Prioritizing peace instead of NATO enlargement
would help bring peace to Ukraine and security
and stability to the entire world
Jeffrey D. Sachs / CNN & Common Dreams
(April 21, 2022) — There is only one answer to the war in Ukraine: a peace deal.
The two-pronged US strategy, to help Ukraine overcome the Russian invasion by imposing tough sanctions and by supplying Ukraine’s military with sophisticated armaments, is likely to fall short. What is needed is a peace deal, which may be within reach. Yet to reach a deal, the United States will have to compromise on NATO, something Washington has so far rejected.
Putin started the war in Ukraine and has said negotiations have reached an impasse, without slamming the door on them. But before the war started, Putin presented the West with a list of demands including, most notably, a halt to NATO enlargement.
The US, pointedly, was not willing to engage on that point. Now would be a good time to revisit that policy. Putin also would have to show a willingness to make concessions for negotiations to succeed.
America’s arms-and-sanctions approach may sound convincing in the echo chamber of US public opinion, but it doesn’t really work on the global stage. It enjoys little support outside of the United States and Europe, and eventually may face a political backlash inside the US and Europe as well.
To anyone familiar with the Russian war effort and the horror it has unleashed on civilians, it may seem obvious that Russia would be relegated to pariah status globally. But that’s not the case: Developing countries, especially, have declined to join in the West’s campaign of isolation, as seen most recently in a US-led vote to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. It’s true that 93 countries supported the move, but 100 other countries did not (24 opposed, 58 abstained, and 18 did not vote). Even more striking, those 100 countries are home to 76% of the world population.
Countries may well have had nonideological reasons for opposing the US initiative, including trade ties with Russia. But the fact remains that much of the world has rejected isolating Moscow, especially to the degree Washington would like.
Sanctions are a big part of the US strategy. They are not likely to defeat Russia, but they are likely to impose high costs around the world. At best, they can push Russia toward a peace agreement and therefore should be deployed in conjunction with an intensive push for a negotiated peace.
There are countless problems with economic sanctions.
The first is that even as sanctions cause economic distress in Russia, they are unlikely to change Russian politics or policies in any decisive way. Think of the harsh sanctions the US has imposed on Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. Yes, they’ve weakened these economies, but they’ve not changed the politics or policies of these countries in the ways the US government has sought.
The second problem is that sanctions are easy to evade at least in part, and more evasions are likely to emerge over time. The US sanctions apply most effectively to dollar-based transactions involving the US banking system. Countries seeking to evade the sanctions find ways to make transactions through non-bank or non-dollar means. We can expect a rising number of transactions with Russia in rubles, rupees, renminbi and other non-dollar currencies.
The third and related problem is that most of the world does not believe in the sanctions — and also does not take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. Add up all of the countries and regions imposing sanctions on Russia — the US, UK, European Union, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of others — and their combined population comes to just 14% of the world population.
The fourth problem is the boomerang effect. Sanctions on Russia hurt not just Russia but the entire world economy, stoking supply-chain disruptions, inflation and food shortages. This is why many European countries are likely to continue to import gas and oil from Russia, and why Hungary and perhaps some other European countries will agree to pay Russia in rubles. The boomerang effect will also likely hurt Democrats in this November’s midterm elections as inflation eats away at the real earnings of voters.
The fifth problem is the inelastic (price-insensitive) demand for Russia’s energy and grain exports. As the quantity of Russian exports is reduced, the world prices of those commodities increase. Russia can end up with lower export volumes but nearly the same or even higher export earnings.
The sixth problem is geopolitical. Other countries — and most importantly China — see the Russia-Ukraine war at least in part as a war in which Russia is resisting NATO enlargement to Ukraine. That’s why China repeatedly argues that Russia’s legitimate security interests are at stake in the war.
The US likes to say that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, but Russia, China and others think otherwise. They look askance at the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, NATO forces in Afghanistan for 20 years after 9/11, and the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, which toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Russian leaders have been objecting to NATO’s eastward enlargement since it began in the mid-1990s with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It is notable that when Putin called on NATO to stop its enlargement into Ukraine, Biden pointedly refused to negotiate with Russia over the issue.
In short, many countries, certainly including China, will not back global pressures on Russia that could lead to NATO expansion. The rest of the world wants peace, not a victory by the United States or NATO in a proxy war with Russia.
The US would love to see Putin defeated militarily, and NATO armaments have dealt a huge and heavy blow to Russian forces. But it’s also true that Ukraine is being destroyed in the process. Russia is unlikely to declare defeat and retreat. Russia is much more likely to escalate — even, potentially, by using nuclear weapons. Thus NATO arms can inflict huge costs on Russia but cannot save Ukraine.
All of this is to say that the US strategy in Ukraine can bleed Russia but can’t save Ukraine. Only a peace deal can do that. In fact, the current approach will undermine economic and political stability throughout the world and could divide the world into pro-NATO and anti-NATO camps to the deep long-term detriment of the United States.
American diplomacy is therefore punishing Russia, but without much chance of real success for Ukraine or for US interests. Real success is that Russian troops return home and Ukraine’s safety and security are achieved. Those outcomes can be achieved at the negotiating table.
The key step is for the US, NATO allies and Ukraine to make clear that NATO will not enlarge into Ukraine as long as Russia stops the war and leaves Ukraine. The countries aligned with Putin, and those choosing neither side, would then say to Putin that since he has stopped NATO’s enlargement, it’s now time for Russia to leave the battlefield and return home. Of course, negotiations might fail if Russia’s demands remain unacceptable. But we should at least try, and indeed try very hard, to see whether peace can be achieved through Ukraine’s neutrality backed by international guarantees.
