Opinion: How to Get What We Want From Putin

We’ll never agree with the Russian leader on principles, but we might be able to negotiate a better security structure for Europe.

The talks on European security that are now underway between the U.S. and Russia will be difficult because the two countries don’t trust one another, not even a little.

Many in the West are convinced that Moscow actually wants the discussions to fail, and quickly, because it wants a pretext for attacking Ukraine, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already decided to do so. Why else, they ask, would he have made public two draft treaties — one between Russia and the United States, the other between Russia and NATO — that insist on binding Western guarantees relating to Russia’s security, and with obviously unacceptable terms, such as a ban on further NATO expansion or U.S. security cooperation with former Soviet states? Others insist that the United States should demand that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s border before agreeing to start negotiations: no talks, they argue, while a Russian gun is pointed at Ukraine’s head.

But Russia is almost certain to keep its troops and arms in place until serious negotiations begin, if not longer. It began building up troops around Ukraine from 2015 onward, though it beefed up the number recently. Moreover, Putin reportedly told his diplomats in mid-November that a certain amount of tension would force the West to take Russia seriously.

Even though Putin’s actions have precipitated this crisis, the Biden administration has wisely agreed to start discussions without preconditions. It has acknowledged that some Russian proposals could serve as the basis for talks, even as it rejected others outright. The White House has also made clear that the talks cannot focus solely on Russia’s security concerns because the West has its own list of unacceptable and threatening Russian conduct, stretching back over decades, to discuss.

The immediate task is to defuse the current crisis. But these talks offer the Biden administration the opportunity to do something bigger and more enduring: the creation of a pan-European security order that includes Russia and reduces the risks of crises and confrontations on the continent.

History shows that new security orders between countries that espouse irreconcilable positions, as the United States and Russia do today, are usually imposed by the victor in the aftermath of a major war. But war between two nuclear-armed powers would be catastrophic for both, and indeed the world. So the challenge for the Biden administration is to do this without an armed confrontation. That requires striking a judicious balance between accommodating some of Russia’s principal security concerns — so as to prevent intermittent crises like the current one — and defending vital Western interests and principles. While this larger task will take considerable time, it is not impossible.

Here’s how to get there.

The starting point is the recognition that American and Russian principles regarding European security are irreconcilable. The American position that European states (specifically, Ukraine) are sovereign and have the right to freely choose the countries with which they associate cannot be squared with Russia’s insistence that it needs a sphere of influence in Europe (whether it calls it by that name or not) in order to feel secure. These positions are even more difficult to reconcile because they flow from divergent conceptions of national identity and statecraft. So the key to progress is to avoid fruitless debates over first principles and instead move to a discussion of concrete steps to defuse tensions and promote stability.

The U.S.-Russian bilateral talks should be the primary negotiating forum. The Biden administration rightly insists that its allies and partners must be involved and that no decisions will be made solely by Russia and the United States. But multilateral talks are a recipe for stasis: they can allow the most recalcitrant ally or partner to stall progress, or even effectively veto it.

Insisting on multilateralism also sidesteps the realities of power on the European continent. The United States, the ultimate guarantor of Europe’s security, and Russia, the preeminent revisionist power, are the only two countries with the military might to alter the European balance of power. Their ability to cut deals and willingness to act with restraint will go a long way to determining the outcome of any negotiations, even if they will still have to sell their arrangements to other states who will be parties to any final agreement. Moreover, Moscow will only negotiate seriously with Washington, in part because such bilateral talks validate Russia as the other great power in Europe, and in part because it believes that Washington calls the shots, that NATO’s other members are at best junior partners.

The West can keep Russia constructively engaged only if it demonstrates that it takes its concerns seriously and is committed to making progress — which is not the same thing as meeting Moscow’s every demand.

There are several areas in which Russia and the West should, in principle, be able to reach mutually beneficial agreements without inordinate delay, even though protracted discussions will be required to nail down the details.

Agreement to restart routine dialogue in bilateral U.S.-Russian channels (such as between foreign and defense ministers) and multilateral channels (the NATO-Russia Council and OSCE) should be a first step, with a focus on resurrecting and updating Cold War confidence-building measures that have fallen into abeyance. Both Russia and NATO have an interest in avoiding dangerous incidents at sea and in the air, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, where they have become commonplace. To prevent such close encounters from escalating, transparency in military exercises — for instance by providing advance warning — and reciprocal limits on the deployment of troops and strike aircraft and missiles in frontier zones are particularly worth exploring.

