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Finding an Off-Ramp in Ukraine

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Gerald Hyman

The United States and its NATO allies need to address the reality as it is and take several steps to help resolve the conflict.

Early on Thursday, February 24, Russian armed forces began to bomb, invade, and attempt to crush Ukraine or at least replace its democratic government with a puppet one. The Ukrainian armed forces, much stronger now thanks to Western support, are fielding a fierce resistance and have armed the Ukrainian citizenry for a longer-term citizens’ resistance in the likely event that Russia will prevail militarily.

What does Vladimir Putin want? What would he accept? What should the United States and its NATO allies do to have this end with Ukraine still intact?

First, it is essential to understand Putin’s motivations and goals. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union—what Putin called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century”—he has railed against the “degradation” of Russia from one of two great powers to a second-order country like, say, France or Japan. He wants to restore Russia to its former status, and he has already succeeded in many respects, whatever the future holds. Russia is again center-stage and its views on a variety of issues—Turkey, Syria, Libya, for example—will now also be central. It was an unforced error to diminish Russia in the first place. The small cost of acknowledging Russia’s importance, however artificial, would have been well worth it.

Second, Russian security, Putin says, cannot countenance hundreds of missiles aimed at it and only ten minutes’ flight from Moscow (less in the hypersonic future). NATO replies that it is a defensive, not an offensive, alliance designed to respond to exactly the kind of attack Russia has launched against Ukraine. To this, Putin replies that the missiles and other weapons do not know the difference between offensive and defensive and will launch on command. Like NATO in recent weeks, Russian decisions ought to rely on capacities, weapons, and the constellation of forces objectively observable, not on the current expressed intentions of their leader.

Third, Putin wants to reincorporate Ukraine as it was in the Tsarist world. Failing that he wants at least to permanently destabilize it; turn it into a vassal state dependent on Russian suzerainty; make it recognize that dependency publicly; perhaps eliminate the Ukraine state entirely; install an authoritarian retainer regime; and reassert Russia’s rightful “sphere of influence” in its “near abroad,” Novorussia. Notwithstanding the brutality now and in the Holodomor, Ukrainians should acknowledge that they are Russia’s “little brothers,” and that Russia’s historical roots are in Kievan Rus with Kyiv as its capital—so the stakes here are cultural and historical, not just military, security, and political. Without doubt, he has succeeded in destabilizing the country and could continue to do so economically and militarily even if he were to withdraw Russia’s forces just across the border as they were before his “special military operation.” Even if he withdrew, however, Putin could station enough forces at the border to create a quivering, dysfunctional apparition.

Fourth, Putin wants recognition of and legal guarantees against the security threat of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, which, for Russia, would mean a 2,600-km/1,600-mile land and sea border with one or another NATO member and possible NATO troops and equipment.

Putin’s security concern may seem—and may be—supercharged from a distance. But how would the United States react with short and long-range missiles and Russian troops on its border with Mexico? In 1962, the United States committed an act of war in substance if not in form against the Soviet Union with a “quarantine” (not formally a blockade) of Cuba, including the threatened interdiction of Soviet ships bound for Cuba in international waters. This all occurred because Cuba, ninety miles offshore, had agreed to allow the installation of Soviet R-12 intermediate nuclear-armed missiles and Soviet technicians to support them. Of course, no Soviet ground troops were present, and there were nowhere near the number of munitions directed at the United States as there would have been if Cuba had been a member of the Warsaw Pact. NATO genuinely and authentically asserts its defensive, not offensive, nature. Fair enough, but how does Putin rely on that for Russia’s core security interests? Just as Ukraine and the Western alliance did not count on Putin’s averred intentions but responded to the facts on the ground, so too does Putin. Intentions can change—on both sides. Defensive weapons can be turned into offensive ones. If there is any hope of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, it cannot be forged without considering the adversary’s perspective. One need not accede to Putin’s position even while comprehending it and, with it, his plausible anxieties.

To say the least, understanding Putin and his concerns cannot remotely justify the brutal, barbaric blitzkrieg followed by a war of carnage, obliteration, and extermination that he has perpetrated on Ukraine. However, the United States and its NATO allies need to address the reality as it is and take several steps to help resolve the conflict.