All of Biden’s tough talk — about Putin leaving power, genocide and war crimes — will not save Ukraine. The best chance to save Ukraine is through negotiations that bring the world onside. By prioritizing peace instead of NATO enlargement, the US would rally the support of much more of the world and thereby help to bring peace to Ukraine and security and stability for the entire world.
A Blueprint for a Reasonable Path to Peace for Ukraine
(March 28, 202) — On March 7, Russia stated three aims for its invasion of Ukraine: official Ukrainian neutrality, recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and recognition of the independence of pro-Russian separatist regions in Luhansk and Donetsk. The United States and NATO have not spoken publicly about a final diplomatic settlement, and, with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government focused on maintaining national unity and armed resistance to Russia, Ukraine has publicly stated its positions only in somewhat contradictory bits and pieces. But Zelensky, in consultation with the US and Europe, which are backing Ukraine’s war-fighting capacity, should formulate and state what a reasonable peace settlement would look like.
Here, in my view, is what Ukraine’s government should say. First, Ukrainian neutrality is not only acceptable but prudent if the negotiated peace settlement offers sufficient security guarantees. Neutrality will help to keep NATO and Russia separated – a positive good for all parties, and for the world. Ukraine can thrive as a non-NATO country, just as Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, Finland, and Sweden thrive.
But who would guarantee this neutrality? In my view, the UN Security Council should do so, including by the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. Bringing China into this agreement would be stabilizing. China is being harmed by this war, yet agrees with Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement and opposes similar US-led alliance politics in Asia. China, in my estimation, would therefore support a peace agreement linked to NATO non-enlargement, and would most likely encourage Russia to accept it.
Second, Crimea will be ceded de facto to Russia, but not de jure. Everyone knows the vexed history of this issue, and that Crimea is central to Russian naval power. Ukraine and the West should agree to allow the status quo of Russian control over Crimea to continue, though would likely still claim that the peninsula’s seizure in 2014 was illegal. Crimea would become a “frozen” conflict, like the many others that dot the world, but no longer a casus belli.
Third, Ukraine should agree to autonomy for the breakaway Donbas regions as envisaged in the 2015 Minsk II agreement, while rejecting demands for outright independence. Autonomy was to be incorporated in Ukraine’s constitution by the end of 2015, but the Minsk II agreement was not implemented. Autonomous status can still form the basis for a settlement of the regional issues.
To speed the process to peace and maintain public support in the US and Europe, it is important that the Zelensky government, aligned with the US and Europe, adopt clear and reasonable positions. Yet some pundits and politicians in Kyiv, Washington, Brussels, Warsaw, and elsewhere are arguing vehemently against any deal along the lines suggested here. They urge Ukraine never to submit to demands for neutrality, regarding it as tantamount to surrender. They believe in victory over Putin, not diplomacy – a belief that US President Joe Biden channeled in his recent speech in Warsaw.
That approach is a huge mistake. It invites ongoing war. Biden spoke of “the need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.” But a long fight could leave Ukraine in ruins and ignite a much a wider war. Instead, by agreeing publicly to neutrality, Ukraine and its backers would help to end the war. The idea that time is on the side of Ukraine is a reckless wager.
It is extremely unlikely that Putin will soon be defeated in Ukraine; Russian forces appear to be tightening their grip on Donbas. Likewise, the belief, perhaps shared by some in the US government, that Putin will soon be overthrown is wild and dangerous speculation, not a basis for policy. Putin has more than enough firepower to destroy Ukraine and much else, and probably enough staying power to see it through. The tiniest fraction of Russia’s nuclear stockpile, if used, would wreck the world for decades to come, and possibly lead to the end of humanity.
Still, some believe that the greater danger lies in compromising with a murderous expansionist adversary. They point to the territorial concessions given to Hitler in 1938, which only encouraged him to grab more. But, unlike the West’s acceptance of Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment at Munich, a diplomatic settlement in Ukraine would not amount to unilateral concessions in the name of peace. It should mean a full Russian withdrawal from Ukraine; a credible guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity; and the implementation of autonomy measures for Donbas along lines that were previously agreed. Most important, NATO non-enlargement is not a concession, because NATO’s enlargement to Ukraine should never have been on the table. Removing it could ultimately lead to a much wiser overall security framework for Europe.
Any agreement should also include the means for Ukraine’s postwar recovery. In general, countries (including the US) have not been held accountable for rebuilding what they have brazenly destroyed; but it is a good principle that Russia should pay significantly for Ukraine’s reconstruction. This should not mean reparations per se, but rather Russia’s participation in a multilateral financing mechanism. The International Monetary Fund would be a good place to house such a facility. In the context of the peace deal, Russia should agree to commit some of its frozen foreign reserves as part of the rollback of sanctions. The US and Europe should also recycle some of their new allocation of IMF special drawing rights (the Fund’s reserve asset) to the reconstruction fund.
Neither Ukraine nor NATO should base their policies on the vague and unlikely premise of defeating Russia. Ukraine might well be destroyed before that happens, and if the military prospects really turned against Putin, he might unleash a nuclear war. All of this makes it crucial for Ukraine and NATO to formulate cogent, prudent, and reasonable peace terms now. The sooner such terms are agreed, the more likely we are to avoid the path to World War III.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed The Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He is also President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development. He has been advisor to three United Nations Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG Advocate under Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Sachs is the author, most recently, of “A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism” (2020). Other books include: “Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable” (2017) and “The Age of Sustainable Development,” (2015) with Ban Ki-moon.