The gathering storm over Ukraine is potentially the most dangerous crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War. A large scale Russian military attack on Ukraine would cause enormous civilian and military casualties, overturn prior assumptions about the rules-based international order, and risk escalation to wider conventional, or even nuclear, war.
Military conflicts are the effects, not the causes, of political disagreements. Therefore, a disastrous conflict spiral in Europe is avoidable if heads of state will use their imaginations and offer creative proposals for reconciliation as between Russia and NATO. One such proposal is put forward here. The proposal is necessarily inchoate and would need to be fleshed out with particulars.
Simply put: NATO should offer a partnership agreement to Russia. A NATO partnership agreement is not the same as membership in NATO. A partnership commits a state to engage in ongoing consultative relations with NATO members on issues of mutual interest. In this case the list of issues could include: terrorism; nuclear proliferation; COVID relief; climate change; controlling the nuclear and conventional arms races; and the possibility of rethinking European and Eurasian security arrangements within a post-Cold War framework.
Our proposal is neither naïve nor utopian. We accept that NATO and Russia are presently on a collision course. Even if it does not result in a large conventional war in Ukraine, the present imbroglio has raised suspicions in Washington, Brussels and Moscow.
Precedents exist for collaboration between Russia and NATO on security issues, especially during the 1990s. Although Vladimir Putin may see this period as one of humiliating Russian military weakness, and the U.S. was riding a sugar high of exceptional exuberance about the “end of history,” common ground was found in nuclear risk reduction, joint military exercises, peacekeeping, and other areas. After the attacks of 9-11, Russia expedited American access to transit routes through Central Asia and reportedly shared intelligence on terrorist activities.
Vladimir Putin’s turn toward a more confrontational relationship with the United States and NATO after 2007 reflected growing confidence in Russia’s economic revival and his plans to modernize Russia’s armed forces. Putin makes no secret of his desire to rebuild Russian political influence in the states of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, by means of calibrated coercion supported by military power. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and destabilization of eastern Ukraine breached prior norms that no borders in post-Cold War Europe would be changed by force. NATO should never take Russia lightly. Going forward, the alliance must maintain, and project, political cohesion and military preparedness for deterrence and defense.
In addition to political cohesion and military preparedness, NATO must also have a strategy for escalation control. This includes the willingness to use diplomacy in a strategic way that supports NATO policy objectives without losing control over events. A Russian partnership agreement with NATO is not a permanent solution to their disagreements, but a template for consultations within a framework of positive, rather than negative, expectations. As a former French Foreign Minister once explained: “If a diplomat says “yes” he means “maybe;” if he says “maybe” he means “no;” and if he says “no” he is no diplomat.”
A partnership agreement with NATO would not necessarily mean that Russia sought, or eventually achieved, NATO membership. A NATO membership would require that Russia meet NATO requirements with respect to its international and domestic political activities, and that NATO be reassured against further Russian military aggression in Europe. But a NATO – Russian partnership could expedite an agreement over Ukraine that would result in its continued sovereignty and territorial integrity, perhaps along the lines of the Austrian state treaty of 1955 (Ukraine’s neutrality is guaranteed and foreign military forces are withdrawn) or according to the Minsk II protocols supported by the Normandy Four (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia).
Finally, by offering a NATO partnership to Russia, the alliance gives Putin a symbolic, but nevertheless important, recognition of Russia’s central place in European security matters. Putin’s angst is often driven by his perception that Russia has been marginalized against its interests and insufficiently respected as a great power. As a NATO partner, Russia would increase its visibility as a European game changer in a positive way. If Russia spurns the offer of partnership, NATO remains as strong politically and militarily as before. Why not take the chance?