First, they should continue rushing military equipment (anti-air, anti-tank, anti-armor missiles, rocket launchers, rockets-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices, drones, and mines) and other munitions as well as armored vehicles and electronic warfare assets to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. To the extent possible, they should also continue to provide for Ukraine’s humanitarian needs, including for millions of internally displaced persons and already over three million refugees.

Second, the United States and NATO should mount a cyber and public information effort aimed at Russa’s own citizens. They should try to circumvent the Russian blockade of Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets, or try finding alternate, admittedly inferior, venues. Russia’s long-term viability and fortune will be affected by a cyber, not just a physical, arsenal. The Russian people should understand the full ramifications of their leader’s assault.

Third, most dangerously and provocatively but also necessarily, the United States and NATO should declare a demilitarized safety zone up and down Ukraine’s western borders and to a depth of 20 kilometers on the western side to defend Ukraine’s NATO neighbors. At the request or at least concurrence of the relevant NATO states, the NATO safety zone should be patrolled by fighters, fighter-bombers, and other appropriate air assets equipped with cruise missiles and regular bombs, by tanks and armored personnel vehicles, by surface-to-air missiles, and backed by the full strength of NATO’s military forces in Western Europe. These are sovereign NATO countries. Any transgression of their respective borders by Russia’s air or ground forces would be immediately engaged “kinetically,” as the military puts it, not just rhetorically, as required by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. As President Joe Biden has said, “we will defend every inch of NATO territory, every inch.” NATO commanders would have standing orders to do so, not a threat, but a warning preferably reinforced by new U.S. legislation explicitly authorizing the use of U.S. force, not just relying on the North Atlantic Treaty. The risks of such an encounter are enormous; it could easily escalate. Putin has already hinted at Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, but a potentially strategic exchange could follow. Still, such a deployment should dissuade and, if not, then counter any Russian incursion into a NATO country. It could pay an indirect dividend in the Indo-Pacific as well: China, which has taken economic measures to support Russia, would surely take note, notwithstanding the differences between Ukraine and Taiwan.

In addition to military assets, the economic noose around Russia, its economic and political elite, and its businesses should continue to be tightened. Admittedly, the effects of sanctions are substantially overestimated. Putin and his kleptocratic cronies would not be decisively defeated and, to the extent possible, it should not appear as a defeat. Unfortunately, the Russian population as a whole would be badly harmed, but Putin’s inner circle gains its rents from him and is totally dependent on him. He has graphically demonstrated their reliance by summarily removing several who seemed even to approach his financial and political power. Talk of a civilian putsch is excessively overwrought. Still, in the longer term, the consequences for Russians might contribute to a further decline of Putin’s popularity if they are accompanied by a penetrating public information campaign pointing out that Russia invaded Ukraine—a country which posed no immediate threat to Russia—highlighting the pain on ordinary Russians and the Russian economy, and pointing to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s continued offer to meet and negotiate with Putin.

Fourth, on Ukraine’s part, Zelenskyy could agree at a minimum to greater autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk (useful and dissuasive perhaps a month ago but almost certainly too little now) and now to a twenty-five-year freeze on Ukraine’s NATO membership application, i.e., eleven years after Putin’s term ostensibly ends, if not on its neutrality. Alternatively, but certainly less fraternally, NATO could announce a twenty-five-year suspension on a Ukrainian application. Ukraine is unlikely to achieve membership much sooner anyway, but it would require NATO to retreat somewhat from its hard principle that every country has a sovereign and unilateral right to seek its own memberships, a principle which probably needs to be thinned by real-world exigencies anyway. Of course, NATO need not approve a Ukrainian formal request for membership, and it has clearly indicated that, Russia aside, it would not do so in the foreseeable future even absent Putin’s offensive. Depending on whether it would have assuaged Putin’s espoused reason for the invasion or whether that was just subterfuge, it may by itself be too late now in any case to engender a Russian withdrawal. Whatever the realities, it would be worth a try, however unlikely to work.