What a Sensible Ukraine Policy Would Look Like
Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Washington Post
(January 4, 2022) — With tensions between the United States and Russia over tens of thousands of Russian troops now massed near Ukraine’s border, recent phone calls between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and the announcement of US-Russia talks in Geneva this month were both wise and welcome.
But lessening tensions won’t be easy. Putin forced the talks with his military buildup and publicly demanded immediate guarantees: that Ukraine not join NATO; that NATO not expand farther to the east; that the United States not deploy missiles on Russian borders; and that NATO reduce its forces in Eastern and Central Europe. These “red lines” have been rejected out of hand by the Biden administration.
But instead of demanding de-escalation before progress in talks could be made, imagine if Biden had taken the first steps toward negotiations between the two countries. What would a sensible US posture look like?
It would start with a serious review of US security concerns — and how a “foreign policy for the middle class” would prioritize those concerns. Surely, the global pandemic — which has taken 824,000 American lives and counting — would be top of the list. Addressing that demands massive efforts both inside the United States and around the world to provide vaccines and build public health capacity to track, test and treat.
The existential threat of catastrophic climate change — already costing lives and billions of dollars in extreme weather events — would come next. That would require not only a Green New Deal at home, but engaging other countries — particularly China and India — to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.
And then there are the many domestic concerns — rising “deaths of despair,” declining life expectancy, extreme inequality, racial tensions, a democracy under siege. Solving these problems means a respite from adventures abroad — avoiding a resumption of the forever war in Afghanistan and pulling back on drone assassination bombings.
In this context, Biden would take a hard look at Russia and Ukraine.
The United States has no significant national security interest in Ukraine. A civil war has been internationalized into a geopolitical struggle. Ukraine’s people are divided, with millions speaking Russian and looking to the East. The poverty rate is over 50 percent. We’re not about to spend the money and energy needed to bolster the country internally.
The esteemed diplomat George Kennan correctly predicted in 1998 that Russia would “react quite adversely” if NATO expanded to the East. “I think it is a tragic mistake,” he said. “This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”
Since then, NATO has added 11 member countries that were once either Soviet republics or a part of the Warsaw Pact. NATO expansion has, unsurprisingly, driven Russia and China closer together, a strategic debacle that no US president should encourage.
If he’d taken stock early, a sensible Biden might have decided to defuse tensions with Russia so we can focus on real security concerns. Extending the New START arms-control pact, as Biden did, would be only a first step.
Instead of ramping up military aid to Ukraine and allowing loose talk about Ukraine joining NATO, Biden could call for a joint guarantee of Ukraine’s independence and neutrality. The United States and NATO would agree not to station troops or offensive weapons in former Soviet republics; the Russians would guarantee not to threaten them with military force. Both would pledge not to interfere with those countries’ internal political affairs.
With NATO already encompassing many of the former republics, right up to the Russian border, full disengagement now is too difficult politically. But even at this late stage, a declaration of Ukrainian independence and nonalignment as part of an internationally negotiated settlement, perhaps protected by the U.N. Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, would de-escalate tensions and make a durable cease-fire possible.
Biden is already under fire from the hawks in both parties for even entering into negotiations. But despite all the bellicose blather, the real security interests of Americans are clear. Ukraine is not among them. Even if Ukraine were part of NATO, no US president would go to war with Russia to defend it. Paradoxically, NATO now largely exists to manage the risks created by its existence.
We have a compelling interest in cooling tensions with Russia, and in sustaining the independence of countries on its border. That may be uncommon sense in today’s national security establishment, but it surely is wiser than a conventional wisdom that seems intent on gearing up for a violent conflict on Russia’s border.
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