An under-appreciated option in Ukraine

Eddie Ryan
3 min readFeb 4, 2022

The first several rounds of Ukraine negotiations did not go well. Hopes for swift deescalation have gradually dimmed amid the stalled U.S.-Russia talks and discord within N.A.T.O. itself. It did not have to unfold this way, however, and an invasion is conceivably still avoidable.

Part of the issue is the difficulty of pinpointing Putin’s precise motives. Have his decisions to mass 90,000 troops at Ukraine’s border and send more to Belarus for last minute drills been mere posturing? Perhaps; as Anne Applebaum notes, Putin’s strategy has long been to test the limits of Russia’s influence to fortify his autocracy.

Still, American officials now consider the threat of invasion very real. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that Putin could escalate matters “on very short notice,” and Biden added that he expects Putin to “move in” on Ukraine.

Were this to occur, Russia would almost certainly succeed in annexing Ukraine, the most populous former Soviet republic and Putin’s favorite object of revanchism. This outcome would be disastrous, but not to the extent that U.S. or N.A.T.O. troop deployment would be. The unlikelihood of such a direct confrontation undoubtedly tempts Putin. Even with U.S. aid and the weapons transfers through the Baltics recently announced, Russian forces have a steep advantage.

The predictable but disappointing gridlock of recent talks has a lot to do with Putin. One consideration is whether he is a rational actor who would respond to deterrence and incentives. Putin isn’t maniacally irrational, the way Saddam Hussein eventually became. But his preoccupation with power above all else might mean he won’t respond to threats of sanctions in a rational manner.

This has proven to be the case so far: the U.S. cannot expect Putin to back down in the face of crippling sanctions. He may want to humiliate his adversaries by demonstrating Russia’s ability to get concessions out of threats; or, knowing the U.S. won’t deploy troops, he may truly be prepared to take back what he considers Russia’s lost limb.

The U.S. and N.A.T.O. can’t expect Putin to back down, that is, without fulfilling his demand — one among many — that N.A.T.O. stop expanding eastward. The U.S.’ handling of this point has been arguably more detrimental to talks than Putin’s maneuvering.

Ukrainian membership in N.A.T.O. would be very difficult to uphold. Accepting Ukraine means accepting a 1200-mile long border with Russia and the responsibility to defend it militarily from attacks — which would only increase if N.A.T.O. arrived at Russia’s doorstep.

No president since George W. Bush has expressed serious interest in Ukrainian membership. So why hasn’t Biden told Putin more explicitly that it’s nothing to worry about?

N.A.T.O.’s commitment to its open door policy and Ukraine’s sovereign ability to join is noble but misguided. Putin must be reassured that Ukraine won’t become a N.A.T.O. launching pad for negotiations to get anywhere.

Had this point been made clear from the start, U.S. diplomats could have built momentum for their most critical item of negotiation: the Minsk Agreements. In 2015, France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia settled on a set of terms to defuse the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. They called for a ceasefire, disarmament of all militias with amnesty for pro-Russian separatists and free elections in Donbas.

They were never fully implemented due to reluctance on both sides to be the first to act. In the past month, however, both Blinken and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko have hinted that the Minsk Agreements could solve this dispute.

The onus is on the U.S. and Ukraine to get this done. Russia is clearly the aggressor here. Nevertheless, ethnic nationalists have dominated Ukrainian politics since 2014 with full U.S. support. Their policies are unpopular with many Ukrainians in the south and east, who prefer a civic vision to a nationalist one. Many are Russian speakers whom the state denies protections.

Some argue for the creation of a Donbas Autonomous Region on the model of the 1998 “Good Friday” agreement in Northern Ireland. Ukraine would have to initiate this with a constitutional amendment, something the U.S. could push for, but Russia would also have to honor it. Any infractions by Putin would activate the same slate of sanctions now on the table.

Ukraine is a sovereign nation and shouldn’t have to accommodate Russian bullying. Its people are tough and proud; many civilians would take up arms to resist an invasion. However, this style of forced compromise is the best way to prevent a catastrophic war.

As I write these words, talks in Geneva have just concluded. If diplomacy fails, eastern Europe may very well find itself at war by the time this is published.



Eddie Ryan

History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.