, though two of the accord’s articles, calling for a ceasefire and a pullback of heavy weapons, would probably have to precede further talks.

At best, the road to peace and stability in and around Ukraine is a long one; it is not entirely clear that either side really wants to make the slog down that road, given the compromises ahead. But there’s only one way to find out, and Blinken and Lavrov seem to have taken the first step. They even said their presidents may “speak directly” on the matter “in the near future.” Again, there’s no risk in trying.

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