Call it aggression, invasion, incursion, or an illegal border crossing—whatever you call it, the fact remains that Russia has now become a direct participant in Ukraine’s civil war. To his credit, President Obama has not used jingoistic language in calling for a response to Russia’s action. In the next few weeks, the US and the European Union will probably impose another round of economic sanctions, though sanctions are no more likely now than previously to change Putin’s thinking. He seems convinced that military pressure on Ukraine will compel it to grant the pro-Russian southeast a degree of autonomy that would amount to subservience to Russia.
Some observers think Putin should be directly confronted with force, as though this is Europe’s and the West’s darkest hour since 1938. But as bleak as the Ukraine situation appears, I will argue that further escalating the crisis by responding militarily to Russia’s actions is the surest road to disaster for all sides. There is still room for diplomacy.
Ukraine’s president intends to introduce a bill in its parliament to seek membership in NATO. I think that is a big mistake. Russia has a legitimate interest in having a next-door neighbor that is not tied to a Western military alliance. For Ukraine to join NATO—and already the NATO secretary general has said Ukraine has every right to be a member—would invite a repeat of early Cold War story. In 1948 Russia moved troops into Czechoslovakia and staged a coup in Prague when it seemed to Moscow that the Czech government was moving too far in the West’s direction. That act spurred the formation of NATO, triggering full-fledged Cold War. Now we have Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine, in part motivated by the US-backed coup in Kiev that put a pro-Western group into power. Ukraine wants membership in NATO as well as in the EU, and to the Russians that is one provocation too many.
It’s a needless provocation. If Ukraine is to stand any chance of surviving intact, and obtaining a Russian retreat, it must be strategically neutral. During the 1990s the US and Russia agreed that the West would not establish a permanent military presence, including troops and missiles, in Eastern Europe. That agreement is endangered now that the Obama administration is talking about prepositioning war supplies and rotating troop deployments in the east, all as part of a plan to have a rapid response force of around 4,000 ready to move in case of “Russian aggression.” Moscow will have a hard time accepting this move as defensive. To the contrary, if any action is likely to draw a harsh response from Putin that might well include deeper involvement in Ukraine, it is the sight of US-NATO military maneuvers close to Russia’s borders.
Ukraine must not be allowed to become the first battle of Cold War II. The wisest course for both the US and NATO, I believe, is to couple hurting sanctions on Russia—and these should include an arms embargo and cancellation of existing arms contracts such as France has with Russia—with coordinated US-EU pressure on both Ukraine and Russia for a political settlement. The terms of a settlement would include Ukraine’s assurance that it will not join any military alliance and that it will grant the secessionist part of the country new powers of autonomy—a federalist formula that various commentators have urged. Autonomy need not mean eventual Russian absorption. The future of Ukraine’s southeast will depend on how the region fares economically, how effectively its interests are represented in the central government, and how well its distinctive language and culture are respected. The better the central government treats the region, the less attractive will it view absorption by Russia.