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Frederic B. Hill of Arrowsic is a former correspondent for The Baltimore Sun who later conducted wargaming exercises on national security issues for the Department of State.
Vladimir Putin has a point or two about NATO expansion and the strategic balance in Russia’s backyard, but his threat to invade a country that Russia agreed is sovereign destroys his demand for a rollback and restructuring of European security after three long decades.
Instead of constantly wringing their hands about what Putin will or will not do, President Joe Biden and all European leaders need a united front to demand that the Russian leader stop threatening Ukraine’s independence and highlight several facts.
Most important is the Budapest Memorandum. In 1994, Ukraine gave up its 1,900 nuclear weapons and Russia agreed “to respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country. During talks on German unification, there was discussion of “no eastward expansion of NATO,” but no language to that effect was signed.
Second, despite Putin’s avowedly existential concern and demand for guarantees against Ukraine membership, that prospect is not in the cards — not now, not tomorrow and not for the foreseeable future.
Major NATO members opposed membership for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. Furthermore, accession of new members must be unanimous, unlikely in a 30-member organization.
Clearly, no member of NATO — in the face of Putin’s unprovoked threat of military force — is going to tear up the original charter’s “open door” policy. But there remains a certain gray zone: To tell Putin there is no likelihood of Ukrainian membership in NATO — though his own actions make the strongest case for it.
Despite opposition, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and European powers did not need to push NATO expansion as far as they did — especially when Russia was weak. Admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic and three Baltic states made strategic sense, given their histories of domination by the former Soviet Union. Adding more members and raising Ukrainian hopes was excessive.
Third, NATO’s diplomats could be more vocal in condemning Putin’s massing of 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and threat of invasion. They should remind him that he already stands out as the perpetrator of the only major aggression in Europe since World War II — the seizure of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Putin, of course, doesn’t see it that way. His efforts to destabilize or take over Ukraine seem to stem from several factors. They include a sense of U.S. weakness, a lack of a decisive foreign policy after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a sharply polarized nation that Putin helped foster with the cyberattacks on American elections. They include a desire to restore Russian hegemony over its “near abroad” — the countries of the former USSR.
Putin’s bullying also cloaks grave problems in Russia. After decades in power, he still has a brittle, corruption-ridden economy. Despite rich energy resources that make an effective lever against Europe, Russia’s economy is only the 11 th largest in the world — about one-half the size of California’s.
The pandemic has hit Russia hard. The number of deaths in Russia are reliably said to be at least two times higher than government reports. Protests against Putin’s virtual dictatorial powers grow despite frequent murders and jailing of leading dissidents.
Bolstered by Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, Putin obviously wants to kindle nationalist support and blur bad news at home. He does not hide his raw ambition: to restore Russia to a place among global powers and recreate a broader sphere of influence.
Experts debate what happens next. Given Russia’s historic worry about “enemies” on its borders, Putin may decide on a more limited incursion. That could establish a needed land bridge to Crimea, and work to cripple Ukraine’s military capabilities. Longer-term, Putin may be aiming to install a more pro-Moscow leadership in Kiev.
Two statements of Putin’s need to be kept in mind. One is a July 2021 essay in which Putin reminisced about the 10th century “Kievan Rus” — the predecessor nation of Slavic states of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. He wrote “Russia was robbed” when Ukraine became independent in 1991.
In 2005, Putin declared that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” while also saying he was dedicated “to developing a free, democratic nation.”
The greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century was World War II and the deaths of 75 million people — one-third of whom were citizens of the Soviet Union.
Both sides, however, need to find a compromise that avoids a war that would be devastating for all. The old saying “it’s a shame to waste a crisis” must now lead to intense and honest diplomacy, a climb-down from extreme positions and a broader focus on European security — which will never be lasting without Russian engagement. That could include assurances that Ukraine membership in NATO is unlikely, at least for many years, confidence-building measures such as a mutual withdrawal of weapons and revival of the Minsk agreement to solve the crisis in eastern Ukraine.