Can the Ukraine Standoff be Solved Diplomatically? | Opinion

Nearly three months since tens of thousands of Russian forces massed near the border of Ukraine, the tense situation that has captured the world's attention hasn't gotten any less alarming.

The United States and its European allies remain highly concerned about Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions, with the Biden administration warning Moscow of tough economic sanctions if the Kremlin is brazen enough to launch a second invasion of its neighbor. Kyiv is so worried about more hostilities that the Ukrainian army is providing civilians with military training to make a potential Russian occupation more difficult. All of this activity is occurring as the seven-year conflict in Ukraine's Donbas region continues unabated, with Ukrainian soldiers forced to deal with mortar attacks on a daily basis.

What is driving Russia's behavior? One school of thought is that Putin's ideology and personal preference of resurrecting the old Soviet empire are solely to blame for the current saber-rattling. Others are convinced Putin is lashing out because he isn't sufficiently deterred or doesn't take President Joe Biden seriously.

Russia, however, is about more than Putin. While it's indisputable Putin holds a number of firmly entrenched beliefs, like his infamous contention that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, Russian foreign policy is very much guided by external factors—the two most prevalent being geography and security. Putin himself articulated this during his end-of-year news conference, where he again cited the multiple rounds of NATO enlargement since the end of the Cold War as the prime motivator of the latest crisis. "We have made it clear that any further movement of NATO to the East is unacceptable," Putin said on Dec. 23. "Is there anything unclear about this?"

To Putin, the answer is crystal clear: absolutely not. Putin sees NATO expansion toward Russia's own borders as not only a reminder of his country's impotence after the Soviet Union's dissolution, but as a direct and present threat to Russia's own national security.

The view isn't exclusive to Putin, nor should U.S. and Western policymakers assume this perception will disappear once Putin eventually vacates the scene. NATO's drift into an area Russia regards as its sphere of influence has been a constant irritant from the very beginning of the post-Cold War era. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, despite having an amicable personal relationship, had some of their most heated disagreements on the topic of NATO expansion, with Yeltsin believing it could isolate Russia from the European security architecture. As former ambassador Thomas Pickering wrote in a diplomatic cable to then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Dec. 6, 1994, "hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here." In his own cable a year later, then-U.K. Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind acknowledged that even so-called reformers within the Russian political system "are antagonistic to NATO enlargement."

This sentiment continues to influence Russian behavior, particularly in countries like Ukraine, a crown jewel of the former Soviet Republic seeking to become a permanent member of the Western security orbit. Moscow, wary of yet another neighbor joining the NATO club, appears willing to utilize all sources of its national power to prevent such a development—even if the most extreme option on the table, a conventional invasion, jeopardizes Russia's economic recovery.

Ukrainian soldiers walk past destroyed buildings
Ukrainian soldiers walk past destroyed buildings on Dec. 8, 2021. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Many commentators in the U.S. and Europe consider this reasoning unconvincing. Some, like Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, dismiss Russia's security concerns entirely, arguing that post-Cold War NATO is and was never meant to be a security threat to Russia.

Yet the stories we tell ourselves mean little in the cut-throat world of international relations. Whether or not Washington agrees with Russia's security concerns is largely irrelevant. What matters today is how we go forward.

On this, there is some slow but positive momentum. Presidents Biden and Putin will have a phone call on Dec. 30, their second in a month. U.S. and Russian officials are at least talking about talking. Negotiations between U.S. and Russian diplomats will begin on Jan. 10, followed by NATO-Russia talks on Jan. 12. They will be anything but painless; Moscow is demanding a number of concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from countries in Eastern and Central Europe, which will be immediately rejected. Washington will insist that Europeans be real players in any diplomatic process, while the Russians would prefer to speak to the U.S. bilaterally.

There are other areas, however, where agreement may be possible. Moscow's demand that NATO close the door to Ukraine's membership is depicted in the West as a highly unacceptable arrangement that deprives Kyiv of the ability to make its own foreign policy decisions. But the chances of Ukraine being inducted into NATO are minuscule—and it's highly unlikely the alliance would even be able to achieve consensus for such a decision. Rhetoric notwithstanding, Washington and Europe don't want to be in a position where their troops are facing off against a nuclear-armed Russia, something Ukraine's incorporation into NATO would enable practically overnight. As difficult as it may be for NATO to admit, fighting Russia to save Ukraine simply isn't worth the trouble.

In the end, none of us can say for certain whether the upcoming negotiations will be enough to assuage Russian fears about encirclement (however legitimate those fears may be). Relations between Washington and Moscow will remain prickly due to a number of other issues, from cyberattacks and human rights abuses to the deployment of Russian-backed paramilitaries. To pretend a sudden resurgence in bilateral ties will occur after the standoff over Ukraine ends would be an exercise in naiveté.

But negotiating in search of a positive outcome and working on common sense de-escalatory steps, like an improvement in military-to-military dialogue, is far preferable to the damage a war would produce.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.