Four months into his tenure, President Joe Biden needs a clearer sense of strategy before he meets Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16 – as face-to-face meetings with the Russian leader do not guarantee progress on any issue. The problem predates the Trump administration. Just ask George W. Bush, who thought he got a positive window on Putin’s “soul” by welcoming him to Texas in 2001; within a few years, Putin was cracking down on political opponents at home and invading the small neighboring country of Georgia. Or ask Barack Obama, who has repeatedly met with Russian leaders as he sought to “reset” relations in 2009-2010, to see the relationship collapse dramatically in 2014.
Biden has just lifted sanctions against companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which, if completed, will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany under the sea. But in trying to help German Angela Merkel with this decision, Biden’s team also just offered something to Vladimir Putin for nothing. Biden is not wrong to seek a better relationship with Russia, even with Putin installed in the Kremlin. However, any new move towards Moscow must also impose demands on Russia. The importance of being tough on Russia even as we seek a more stable and less dangerous relationship is underscored by the recent abomination of Belarus effectively hijacking a flight to Lithuania to arrest one of its own dissidents. . Si Poutine and co. were not directly involved in the operation, they likely inspired it with their similar tactics over the years against domestic critics like the poisoned and then jailed lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny.
Western policy towards Russia
The good news is that Western policy towards Russia begins with some solid fundamentals already in place. NATO has strengthened military defenses in Poland as well as in the Baltic states in recent years. The United States and the EU continued their sanctions against Russia due to its aggression and continued threats against Ukraine, and its human rights violations against its own people.
But beyond that, we’re a bit stuck – and the problem goes back to four US presidents now. Since the spring of 2008, the United States and the rest of NATO have publicly promised to bring Ukraine, along with the small country even further away from Georgia, into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But there is no positive movement on this program. In fact, by promising eventual membership but without a timetable or interim security guarantees for these countries, we have succeeded in painting a giant target on the backs of Ukrainian and Georgian friends. While most Westerners have forgotten our promises in Kiev and Tbilisi, Vladimir Putin certainly did not – and he will do whatever it takes to keep these countries unstable enough that they are not eligible for the membership. If Biden stays on political autopilot, or simply comes up with tactical adjustments like the Nord Stream 2 concession, we will remain mired in this destructive cycle.
Putin has no reason to deny Ukraine any of its inherent rights on issues such as possible association or membership in the European Union. There should be no “Yalta II” whereby the great powers would effectively divide Europe into respective spheres of influence, as happened at the end of World War II and its aftermath. The countries of Eastern Europe are fully sovereign and fully deserve the right to make their own domestic and foreign policy decisions. In the West, we also owe some debt to Ukraine, which contributed to global non-proliferation efforts when it abandoned its nearly 2,000 nuclear warheads after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and which we then joined to provide multilateral security. guarantee, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.
But these facts do not mean that NATO membership is the right tool to help Ukraine, or any former Soviet republic that is not currently part of NATO, at this historic stage. By extending American commitments far into the former Soviet space, it would incur military obligations that would be very difficult to meet while virtually guaranteeing an antagonistic relationship with Moscow. NATO now has 30 members – almost double the 16 that made up the alliance at the end of the Cold War, more than double the 12 that created it in 1949. That is enough.
It’s time to put in place a new security for Eastern Europe
It is time to consider a new security architecture for Eastern Europe. The central concept should be that of permanent non-alignment for the countries of Eastern Europe. Ideally, the area would include Finland and Sweden; Ukraine and Moldova and Belarus; Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan; and finally Cyprus plus Serbia. As part of such a new construction, the existing security affiliations of those non-NATO and / or Russian aligned countries could be maintained, but formal security commitments would not be extended or expanded by Brussels or Moscow.
The new security architecture would require Russia, like NATO, to commit to helping maintain the security of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other states in the region. Crimea, however, may need to be tweaked and autonomy agreements worked out for parts of eastern Ukraine and northern Georgia. Russia should verifiably withdraw its forces from these countries. Once that happened and the conflict subsided, the corresponding sanctions against the Russian Federation imposed after the assaults on Georgia and Ukraine would be lifted. In addition, all former Soviet republics, like any other nation, should be guaranteed the inherent right to join the European Union, as well as other international organizations, if invited to do so. By agreeing not to expand NATO further, we do not somehow cede a sphere of influence to Moscow at the expense of its small neighboring states.
That kind of new architecture wouldn’t make Putin a nice guy or the West’s relationship with Russia in a friendly relationship. But that would probably lead to a very substantial lowering of the tensions and the risks of war. This is the greatest goal that America’s grand strategy towards Russia and Europe can serve in the years to come – and it is a very laudable goal. Seeking a new deal with Moscow, in consultation with its allies and partners, makes a lot more sense than giving piecemeal unilateral concessions to Putin and his cronies, or giving Ukrainians and Georgians false and dangerous hopes about a further expansion of NATO.