Is war over Ukraine inevitable? The answer lies largely in the West.
Both the U.S. and Europe have, to date, dallied with Ukraine as a geostrategic plaything. Russia sees the country in existential terms. The European Union and NATO have both made promises to Kyiv that they have little intention of honoring. Moscow claims it has reached the end of its tether.
Both sides are currently digging themselves into untenable positions.
For Moscow, realpolitik did not throw in the towel with the end of historythat triumphalist U.S. interpretation of the demise of the Cold War. The basic rules of statecraft that have prevailed since Thucydides (The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must) were not discarded by the brief advent of unipolarity.
The key issue is the acronym NUPIMBY (no unfriendly power in my back yard). Western insistence that spheres of influence no longer obtain flies in the face of reality. What were the Monroe Doctrine or the Cuban missile crisis all about? What is the entire history of the Middle East since 1945 other than a constant reiteration of NUPIMBY? What, indeed, is NATO itself?
For over a century, the world has struggled with the inspired, but problematic, Wilsonian notion of self-determination. Yet the true picture of its implementation, in Southeast and South Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Latin America and elsewhere, has been one in which war and bloodshed have been ubiquitous.
The West (the U.S., NATO, EU) asserts that Ukraine must have the right to choose its own destiny. It does, of course, have that right. But like any small country surrounded by contending great powers, it must exercise that right with caution and circumspection.
International-relations experts have debated ad nauseam the question of whether or not promises of no NATO expansion were made to Russia at the end of the Cold War. Western officials take refuge behind the fact that, in negotiations with Gorbachev, nothing binding was put down in writing. That is true, but it is not the end of the story.
James Bakers 1990 memo asserting that NATO would advance not one inch to the east referred only to the territory of East Germany. In 1990, nobody in their wildest dreams imagined that NATO would soon embrace constituent units of the former Soviet Union.
Diplomacy is not just about written treaties. It is also driven by incremental informal bargaining and spoken assurances.
For over a century, the world has struggled with the inspired, but problematic, Wilsonian notion of self-determination.
The key issue is not about legal nicety. It is about geostrategic wisdom. Has NATO enlargement enhanced or weakened overall security and stability in the Eurasian space? Had Russia won the Cold War, would Warsaw Pact membership for Canada and Mexico have enhanced or weakened security and stability in the North American space?
As the Russian security expert Dmitri Trenin recently noted, Putin has little interest in occupying Ukraine. He has witnessed several waves of NATO enlargement as well as Washingtons withdrawal from treaties governing antiballistic missiles, intermediate-range nuclear forces, and unarmed observation aircraft. For him, Ukraine is the last stand.
The European Union has encouraged Ukrainians to see their future in Manichaean terms: either with Russia or with the EU. But Brussels has no intention of offering EU membership to Kyiv. NATO officially insists that Ukraine will one day join the alliance. But nobody in the West really believes this will ever happen. So why is NATO digging itself into a hole over the issue?
Putin has laid down clear red lines and a rapid time frame for discussions with the U.S. No further NATO expansion and no offensive U.S. missiles in Eastern Europe. Yet he knows that a military occupation of Ukraine would be a new Afghanistan for Russia. However, more limited options (the annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk, or the creation of a land bridge to Crimea), both highly problematic for the West, are not inconceivable.
Biden, who neither sought nor needs this crisis, now faces the politically perilous prospect of offering Moscow some element of satisfaction.
Despite the drumbeats of war, diplomacy still dominates the headlines. Putins demands for a negotiated security settlement in Europe are the opening salvos in a bargaining process. Both sides have legitimate security concerns. The broad outlines of a brokered agreement are discernible. Yet the priorities of the two sides are very different.
Putins objective is to reassert Russias influence as a major power. This means, above all, halting NATOs post-1989 advance toward the Russian border. The neutralization of Ukraine is probably the only outcome that can avert an intensification of the standoff. A form of words that secures that objective is not beyond the wit of diplomacy.
The Wests objective is to induce Moscow to engage in a process of stabilization across the Eurasian space. This means, above all, reversing the recent tendency to impose the Kremlins regional will by force of arms. A grand bargain focused on common intereststrade, energy, arms control, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, climatewould have the ancillary effect of preventing Russia from becoming a Chinese client state.
For the moment, the West is trumpeting the rock-solid unity between the U.S. and the EU. Yet it is widely recognized that there are significant differences between the positions of the key actors. Europe is condemned by history and geography to coexist with Russia. The U.S. faces more urgent geostrategic challenges than a standoff in Eastern Europe.
The U.K. is currently reeling from Brexit and partygate. France and Germany, if able to coordinate their efforts, could play a key role in the diplomatic outcome. They have always been opposed to NATO membership for Ukraine. They understand that NUPIMBY remains an iron rule of international relations.
This is not appeasement. It is wise and time-honored statecraft.