The way out of this standoff lies in dialogue—realpolitik-based dialogue, the kind in which the United States engaged in the 1970s to initiate its groundbreaking détente policy with Leonid Brezhnev’s far stronger, more troublesome, and more threatening Soviet Union. Talking to Russia would be in keeping with how American presidents—from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—handled relations with their counterparts in the Kremlin even after major acts of Soviet aggression, from the repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 to the stationing of missiles in Cuba in 1962 to the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. (During the Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy imposed a U.S. Navy-enforced “quarantine” on Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from delivering more weapons to the island, but kept talking to the Kremlin throughout the incident.) Previous administrations understood that they had to recognize and even accommodate, however grudgingly, Soviet interests. With the threat of nuclear war looming, they had no choice. That threat has not by any means disappeared.
What would such a dialogue entail? For starters, the president and his secretary of state need to stop issuing gratuitously derogatory statements about Russia (calling it weak, a regional power that “doesn’t make anything,” out of touch with the 21st century, and so on) and cease proclaiming their desire to “make Russia pay.” Obama and John Kerry may be largely correct or justified in their assertions, but such words are a gift to Kremlin propagandists. They only serve to inflame Russian passions against the United States, and thereby deprive Putin of the option of changing policy without suffering humiliation.
The fact remains that Russia for centuries was a major power (and may become one again). Its “national ego” befits a country with a thousand-year past—a nation that played the dominant role in defeating the Nazis and underwent, in the space of a few decades, a transformation from a backward agricultural land to a nuclear superpower that launched the first satellite, dog, man, and woman into space.
Obama’s lengthy and ineffectual phone conversations with Putin (a feature of the standoff’s first months) should also be scrapped in favor of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The staffs of the White House and State Department need to talk quietly to their Russian counterparts about concrete, realistic objectives that culminate in a deal with Russia that benefits all parties involved, including Ukraine. A U.S.-Russia summit should be the goal, and presented as such to the Kremlin. I am not the first to issue a call for an Obama-Putin summit: the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group established to contest the intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq, did so in May.
What would a deal look like? In keeping with the advice of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the United States should commit to not inviting Ukraine to join NATO, and thereby preserving for the country a status of neutrality identical to that enjoyed by Finland. The architect of America’s containment policy, the diplomat George Kennan, from the start opposed NATO expansion to the east, warning two decades ago that such a move would lead to “a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia.” (In 2002, I also made the case in this magazine against enlarging the alliance.) The United States should take Putin at his word that the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine prompted him to annex Crimea in March, and surely motivates him to support separatists in eastern Ukraine now.
Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion are legitimate. The alliance, after all, was created with one purpose: countering Soviet military might. In 2008, NATO member countries jointly declared that they welcomed “Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO,” adding that “these countries will become members of NATO.” The prospect, however distant, of NATO troops, tanks, missiles, and intelligence-gathering operations eventually being stationed a few hundred miles south of Moscow, and of Russia losing access to its sole warm-water port in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, can only alarm the Kremlin.
Obama needs to formally rescind the NATO members’ declaration welcoming eventual Ukrainian and Georgian membership. In return for such a commitment, Russia must stop aiding separatists and destabilizing Ukraine, and allow the country to pursue its own path to democracy and economic prosperity. Ukraine would, in effect, to the benefit of all parties, be “Finlandized”—that is, neutral. There is nothing negative in the term. Finland shares a long land border with Russia, of which it once was a part, and with which it now enjoys normal relations.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea will prove the most intractable issue for negotiators. Support for autonomy from Kiev and alliance with Russia has flowed through politics in the peninsula since 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev “gave” it, without consulting the Crimeans, to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. (Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783, when Empress Catherine the Great invaded it and ended its stint as a Tatar khanate.) In 1991, 93 percent of Crimeans voted in a referendum to re-establish the Crimean Soviet Socialist Republic. Three years later, eight out of ten Crimeans voted in another poll to retain their republic after the Ukrainian government had abolished it. A new referendum is now called for—one under the auspices of the United Nations. If NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table, it seems doubtful Putin would object, though Russian access to Sevastopol’s port might prove a sticking point. (From the fall of the Soviet Union until its annexation of Crimea in March, Russia leased the port from Ukraine, and could possibly do so again.) The United States, though, needs to be prepared to accept poll results favoring union with Russia.
Once a deal is struck, Obama needs to meet Putin for a summit and signing ceremony. Given the apparent personal animosity between the two leaders, this will be a delicate affair. Obama stands to lose the most politically, given his stated aspirations to put Russia in its place. Putin, however, may welcome it; he will have disabled the NATO threat at no cost to Russia. The prestige and recognition associated with summits should assuage his ego, surely bruised by the Obama administration’s rhetoric.
If Obama decides to forgo the path of diplomacy with Russia and continue with punitive measures alone (as the Republicans’ Russian Aggression Prevention Act would have it, and as the president himself seems set on doing), he needs to explain how the United States and Europe will manage in the long term without a working relationship with Russia, a country that is key to resolving critical conflicts in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere. Most of all, he needs to explain by what strategic or moral calculus he has decided to risk the fate of our planet. The time to start talking is now.