A more complicated matter, but one on which early agreement could be reached, is a commitment not to deploy intermediate range ballistic missiles in Europe. The United States and Russia agreed to a global ban on these armaments under the INF Treaty. Washington withdrew from that accord in 2019 because of continuing Russian violations, but also because it wanted the leeway to station such missiles in Asia, where a number of countries, notably China, had already deployed them in considerable numbers. No matter its public narrative, Moscow was, in fact, not unhappy with the treaty’s demise for similar reasons.

There is no pressing strategic or military need to deploy INF systems in Europe today. Agreeing on a ban would nevertheless require addressing Western accusations that Russia’s 9M729 missile violated the treaty and Russian claims that U.S. missile defense deployments in Romania did so because the launching tubes could easily be converted to accommodate intermediate-range cruise missiles. Still, technical solutions are available if there is the political commitment in Washington and Moscow.

These steps would not only help defuse the present crisis, they would buy time for addressing the most complicated, consequential issues — NATO expansion and a comprehensive settlement of frozen and ongoing conflicts in Europe.

The United States and its NATO allies have made it clear that they cannot accept Moscow’s demand that the alliance formally forswear further eastward expansion. They have also refused to rescind the Bucharest Declaration of 2008, which opened the door to Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership in NATO. And they have insisted that Ukraine will not be compelled to accept neutrality against its will and, more generally, that the idea of spheres of influence is retrograde, never mind that major Western countries, above all the United States, have long had such spheres.

Nevertheless, NATO leaders generally recognize that neither Ukraine nor Georgia, to say nothing of other former Soviet states, will be ready for membership for years — potentially decades — to come. This could provide the basis for deferring a decision on admitting Ukraine (and Georgia), but without closing the door forever. Moscow may accept this compromise because it knows that NATO will never agree to an outright ban.

Formalizing that delay in a declared moratorium on the accession of Ukraine, or any other former Soviet state, for a defined period of, say, 20 or 25 years, would be even more appealing to Russia, although some NATO allies might balk. The exact terms would require tough, extended negotiations and lots of imagination and skilled wordsmithing. Russia may insist on a prohibition of any security cooperation between a former Soviet state and a NATO member that appears to be preparation for membership — joint military exercises and extensive military-technical cooperation, for example. NATO members, for their part, would be loath to agree to such prohibitions, wanting to ensure that a country like Ukraine has the capabilities needed to defend itself.

Nevertheless, there might be sufficient common ground to work out acceptable parameters of a moratorium. Russia may conclude that it cannot obtain both an indefinite deferral of Ukraine’s membership in NATO as well as a ban against its receiving military equipment and training from the West. The upshot is that the only feasible compromise would be one that, on the one hand, comes close to Ukrainian neutrality — but isn’t that — and that, on the other, upholds NATO’s principle that it remains open to new members.

As for the ongoing and frozen conflicts, they all involve separatism of some kind. The initial task would be for the West and Russia to define the requirements for acts of self-determination to be considered legitimate in Europe. At a minimum, they should include a vote that is internationally supervised and certified as free and fair, to ascertain the will of the local population, and a set of technical agreements between the separatist region and the state from which it seeks to secede. Kosovo and Crimea are perhaps the most prominent and consequential of these conflicts, and these procedures could be applied in a pro-forma way to validate what most observers understand to be the reality that Kosovo will remain independent of Serbia and that Ukraine will not regain Crimea. They would also be used to promote a settlement in the separatist Donbas region of eastern Ukraine — holding a free and fair vote among the local population, including residents who have fled elsewhere, would go a long way to determining whether the Minsk agreements should continue to be the basis for the settlement of the conflict. With a local population that feels abandoned by all parties to the conflict, no one really knows how such a vote would turn out.

Leaders caught up in crises are understandably focused on the near-term steps to reduce the tension. And in the face of what they consider a Russian-manufactured crisis and an audacious attempt at reshaping the status quo, Western leaders have been inclined to defend the current order. Anything less, in their eyes, would be an act of appeasement.

But that order, of which NATO is the linchpin, has been under strain for some time. In particular, extending the alliance further eastward will assuredly produce more crises like the present one, and even armed conflict, assuming we can prevent that on this occasion.

Now is the time to think big and imagine a new, more durable order, one that can encompass Russia. No matter what one thinks of the authoritarian political order Putin presides over, the inescapable reality is that Russia has overcome a prolonged period of weakness and now sees itself as a great power with security interests, which it will and can defend, using force if necessary.

Hence the need for a new security order in Europe. The only question is whether it will take a big war to demonstrate that it’s needed, as has been true in the past. The talks currently underway with Russia offer an opportunity to prove that wise statesmen can create that order without a major war serving as the catalyst. Achieving that without sacrificing core American interests and principles would be not an act of appeasement but rather a testament to skilled statecraft dedicated to making the United States and Europe more secure.