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Engagement Reframed February 9, 2022

Engagement Reframed #2: Seize the opportunity to rethink European security

By Emma Ashford

Key points

  • The crisis in Ukraine poses an extraordinary challenge, but it also represents a rare window of opportunity to rethink and stabilize European security.
  • Though policymakers are understandably hesitant to negotiate with a clearly aggressive Russia, history suggests that such crises often provide the impetus for major diplomatic achievements.
  • This brief suggests several core points that might be helpful to policymakers in avoiding a conflict in Ukraine and achieving a sustainable long-term European security environment, including a focus on “pain points”—existing problems that either side finds intolerable—rather than raw numbers, a renewed push to reintegrate economic questions into negotiations, and an emphasis on de facto solutions rather than de jure political promises.

What is the opportunity?

The ongoing crisis over Ukraine poses an extraordinary challenge for US and NATO policymakers. In recent months, Russia has positioned increasing numbers of military personnel, heavy weapons, and materiel along the Russian border with Ukraine, as well as near the Ukrainian-Belorussian border. Thus far, the Russian approach suggests that the Kremlin is engaged in coercive diplomacy; Russia has simultaneously made diplomatic overtures to the United States on the major questions of European security, including two draft “treaties” that lay out Russia’s preferred vision for resolving the crisis. Despite this, the military buildup cannot simply be dismissed as a bluff. Russian demands are extreme: that NATO expand no further and that a moratorium be placed on any NATO military activities in the former Soviet space. Moscow is clearly building the capability—and probably has the inclination—to use force in Ukraine in the event that its demands go unmet. Although it is certainly possible that Russia has no intention of engaging in serious diplomacy, the United States should nevertheless engage in a good-faith diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis. If not resolved through diplomatic means, the Ukraine crisis has the potential to produce the largest conflict—in terms of troops deployed, territory seized, or lives lost—on the European continent in decades.

Yet this crisis has shifted the diplomatic agenda, allowing some fundamental questions about European security—such as Russia’s future within Europe, the extent of NATO’s borders, arms control, and the nature of NATO’s cooperation with nonmember states in the former Soviet Union—to come to the fore. These questions have been largely pushed to the back burner during the past thirty years of post-Cold War NATO expansion. Their resurfacing now suggests that, for all its dangers, the current crisis could nonetheless offer an unanticipated moment of opportunity—a potential pivot point from the post-Cold War period to a new equilibrium for European security. This brief presents some core points of leverage for policymakers to consider as they explore the possible avenues for diplomatic solutions to this crisis; its suggestions are informed by the discussions of the New American Engagement Initiative’s working group on the Future of US-Russian Relations.

Why now?

The recent Russian buildups highlight the fragility of Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture. Conventional arms control has collapsed, nuclear arms control is hanging by a thread, and the member states of the NATO alliance and Russia—the largest non-NATO military power on the continent—are at odds on core questions about the future of European security. Washington is eager to place Europe on the back burner as it turns its attention toward Asia. Thus, while Russia’s military buildup is to be deplored, it has highlighted and clarified existing fault lines among and within the parties on questions such as NATO expansion, NATO’s military posture in Eastern Europe, and the extent to which Russia has the capacity to influence the security choices of states in its immediate vicinity. The buildup did not cause these fault lines to emerge, but rather is itself a result of the failure of prior governments in Washington, Moscow, and various European capitals to answer these questions in an adequate way, even as Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine since 2008 have brought conflict back to the region.   

Crises can present a moment of opportunity for diplomacy, provided that leaders are not afraid to consider bargaining.

Though some would argue that it is inappropriate to disagree “at the point of a gun”—in essence insisting that negotiating with Russia now is tantamount to rewarding aggression—it is an unfortunate fact of history that diplomatic breakthroughs are often the result of increased tensions or even military action. Consider one of America’s most famous foreign policy successes in the Cold War: the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The John F. Kennedy administration held tense deliberations over how to eject the Soviet nuclear missiles from the island; the administration settled on a combination of threats to attack and a naval blockade to prevent the resupply of the forces already in Cuba. Nonetheless, this pressure alone did not convince the Soviets to agree to withdraw the missiles—or “blink” as Secretary of State Dean Rusk claimed. In reality, the United States had privately agreed to two key Soviet demands: the removal of Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Turkey and a promise not to overthrow the regime in Cuba by force. 

