Why Clarifying Ukraine’s Security Status Is in Russia’s Interest
Valdai Papers
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Zachary Paikin

Researcher in EU Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels and a Nonresident Research Fellow with the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy in Toronto.

Valdai Discussion Club

The place that Russia should occupy in Europe has long been a contentious topic. Faced with a hostile Russia, many in the West who implicitly consider the EU system and liberal democracy to be synonymous with Europe itself assert that Russia is “leaving Europe”. By contrast, others take Russia’s military operation in Ukraine as evidence that Moscow still wants the West to accord it the privileges and status of a great power in the European security order.

Civilizational or normative definitions of Europe aside, one thing is undeniable: Russia remains the most populous and one of the most powerful countries in Europe.

That means that unless a future European security order includes Russia and accounts for its security concerns in some fashion, there will be no security for the entire continent.

Some institutions in the Euro-Atlantic area may serve to underwrite security against or without Russia, but there is no substitute for building security with Russia – at least to some extent.

As part of this equation, any new European security order will have to confront the task of stabilizing the lengthy border between Russia and NATO – a task which cannot be accomplished without first determining the security status of Ukraine. Given all the talk about security guarantees for Ukraine, one might think that this issue is purely of importance to the West. Yet clarifying Kiev’s place in the continental security order is very much in Russia’s interest as well.

Competing visions of order have plagued post-Cold War Europe, partly manifesting itself through the cherrypicking of principles by both Russia and the West: indivisible security (i.e., the notion that one state should not increase its security at the expense of another) and the right to choose one’s security arrangements free from any third-party veto. Despite having endorsed this “right to choose” in documents such as the Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter, Russia has opposed the notion that Ukraine’s NATO membership is a matter exclusively for Ukraine and NATO to decide, finding the idea that it should have no say over the security orientation of states on its border to be problematic.

The result is a climate in which misperceptions flourish, uncertainty mounts, and divisions worsen, transforming states with unclear security status such as Ukraine into black holes. Yet as George Beebe and Anatol Lieven write, while Russia “has shown that it can block the further expansion of NATO into ex-Soviet republics […] it cannot fight its way into Western recognition that Russia has a legitimate role to play in Europe’s security order”. This is party because, since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the continental order in Europe has been centred around the EU system, with surrounding states developing greater or lesser degrees of integration into that system without the ability to shape its terms, rules and standards.

Military force alone cannot change this reality. Diplomacy, however, offers a more promising path. The sooner the status of Ukraine in the European security order is agreed, the sooner more predictable rules can be established to govern and stabilize the NATO-Russia frontier.

And such rules would, in effect, amount to recognition of Russia’s great power status and red lines.

Mistrust continues to govern relations between Russia and the West. Two years of full-scale military confrontation have only served to confirm existing negative preconceptions about each side’s intentions. President Putin could make the initial move to break this deadlock by sending a clear message that Russia does not seek to extinguish Ukrainian statehood and considers the idea of security guarantees for Ukraine to be legitimate. In response, Western leaders should publicly affirm that Russia’s security concerns are legitimate as well.

All sides could then agree to establish multiple tracks aimed at formulating ideas on how to satisfy the security concerns of Ukraine, Russia and NATO members simultaneously. These would deal with different issues and involve different groupings of actors depending on the matter at hand. Crucially, these should be parallel initiatives with no sequential logic. The guiding principle should be: “Not everything must be agreed for anything to be agreed”. The failure of certain tracks must not allow the entire process to be compromised.

As a goodwill measure, the United States and Russia should agree to devote one of these tracks to the re-compartmentalization of issues such as strategic stability, where the parties (in principle) share important security- and status-related interests. This could be followed by a public endorsement from both sides of the need to reestablish Track 2 dialogue links among experts aimed at rebuilding trust and fostering mutual understanding.

Issues which remain fraught with centuries of historical baggage, such as the question of borders, may have to be left open for the foreseeable future, even if the norm of territorial integrity should be reaffirmed as a key pillar of the European security order. The more immediate task concerns finding a mutually acceptable compromise on the status of Ukraine and the depth of its military and intelligence relations with the West – one which can prevent any further unnecessary loss of life, enhance Ukraine’s security, allow NATO states to save face, and assuage Russian concerns all at once.

The world is becoming more multipolar. With this transition comes the possibility that spheres of influence might be resurrected. Many actors, both large and small, view this risk with trepidation. Yet from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, Moscow has conducted relations with its neighbours on the basis that multi-vector foreign policies are not incompatible with Russian interests. A similar approach should inform the Kremlin’s attitude toward Ukraine, in which respect for Russian security concerns can be married with an acknowledgement of the right to free policy decisions, such as pursuing deeper relations with the European Union.

The result could help to modernize the concept of spheres of influence in a fashion that renders them suitable for the realities of the twenty-first century. In place of the binary Western discourse which posits the “law of the jungle” as the only alternative to the “rules-based international order”, creating the space for bridge states to flourish can provide more predictable contours for great power competition and increase the likelihood of compromise in a dangerous world. And by helping to elaborate this feature of the emerging global tapestry, Moscow would demonstrate its status as an order-shaping power of the first degree.

Valdai Discussion Club
The Guns Are Heard Better
Nikolay Silaev
In the spring of 2024, we can confidently say that the West has been unable to defeat Russia as it wanted and now it is concerned with ensuring that Russia “does not win.” So, in the future, for years, if not decades to come, security in Europe will be determined by the balance of power along the line of contact between Russia and NATO. Russia will do everything to maintain this balance for its part.