US-Russia relations are at a fork in the road. Down one path lies conciliation. Down the other lies confrontation. How the Ukraine crisis is resolved will shape the future of great-power politics for years to come.
Russia’s brinkmanship in Ukraine is a geopolitical power play, reminiscent of Soviet times. President Vladimir Putin wants to turn back the clock and restore Soviet spheres of influence in Ukraine and other countries that emerged when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. According to Putin, the Soviet Union’s demise was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Putin is not unhinged, nor does he want a war with the West. He is a rational actor who foments crisis to advance political goals. Threatening Ukraine, occupying Georgia, and backing Belarus are calculated steps to strengthen Russia in its post-Soviet states, sending a message to would-be opponents and imposing a security buffer between Russia and new members of NATO.
The Ukraine crisis is more than a test of Europe’s security architecture. It is also a challenge to the United States, whose global leadership was hollowed out during the Trump administration and diminished by events in Afghanistan. Dictators are gauging President Biden’s response.
The United States and Russia are engaged in frenetic diplomacy to prevent a war in Ukraine. With Russia as a nuclear power, conflict escalation could have dire consequences.
A negotiated settlement is far-fetched given Putin’s outrageous demands. He insists that NATO disassociate countries that joined the alliance after 1991. He requires NATO’s newest members to remove missiles and other sophisticated weapons. He wants a treaty commitment limiting NATO’s expansion further east.
The Biden administration and its NATO allies responded on Wednesday in writing, reportedly rejecting Putin’s demands. US administrations have viewed the North Atlantic Charter as a sacrosanct treaty obligation. Article 10 stipulates: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.”
For sure, there is inherent value in talking. Though negotiations are unlikely to meet Putin’s demands, dialogue may address Russia’s other security concerns, such as arms control.
While Ukraine is front and center, United States policy toward Russia should consider long-term domestic goals for Russia, such as strengthening its democracy, supporting human rights and an independent media, as well as local groups countering corruption, such as Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Additionally, talks could identify policy options and generate popular support for peace and progress.
How Biden deals with Ukraine will impact US-Russia relations in the future. Without reversing the pledge to support Georgia and Ukraine’s interest in joining the alliance that was issued at the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, the United States can de-escalate tensions by publicly proclaiming that Ukraine will not be joining NATO anytime soon. The statement should also disavow the positioning of offensive weapons on Ukrainian territory. Rather than discretion, these statements should be made publicly and disseminated through a public diplomacy campaign.
Putin’s no fool. He knows that Russia will pay a steep price in sanctions and reputationally for invading Ukraine. Occupying small pieces of Ukraine or establishing a land bridge between Russia and Crimea will meet the same response as a full-blown occupation.
If Putin rejects conciliation, then confrontation will ensue. The United States would probably suspend talks and, working with allies and partners, impose severe sanctions, including personal sanctions targeting Putin, his assets, and the wealth of his oligarch supporters.
De-escalating tensions with Russia in Ukraine would represent a diplomatic victory that can change Putin’s behavior in other places where Russia is a bad actor. Opprobrium and disgrace can be powerful levers affecting Russia’s actions.
David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.