As Les Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, would later describe it, “Compromise is not always the answer, and sometimes it’s precisely the wrong answer. But policymakers and politicians have to be able to examine it openly and without fear, and measure it against alternatives . . . they need to remember that the ever steely-eyed JFK found a compromise solution to the Cuban missile crisis—and the compromise worked.” Crises, as Gelb highlights, can present a moment of opportunity for diplomacy, provided that leaders are not afraid to consider bargaining.

How to make it happen

Of course, achieving a diplomatic resolution to this crisis is easier said than done. Russia and the West have irreconcilable differences on some of the core issues. Although it might be possible to resolve some lower-level problems—such as reviving or reformulating the stalemated Minsk process—the larger strategic questions are zero-sum. The question of future NATO expansion is one such poison pill: NATO will not abandon its open-door policy, which many members view as essential to the mission of the alliance. Russia, meanwhile, is not willing to accept a future Ukrainian role in NATO. This leaves the Biden administration caught between conflicting impulses: work on the smaller questions, which are potentially resolvable but are unlikely to inhibit Russian military action, or focus on the big questions where achieving progress is more challenging but would yield substantial payoffs. As a result, the best approach to diplomacy is likely to be focusing on smaller issues that have the potential to scale up into broader agreements: specific points of contention about missiles, military exercises, or troop deployments, for example, could be leveraged into a broader conventional arms control framework, which could ultimately solve some of the larger underlying security concerns. In managing such a process, several principles are worth bearing in mind:

1. Focus on “pain points,” not just on numbers. Though the now-defunct treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) provides one historical model for a conventional arms control treaty, it should not be the starting point of negotiations. Indeed, two core characteristics render the CFE unsuitable as a framework to resolve today’s problems: its heavy focus on quantifying numerical ceilings for troops and equipment, which are notably higher than today’s typical deployments in Eastern Europe, and its insistence on parity between the parties, both of which might require the United States to increase its presence in Europe simply to meet numerical targets. Instead, the parties should focus on “pain points”—measures that each side finds intolerable—and on offering Western concessions that could be “paired” to Russian concessions. In short, concessions by each side do not have to be identical, but rather they should be undertaken in a reciprocal, good-faith fashion. A major pain point for Russia, for example, is the potential presence of missiles or bases on Ukrainian territory; for NATO members, Russia’s routine and repeated exercises on Belorussian territory are a pain point. Such limits would undoubtedly have to be quantified, but quantification should not be the primary concern. By deprioritizing symmetric quantitative arms reductions and prioritizing concrete issues instead, a new agreement could potentially resolve asymmetric security concerns.

2. Keep alliance management in perspective. Throughout the early stages of this crisis, the Biden administration has done an admirable job of maintaining and promoting alliance unity. Yet an “allies-first” approach to negotiating has not historically been the most effective way to handle high-level talks with Russia. Indeed, prioritizing unity can end up producing consensus around a lowest-common denominator position, thereby making genuine progress or tough choices more difficult. Such an approach could reduce the stakes that alliance partners have in the negotiation process because a lack of progress could simply be blamed publicly on other, intransigent alliance partners. Instead, policymakers should apply some lessons from the Cold War period and pursue the alliance-to-adversary negotiating sequencing in reverse: seek workable compromises with Russia at a high level of abstraction, and then work closely with NATO allies to find acceptable paths to implementation.

3. Get creative on institutional frameworks. Policymakers should adopt a similar flexibility when it comes to the format of talks, instead of remaining locked into existing frameworks. Forum-shopping is a time-honored tradition in US foreign policy. To cite just one relevant example, the first Bush administration repeatedly switched forums on the question of German reunification in the early 1990s. Policymakers should be willing to step outside of, or repurpose, existing forums if new approaches appear to hold promise. This might even extend to creating new institutional or negotiating frameworks. For example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a mandate to manage European security broadly construed—including members of all alliance blocs—along with conflict-monitoring capabilities and a focus on conventional security. Yet Russia increasingly sees the OSCE as a biased actor, reflecting a distinct vision of European security from Russia’s own. Policymakers might consider using similar tools in a more ad hoc framework as a first step in trying to resolve this crisis, while thinking creatively about new organizational and institutional ways to apply such tools.

