They will only get more tragic in the weeks and days ahead, as they are now in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin deserves every bit of punishment this war may exact on him, on the battlefield and to Russia’s economy. The people of Ukraine and most Russians do not agree with this. We should therefore not be content with a U.S.-Western policy that simply imposes pain on Putin for pain’s sake, since it may do little to mitigate the consequences of this conflict. The current sanctions—as well as threat of even more sanctions—should serve as part of a strategy that pursues the least bad possible outcome to this needless war.
Although the war appears to be zero-sum in nature, based on Putin’s aims and the Ukrainian people’s refusal to accept Russian de facto rule, there is one possible dimension where compromise may be possible: the idea of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. NATO had first offered the possibility in 2008. However, there was no timeline or interim security assurance. The U.S.-Ukraine Charter of November 10, 2021 reiterated that idea. This, despite all its noble rhetoric and admirable intentions, seems to be a grave mistake. The moral responsibility for this war is all Vladimir Putin’s. However, the west’s policy created the psychological and strategic conditions that Putin later exploited. Rethink.
The core of any possible deal would be to create a ceasefire and then the withdrawal from Ukraine of Russian forces—while foreclosing the possibility of future NATO membership for Ukraine provided that its security can be ensured by other ways. These terms could be included in the Ukrainian Constitution as well as into the agreement reached by NATO with Moscow. These terms would be proposed by President Volodymyr Zilensky, which we encourage and support.
The reasons that we can and should be flexible on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership are threefold: First, Ukraine’s joining NATO was never a good idea, given how incendiary that prospect is for many Russians (not just Putin) and therefore how counterproductive to the goal of stabilizing Europe; second, it was not going to happen anytime soon even before the Russian invasion, since there has never been a timetable for it; third, it certainly is not possible now with Russian troops sitting on Ukrainian soil.
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Ukraine could be asked to forgo NATO membership. Otherwise, to make the deal acceptable, Russia would have to reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty, return the Donbas region to Kiev, accept monitors and perhaps peacekeepers on Ukrainian soil, and acknowledge that Ukraine could join any other organizations to which it was invited including perhaps someday the European Union. Given its past and Russian sensibilities, Crimea will need to be punished. (Perhaps a form of dual citizenship could be developed down the road for people living there; the U.S. would continue not to recognize Russia’s seizure of that strategic ground.)
Russia must also join us to ensure the security and future of Ukraine. That is something Moscow already promised under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (associated with a newly sovereign Ukraine’s decision to return Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia) and then violated.
Why would Moscow’s promise be any more trustworthy this time? Why would Putin even consider these terms? This time there is no chance that Ukraine could join the NATO alliance which had defeated the Soviet Union in Cold War. Our hope would be that, with NATO membership no longer in the air, Russia could claim it had stabilized the security order of Eastern Europe in a way that was not possible in 1994 (since 1994, NATO has added 14 more members, all to the original alliance’s south or east). In the event that Moscow breaches its obligations, we would cease to accept future NATO memberships for Ukraine. With this agreement, Putin would begin to get his economy back—otherwise, he is poised to rule over a stagnant Russia for perhaps the rest of his days, given the escalating extent of western sanctions.
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Some would say this approach would violate NATO’s “Open Door” policy. But that policy as commonly understood has no basis in the alliance’s treaty. Article X in the treaty states clearly that any future invitations for membership should be made only if they will enhance security within the larger North Atlantic region. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO does not support this.
As Russian troops leave (with OSC in Europe monitoring), U.S. and allies will cease supplying lethal military support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Some sanctions against Russia will also be lifted, as previously mentioned. Donbas will be given autonomy but not the right to veto Ukrainian domestic or foreign policy. The majority of U.S. troops reinforcements that were sent to Eastern Europe recently could be returning home very soon.
Nobody knows for sure if Putin will accept this deal. He most likely wants Ukraine. However, it is possible that he now realizes the immense costs of any conquest and may openly consider settling for less important goals. In any case, it would be unconscionable on our part not to try for this kind of negotiated settlement, even as we hold firm—and indeed, threaten even tougher sanctions targeting Russian energy exports should the war continue—on other core elements of our current policy.
For those who would consider this policy too kind to Putin—that’s understandable, he deserves no succor. But the peoples of Ukraine and even Russia should not suffer for Putin’s sins any more than they already have. And this arrangement, like President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis in which he made minor concessions to get major payoffs and benefits, would rightly prioritize the peace as well as the security and sovereignty of Ukraine.