Ukraine and Russia: Is there a simple solution?
Some guidelines for thinking this through.
People would like a simple solution to Russia's military buildup around Ukraine. The simple solution proposed is to tell Ukraine that it can never join NATO, tell Russia that we have told Ukraine so, then expect peace.
Those drawn to the simple solution pose it as a leading question: if it would stop a war, why not do it? The Biden administration has given three answers: (1) appeasement does not always work; (2) alliance membership is a sovereign choice, and we cannot treat other countries as less than sovereign; (3) coercion of one country by another is inappropriate, unethical, and illegal.
I would like to approach the simple solution in a different way. I too want Russia's campaign of intimidation to lead to something besides a war. I wake up every day thinking about friends in Ukraine and Russia. I imagine cities I know and love in ruins. And it is for just this reason, because emotions run high, that I want to suggest a list of checks worth reviewing before endorsing the simple solution. This protocol might help to explain why not everyone who wants peace imagines that the solution will be simple.
1. The psychological check. Russian military operations export a psychic burden to countries that Russia considers its adversaries. Because Russia has deployed tremendous force in and around Ukraine, we are supposed to feel guilty, shameful, and anxious. War would be terrible, wouldn't it? Therefore we should do whatever we can to stop it, shouldn't we? The temptation is to immediately do what Russia says, so that the pressure will lift. The anticipation of relief is so pleasant. But that is a psychological setup. It is no basis upon which to make a decision.
2. The framing check. People are talking about NATO chiefly because the Kremlin is talking about NATO. This means that the Kremlin has framed the issue. Within that framing, it will seem self-evident that NATO can resolve the problem. Accepting the first framing on offer is tempting, since it removes the need to think about other ones. Strategic thinkers would tend to take a first framing as an invitation to consider other framings, which admit other perspectives and include recent history. At a minimum, an acceptable framing would include perspectives from the country that is threatened, as well as reflections on Russia's 2014 invasion and current occupation of parts of Ukraine.
3. The iteration check. Let us imagine that the simple solution is somehow realized. Russia then invades Ukraine anyway, a month or a year from now. What is the move then? The answer to that question has to be provided now, in the original proposal of the simple solution. A normal foreign policy would specify the reaction for the case where the adversary does not do what you expect. The adversary often does not do what you expect.
4. The EU check. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, its motive was to prevent Ukraine from approaching the European Union. We know that Russia might invade Ukraine for reasons other than NATO; that has already happened. The invasion of 2014 reminds us that Ukraine is just the tender margin of Russia's European policy, which is to discredit democracy generally, and weaken the European Union. Advocates of the simple solution should seek to explain how doing so would make any positive difference here.
5. The Trump check. A test of any discussion of NATO in 2022 is whether the Russian influence campaign for Trump in 2016 is mentioned. 2016 reminds us that Russia seems to be aiming for something far beyond Ukraine, which seems to be the mockery, weakening, and destruction of western democracies generally. If that is the case, it is not clear how NATO is the relevant referent, let alone that pulling back from it would lead to desired consequences.
6. The diversion check. Russian leaders insist that they do not intend to invade Ukraine. Everyone assumes that they are lying. Proponents of the simple solution assume that they are lying -- otherwise there would be no felt need to rush to action. A higher order of deception, though, is to tell the truth when everyone assumes that you are lying. It is at least possible that Russia does not intend to invade Ukraine, and instead is gearing up for a de facto annexation of Belarus. In that case, the task assigned to us by the Kremlin would be to feel relieved when there is no war right now in Ukraine. And in that case, NATO concessions made from fear will just be icing on the cake for Russia, and would seem to make a future invasion of Ukraine more likely.
7. The reciprocity check. Advocates of the simple solution imagine a give-and-take: America promises that Ukraine will not join NATO, and Russia promises to withdraw its occupation forces from Ukraine and to not intervene in the future. Nothing so far in Russian diplomacy suggests that this is on the table. Americans proposing this give-and-take might apply the reciprocity check by trying to find a suitable Russian co-author before publishing. If one cannot be found, it might not be worth going to press.
Americans, on the Right and on the Left, are used to thinking that everything that happens in the world, for good or ill, is a result of our decisions. We like to make those decisions quickly, and then move on to the next thing. I think we have to recognize our lack of knowledge and lack of control over what Russia might do in the next few weeks. I also think that we should remember that the events of the moment are part of a larger history. Planning must be for multiple contingencies, and diplomatic offerings must be broad, multilateral, continuing, and creative. I don't think that this is simple.