As the world watches in horror at the unprovoked death and destruction befalling Ukraine, President Biden and NATO leaders have within their power the ability to end it all.
The current US policy of arming Ukraine with lethal weapons and imposing unprecedented economic sanctions is one path forward that could make the costs of war so high that President Vladimir Putin of Russia yields. But it might also prolong the conflict, extending the pain and suffering of the Ukrainian people for years.
Another option for Biden is to compromise on NATO membership invitations. Oxford historian Robert Service recently pointed to an agreement between the United States and Ukraine in November 2021 as the catalyst for the current crisis. In the Charter on Strategic Partnership, Service explained, the United States formally asserted support for Ukrainian NATO membership. Just one month later, in a letter to the United States and its allies, Russia demanded that they unwind that agreement and guarantee in writing that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO.
Russia’s response insisted that any further eastward encroachment of NATO toward Russia would disrupt the detente that has existed in Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Warsaw Pact alliance (of USSR and Eastern European nations) soon crumbled and the rough parity that had existed between them the Warsaw Pact and NATO suddenly vanished, leaving NATO standing alone. Putin’s grievances derive from a fundamental asymmetry between NATO and Russia, and future expansions of NATO further eastward would certainly exacerbate that imbalance.
The United States’ written response to Russia’s letter was leaked and lays out a detailed answer to the Russian demand. The letter refers to “all states respecting the right of other states to choose or change security arrangements, and to decide their own future and foreign policy free from outside interference.” It goes on to assert, “In this light, we reaffirm our commitment to NATO’s Open Door Policy under Article 10 of the Washington Treaty.” In a perfect world, all states should have the right to make those decisions. But in choosing between the current tragedy in Ukraine and the right to “change security arrangements,” that argument is unconvincing. Geopolitical considerations have always weighed on how a country arranges its relationships with superpowers. For example, how free is Mexico is to align itself militarily with China?
Additionally, the reference to Article 10 of NATO’s original 1949 treaty misses the mark. Article 10 provides that NATO members may “by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State” to become a member of the alliance. The treaty offers no right-to-apply for Ukraine or any other European country. The US letter to Russia referred to an “Open Door” policy to NATO membership, but that in itself is a flawed interpretation of Article 10, which does not use the language of “Open Door,” and is partially responsible for the swirl of factors contributing to today’s war.
A new letter from Biden to Putin that explicitly guarantees that NATO would not invite Ukraine to join the alliance in no way violates either the spirit or the intent of Article 10. In fact, the wording of Article 10 hands a new membership veto power to all 30 NATO members — any one of them could write such a letter and end the war today.
Today’s commentators express concern for another Cold War. However terrifying that period was, the fact that each side was matched rather equally meant that neither was willing to face the prospects for a “hot” war and the ensuing mutually assured destruction. Today we face an uneven scenario where NATO is substantially stronger than Russia and the alliance’s continued growth and expansion can be seen as a threat. While its public stance is to promote peace, NATO member countries’ military presence in Europe is enormous, with a large cache of nuclear weapons pointed east. Putin’s response when cornered is hard to estimate and could end in a broader war. Reporting has found that some US national security officials believe that a direct conflict with Russia is “increasingly likely.”
Biden can address NATO’s threat to Russia and the ongoing fighting in Ukraine today through de-escalation instead of the economic and proxy war he threatens. Reaching a compromise with Russia and restricting the ability of Ukraine to join NATO would end today’s violence and prevent us all from sinking into a larger, avoidable conflict.
Justin B. Hollander is a professor at Tufts University where he teaches public policy and planning.