4. Consider territorial issues. A core sticking point with Russia is liable to be the question of territorial rights; indeed, one of the reasons the former CFE treaty failed was Russian distaste for conditions that restricted what Russia could do on its own territory. The proposed Russian “draft treaties” are in part unacceptable because they suggest concessions that sound reasonable—i.e., that parties should only maintain forces on their own territory—but which would in reality be unilateral Western concessions. This is an unfortunate side effect of today’s map of Europe. NATO has now expanded its membership eastward to the point where its territory is far closer to Russia than during the Cold War. Thus, restrictions on Russian arms would have to apply on Russian soil. Nonetheless, policymakers should consider ways to mitigate Russian concerns by committing to the drawdown of forces in Eastern Europe where appropriate and where such a drawdown would be matched by reciprocal Russian concessions.

5. Look for practical steps to achieve impractical agreements. Western policymakers have taken a clear stance on the question of NATO’s open door, refusing to take future Ukrainian membership off the table. There may be political reasons to maintain this stance, but doing so would be practically meaningless because Ukraine is highly unlikely to join NATO in the coming decades. Tacitly acknowledging this reality is thus in line with how such problems have been handled historically. During the Cold War, for example, NATO did not make a concrete commitment to the former Soviet Union that it would not admit East Germany, Sweden, or Austria; that commitment was on the part of the countries themselves and generally understood. Policymakers should thus look for ways to make such a commitment implicitly and de facto, rather than explicitly. Such an approach might include a commitment to no NATO-member troops or materiel on Ukrainian soil, either indefinitely or for a period. It might include restrictions on the kind of arms that could be sold to Ukraine, or to training and integration of Ukraine’s armed forces with NATO. In exchange, the United States might be able to obtain Russian commitments to remove forces from Eastern Ukraine (though not Crimea) or resolve other longstanding security concerns, such as missile-basing in Kaliningrad. In short, policymakers should look for ways to close NATO’s open door—at least for now, and in exchange for Russian concessions—without explicitly saying so. Such an approach even has the benefit of being verifiable in a way that a simple promise of non-expansion is not.

6. Think regionally, not globally. Any deal on missiles, nuclear questions, or conventional armaments should be bounded to Europe, rather than framed in global terms. Such a strategy could help to resolve some of the more contentious issues; Russia, for example, has indicated some willingness to negotiate on intermediate nuclear missiles, a topic which may be controversial domestically after the collapse of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, and considering concerns about China. Confining any such agreement to Europe alone would allow Washington the freedom of maneuver in the Asia-Pacific, while enhancing the chances for arms control and strategic stability in Europe. This would not preclude regional arms or security agreements from producing beneficial global effects; the United States could leverage success in negotiating with Russia—and in pursuing nonconventional, non-Cold War frameworks for arms control—into talks with China on issues of mutual security concern.

7. Bring economics back in. It is all too easy to argue that Ukraine’s economic shift toward the West has been a casualty of rising tensions. The stark reality, however, is that the roots of the current crisis are at least partly the result of the structure of the European Union’s (EU’s) proposed Association Agreement and the 2014 crisis it precipitated. Though the agreement was popular in Ukraine, it mandated against Ukrainian economic ties with its traditional trade partners in the former Soviet bloc. It was also implicitly tied to the prospect of future EU and NATO membership and was therefore unacceptable to Moscow. Yet offering Ukraine a way to more effectively integrate its economy westward in a non-zero-sum way—and outside the potential EU membership path—is a no-brainer that would simultaneously help to bolster the Ukrainian economy and stabilize Ukraine’s relations with both Russia and the West. Policymakers should work with key EU member states—many of which have experience in post-conflict and cross-border trade agreements in the Balkans and elsewhere—to develop viable pathways for Ukraine, Belarus, and other regional states that provide some measure of economic integration without requiring political alignment. 

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Image: Former United States President John F. Kennedy meets with Nikita Khrushchev, former chairman of the council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, at the US embassy residence in Vienna, Austria. Photo via REUTERS, Evelyn Lincoln, The White House, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.