Last week, the Biden administration rejected demands that Russian president Vladimir Putin set forth in connection with his preparations for a new offensive against Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that “there will be no change” in NATO’s willingness to permit Ukraine to join the alliance eventually, or to bolster Ukrainian self-defense against the Russian forces massing along its borders. The NATO secretary general echoed Blinken’s remarks: “We cannot and will not compromise on the principles on which the security of our alliance, and security in Europe and North America rest,” Jens Stoltenberg said last week.
Yet even after Blinken and Stoltenberg rebuffed the Russian demands, some commentators continued to urge concessions to Russia. This follows weeks of similar demands from commentators arguing that such concessions to Russia are a small price to pay for peace.
But there’s reason to doubt that a durable and lasting peace can be bought at any price the United States and NATO are willing to pay.
The Russian foreign ministry still insists that it has “no intention to invade Ukraine” and, perversely, that it is Americans who are “whipping up tensions and provoking escalation,” even hoping for conflict. But observers from Kyiv to Brussels to Washington are left to infer otherwise from the months-long buildup of forces—more than 100,000 troops positioned to attack Ukraine from the north, south, and east.
It is possible that Putin has not yet made the final decision to order a new offensive. But based just on publicly available information, the Russian position seems to be: If NATO doesn’t close its doors to new members, withdraw militarily from Eastern Europe, and concede a Russian sphere of influence, Ukraine will suffer devastation.
The problem with this (apparent) formulation is that it doesn’t imply the inverse: There is no guarantee that if NATO does close its doors, withdraw to its position in the 1990s, and concede a Russian sphere of influence then Ukraine will be saved. Indeed, conceding a Russian sphere of influence seems to guarantee that Ukraine will not be saved.
It is possible—it may even be overwhelmingly likely—that granting Russia the concessions it wants will prevent mass violence in Ukraine in the short term. Large-scale operations would be difficult and bloody for the Russian army; holding territory while fighting a guerrilla resistance potentially even more so. It’s conceivable that a difficult campaign against fellow Slavs in which the conscription-based Russian army suffers heavy casualties might threaten Putin’s hold on power. Having squeezed concessions out of NATO, therefore, Putin might be satisfied and stand down.
But just because that scenario is possible—and even if it is overwhelmingly likely—does not make it a certainty. Besides, that scenario presumes that Putin is a rational, risk-averse actor with generally the same information as Western observers. It’s possible that he’s not a rational actor—or, at least, not rational in the relevant way. It’s possible that, in line with his 2008 comments to President George W. Bush that Ukraine “is not a country” and his 7,000-word essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” published last July, the aging, increasingly isolated autocrat is determined to restore his country to what he considers its rightful glory, no matter the costs.
Putin’s military advisers may also be presenting him with overly optimistic estimates of Russian military superiority over the Ukrainians. Yes, Russia recently completed a major, decade-long modernization of its military, in part to correct for the weaknesses it discovered during the Russo-Georgian War. And yes, its soldiers and airmen have gained experience in eastern Ukraine, Libya, and Syria in recent years. But the Ukrainian military has grown in size and sophistication since it surrendered Crimea in 2014 almost without a shot, and its soldiers (and veterans, who would be crucial in a guerrilla war) have eight years of experience fighting Russian-backed forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. Old-fashioned Russian chauvinism may be causing the leadership in Moscow to discount the capability of its neighbor.
The ambiguity of the Russian negotiating position would be clarified if the threat of invasion and the demands were made explicit—that is, if an official of the Russian government were to lay out the terms, explaining under what conditions Russia would tear its neighbor apart. Putin came close to making such a statement in December when he threatened “retaliatory military-technical measures” unless he gets his way, though no one knows exactly what that means. Making that threat any clearer would remove opportunities for Russia to back down and save face.
There is also a question of timing. Russia wants the United States and NATO to make promises in perpetuity—for example, guaranteeing that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO. Is Russia willing to make similar indefinite promises, such as never violating Ukraine’s sovereignty? Apparently not, since it already made such a pledge more than once, including in the 1990 Paris Charter and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and it broke both by invading Ukraine in 2014.
The choice facing the United States and NATO, then, is uncertain in both directions: Refuse Russia its concessions, and maybe it will dismember Ukraine or maybe it will back down; grant Russia its concessions, and maybe it will redeploy its forces back to their home bases now or maybe it will gorge itself now or maybe it will gorge itself later or maybe it will just keep nibbling at Ukraine as it has been for the past eight years.
The option to prevent a renewed offensive with any degree of certainty is off the table because the risks are too high. Guaranteeing Ukraine’s integrity at all costs would require either (1) defending Ukraine with foreign conventional forces to such a degree that a Russian attack would likely fail, or (2) including Ukraine under the American nuclear umbrella. Neither of these policies at the present time is advisable—hence why NATO has repeatedly declined to grant Ukraine a path to membership.
The unfortunate truth: The United States and NATO have relatively little influence over Putin’s decision. Refuse the concessions and there might be a war. Grant the concessions and there might be a war anyway—but maybe a little more distantly in the future. What’s the difference between the two options in probability of war? No one can say, at least not without assuming certain attributes of Putin that are impossible to know conclusively.
While the stakes for the Ukrainians remain high, the stakes for NATO and the United States are lower than they might appear, which should make it easier, not harder, to support the fledgling democracy against the aggressive autocracy.