War Stories

No, We Are Not Headed Toward Another Cold War

What everyone is getting wrong about Putin’s security proposal to the U.S.

Putin sitting on a stage and leaning nonchalantly on one arm of his chair
Putin’s proposal has some intriguing starting points and some disingenuous nonstarters. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s proposal for a security treaty with the United States, which the Kremlin released on Friday, has many problems, but it’s not nearly as bad as some officials, analysts, and news outlets have claimed.

Take the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times headlined “Putin Moves to Push NATO Out of Former Soviet Republics.” The story begins:

Russia demanded on Friday that the United States and its allies halt all military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in a sweeping proposal that would establish a Cold War–like security arrangement.

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If this were true, the proposal should be “immediately dismissed,” as was the response from some NATO officials. However, this is not what the Russian document says at all. Rather, Article 4 of the proposed treaty, which presumably aims to establish “security guarantees” between the United States and Russia, states that the U.S. “shall not establish military bases” or engage in “military activities” on the territory of any former Soviet republics or allies “that are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” (italics mine).

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The clear implication is that the U.S. can hold military activities on the territory of former Soviet allies that are members of NATO—and this would include Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

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Russia’s main demand, as Article 4 also states, is that the U.S. “undertake to prevent further eastward expansion” of NATO (again, italics mine). So Putin is not moving to push NATO out of Russia’s former sphere of influence. Quite the contrary—the proposed treaty, for the first time, accepts the expansion that occurred in the decade following the end of the Cold War as an established fact. The treaty would only block further expansion.

In short, even though it doesn’t so much as mention the name of the country, this proposed treaty is really about the fate of Ukraine, which Russian leaders have long regarded as a crucial ally and buffer state to excursions from the West. (Ukraine was once a part of Russia, and Putin, like many Russians, considers that still to be the case.) Putin doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO, and he wants U.S. military forces—a few hundred National Guard members, who are training the Ukrainian army in how to use the anti-tank missiles and other weapons that the U.S. has supplied—out of that country as well.

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Some officials and editorialists have accused Putin of paranoia, noting that Ukraine will likely never be allowed to join NATO, so he shouldn’t be making a fuss. This may be so, but in 2008, President George W. Bush declared that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia might be allowed to join NATO at some point in the future. No president since has backpedaled on this pledge; in a recent visit to Kiev, President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, said the door to Ukraine’s entry was not shut.

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And yet Biden has also said that, even if Russia were to invade Ukraine (or, to put it more accurately, were to invade Ukraine beyond its 2014 armed incursion into the eastern province of Donbas and its annexation of Crimea), the U.S. would respond with severe economic sanctions—not with military force. If Ukraine were a member of NATO, the U.S. and the other allies would be obligated to respond with force. Yet no one in a position of power advocates doing this—even as some officials believe Russia is planning to invade. So Putin could also ask Biden, with some legitimacy: Why are you making such a fuss about my demand to keep Ukraine out of NATO?

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While Putin’s concerns about NATO expansion have a degree of validity, some of the treaty’s other provisions, which officials and news stories have barely touched upon, are more problematic. For instance, Article 4 states that the U.S. cannot “develop bilateral military cooperation with” non-NATO countries that were once part of the Soviet Union—i.e., with Ukraine. At the very least, Putin would have to clarify what he means by “military cooperation.” If he means the U.S. can’t provide Ukraine with arms, military equipment, or intelligence information about Russian troops on its border, then that’s unacceptable. Ukraine is a sovereign nation, after all. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, U.S. presidents have pledged to help Ukraine defend itself from attack.

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Similarly, Article 5 of Russia’s treaty would bar each party (the U.S. and Russia) from “deploying … armed forces and armaments in the framework of military organizations, military alliances or coalitions, in the areas where such deployment could be perceived by the other party as a threat.” This is ambiguous. How would one side know that the other “perceived” some action as a threat before carrying it out? Also, could the U.S. supply arms to Ukraine outside this framework? If not, this too isn’t going to happen.

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The treaty would also prohibit both parties from flying heavy bombers or from sending surface warships “in areas outside national airspace and waters from where they could attack the other.” This would bar the U.S. from docking warships at allied ports or basing bombers on allied airstrips. It would have no effect on Russia, which has no such allied ports or airstrips. (Its planes in Syria are fighter jets, not bombers.) This goes way beyond the putative purpose of the treaty, and it’s totally unacceptable.

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Article 6 would bar either party from basing ground-launched intermediate- or short-range ballistic missiles in areas from which they could attack targets in the other party’s territory. Again, this would place restrictions only on the U.S., not on Russia, which has no bases from which these types of missiles could attack the U.S.

Finally, Article 7 bars both parties from training conventional armies, or conducting military exercises with them, that “include scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons.” This may seem reasonable, but it’s not. Like it or not, the U.S. has a policy of “extended deterrence” with NATO and other allies—a pledge to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to halt or push back an enemy attack. If this ever happened, the conflict would likely begin as conventional war. For extended deterrence to be credible to allies and adversaries, the U.S. has to conduct military exercises that simulate the transition from conventional to nuclear war. Maybe this policy should change, but doing so would involve a major review of America’s alliance policy. It should not be one clause in a treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

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Which leads to a final point—and the most basic flaw in this Russian document. Presenting it as a treaty between just the U.S. and Russia is too limiting.  Any treaty that deals with security issues in Europe must include European nations—including Ukraine—at the negotiating table. Also, in exchange for any retractions in U.S. commitments to Ukraine, Russia must agree to pull its troops out of the Donbas region, stop supplying arms to Russian separatists there, and pull back at least some of its troops from the Ukrainian border.

Moscow’s proposal contains some intriguing starting points and some disingenuous nonstarters. But the critiques laid out thus far—portraying it as a throwback to the Cold War that would expel the U.S. from all of Eastern Europe—are simply wrong. If this document is the starting point for negotiations or the rationale for escalating tensions between our two countries, we must first understand what it really says.

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