The Way Out of the Ukraine Crisis

U.S. leaders need to talk to the Russians, not threaten them.
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One of many "lengthy and ineffectual" phone calls between Obama and Putin during the early stages of the Ukraine crisis (White House/Reuters)

MOSCOW—In May, Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill of stunning recklessness that seems specifically designed to destroy what remains of relations between the United States and Russia. The legislation’s very name—the “Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014”—is a misnomer, for its provisions, if enacted, would dramatically heighten tensions between Moscow and Washington. By foreclosing the option of doing what we really need to do—launch a serious dialogue with Russia about how to end the Ukraine crisis—it would deepen the conflict there, augment the human misery spreading as a result, and shove us to the brink of war. In fact, the bill is already doing damage to the prospect of peace by serving Kremlin propagandists as a manifesto of U.S. intent to force Russia to its knees and humiliate its leader. It presents an ultimatum to the Kremlin that no head of state, least of all the famously supercilious Vladimir Putin, would accept.

The Russian Aggression Prevention Act is just a proposed bill, for now. But if the Republicans take the Senate (and retain the House of Representatives) in November’s midterm elections, the legislation shows the direction in which Congress will push President Obama as the current standoff intensifies. Elections aside, the measure represents a hardline approach that the White House is warming to—at a pivotal moment in the months-long crisis when the Ukrainian military is advancing on the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and Russian troops are massing on the border. Corker’s document reveals a grave, even inexplicable (in light of history) misapprehension of how to deal with an assertive Russia.

Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which put Russia’s socialist, expansionist regime at loggerheads with much of the world for most of the 20th century, the West, and especially the United States, has struggled with a confounding question: What to do about Russia? In the 1970s, the Nixon administration found an answer: détente, a policy predicated not on threats, but on dialogue. Russia is too big, too resource-rich, too vital (as an energy supplier to Europe), and too technologically advanced to disregard (or “isolate” as Obama has said he hopes to do). Its nuclear arsenal alone—the only such arsenal capable of destroying the West—imposes an imperative: dialogue, as distasteful as that may be to many. In short, if Russia and the United States are quarreling, global peace is under threat.

Corker’s bill purports to offer a “strategic framework for United States security assistance and cooperation in Europe and Eurasia,” but in fact directs the president to take a number of measures that would imperil both objectives. According to the legislation, the United States and NATO would, in violation of the 1997 Founding Act (concluded between the alliance and Russia), permanently station troops in the alliance member states of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, and “accelerate” (in an unspecified way) “European and NATO missile defense efforts.” (There is much to specify here, since in 2009 the Obama administration, facing strong criticism from Russia and public opposition in the Czech Republic and Poland, the proposed host countries, scaled back plans for missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe.) Unprecedented “major non-NATO ally status” is to be accorded to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Military aid is promised to Ukraine, and cryptic verbiage about providing “defense articles or defense services” leaves open the possibility of doing the same for the other two former Soviet republics.

There are many other troubling provisions, but significantly, the bill instructs the president to block Russian assets and dramatically broaden sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin does not withdraw its military from Crimea and the Ukrainian border, and cease destabilizing the Ukrainian government’s control over its eastern regions. It also directs the U.S. secretary of state to “increase efforts [to] … strengthen democratic institutions and political and civil society organizations in the Russian Federation”—which sounds an awful lot like helping NGOs in Moscow promote regime change. (If Putin harbored any doubts that such NGOs were in the pay of the United States and working to subvert him, the bill neatly resolves them.) The act’s chief clauses would come into force if Putin doesn’t reverse course on Ukraine within seven to 30 days from its enactment.

How would the Russian president react to such an ultimatum? The former FSB chief, whose 14-year tenure in the country’s highest offices has bristled with televised displays of manliness and derring-do, would never submit to it. Sanctions have so far done nothing but consolidate domestic support for him and his Ukraine policy. Truly damaging economic restrictions would foment more anti-Western (and, specifically, anti-American) hostility and strengthen Russians’ conviction—generated by the virulent propaganda streaming forth endlessly over Kremlin-controlled airwaves—that the West is ganging up on Russia and bent on destroying it. Indeed, this perception is already widespread, and has taken root among many Russians who were previously indifferent to politics or hostile to Putin, whose popularity now stands at 87 percent.

The military measures the act proposes are positively dangerous. Providing Western arms, intelligence, and military advisors to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—all of which are clashing or have clashed with Russia—would make possible scenarios hitherto unimaginable. If American-made bombs or bullets supplied to Ukraine, for example, end up killing Russian troops, or if American intelligence helps Ukraine score significant victories against Russian-backed separatists, Putin would have to respond or risk appearing weak. Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have never formed part of a Western political, military, or economic alliance, though they have participated in NATO’s symbolic Partnership for Peace program. With the exception of Georgia, they do, however, belong to the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. Just what these countries would bring to the United States and NATO besides trouble is hard to see.

Beyond the Russian Aggression Prevention Act, the Obama administration has shown little aptitude for dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, imposing sanctions that have not prompted Putin to quit Crimea or stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, and spouting rhetoric that has only hardened Putin’s determination to not back down.

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.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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