After nearly three hours of presidential telecommunication and an arousing set of treaty demands, it’s safe to say we’ve reached the end of the foreplay. The Ukraine question has graduated to crisis level once again, and next week’s talks will (hopefully) feature real diplomacy.
I was old enough to be cognizant of the last major Ukraine flare up but young enough to plead adolescent ignorance. I’ve since caught up on what was one of the prominent foreign policy issues of President Obama’s second term. Enough, in fact, to recall Samantha Power’s impression that the word “Crimea” had perhaps fallen too often on her young son’s ears as she simultaneously breastfed and took top-level national security calls. (The country of course made an appearance in the first impeachment proceedings of a certain disgraced former president, as well.) This context is well worth remembering, as it’s hardly history; the current and former emergencies fall on the same continuum.
Putin’s dubious annexation of Crimea in 2014 grew partly out of the same hemispheric tug of war over Ukraine currently unfolding. The 2013 coup against President Vanukovich developed out of mass popular opposition to his rejection of a deal that would have increased economic cooperation between Ukraine and the European Union. From this followed the infamous annexation along with separatist aggression in the eastern regions, particularly Donbas, which turned to war. As the 2015 Minsk Accords have gone unimplemented, Ukraine has endured seven years of “low-intensity conflict” — a somewhat euphemistic description for the civilians living near trench fighting in the east — in which roughly 14,000 have died. Putin’s decision to mass 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders over the past several months is his latest theatrical addition to the conflict, a worrying sign he might be looking for a chance to invade.
Loud cries bemoaning the return of the Cold War are excessive and, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan pointed out, sometimes ill-grounded. Sure, there are certain inevitable parallels. Putin styled his treaty as a bilateral agreement between Russia and the US, leaving Europe out completely. And the Russian autocrat’s fondness for the Soviet Union’s grey grandeur, along with his determination to regain an eastern European sphere of influence, won’t fade away. But the dynamics of this situation are different. So much so that the US may have an opportunity to straddle escalation and appeasement, avoiding both and checking NATO’s hegemonic tendencies in the process.
The nightmare outcome is clearly an actual invasion of Ukraine, what some have predicted would provoke Europe’s most significant interstate conflict since World War II. Fortunately, Biden can reassure Putin that he’d share in that nightmare. Short of deploying troops, the US and other European powers can promise substantial aid for training and weapons that would raise potential Russian casualties. They can follow this up with a slate of debilitating sanctions should Russia invade, ranging — as Charles Kupchan wrote — from exclusion from the SWIFT international payments system to cancellation of the Russia-Germany gas pipeline to direct penalties for Russian banks. Putin may be savvy and unpredictable enough to ward off overly certain predictions about his behavior, but he hasn’t reached the insane and irrational depths of Saddam Hussein’s megalomania. He should recognize the downsides to an invasion, including the prospect of widespread unpopularity on par with last year’s Navalny demonstrations. (And though his expressed belief that Russia and Ukraine are one nation is shared by many Russians, his ongoing campaign to sow war-fever likely won’t move the thousands who marched for their imprisoned opposition leader.)
As one hand illustrates the disastrous consequences of invasion, the other must emphasize the benign reality inaction can buy Putin. The central issue here — adjacent as it is to the excesses of NATO itself — is Putin’s fear of Western encroachment. President Bush’s suggestion that Ukraine join the EU at Bucharest in 2008 actualized this fear, and it has only grown starker with Ukraine’s turn westward since 2014. Current President Zelensky has proven particularly willing to rebuff Putin’s strong-arming and align Ukraine with the US, in spite of the bad treatment received under Trump. In reality, Ukrainian membership in either the EU or NATO would prove difficult to manage, what with its long border with Russia. Perhaps signaling to Putin that Ukrainian membership is nothing to worry about might assuage him enough to stave off a bloodbath. While much of the proposed treaty amounts to unworkable posturing, this could address the broadest Russian insecurity it expresses. No, Mr. Putin, Ukraine will not become a Western vanguard or weapons outpost anytime soon; but it will remain sovereign, and thus free to engage in “bilateral military cooperation” with whomever it desires. Circumstances, combined with Biden’s willingness to avoid unpopular wars, could in this way drive the US to check the Western hegemony it has so fervently promoted, perhaps the latest historical irony of the Washington-Moscow saga.
Unfortunately, all this rests on some strong assumptions and a hopeful attitude — whose grounds are historically shaky at best — toward the powers of diplomacy. As discussed, I’ve presumed Putin to be a rational actor. It also might sound as though the US ought to forfeit Ukraine’s sovereignty in a sheer act of appeasement. The reality is somewhat bleak; this really is a narrow window for diplomatic success. Staunch commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and action to back it up — especially when it comes to the more ambiguously phrased portions of Putin’s treaty, e.g., “bilateral military cooperation” — are an indispensable ingredient. Appeasement’s terrible historical record means that the escalation line must be towed but not crossed, probably by threat of sanctions. If an invasion fails to materialize, diplomacy will have bought Ukraine’s long struggle for unencumbered autonomy some time. Though this time around, the poverty and anxiety of life for many of its people should remain in the headlines.