The United States and NATO are attempting to convince Russia not to use force in Ukraine. They will fail. Putin’s claimed insecurity is pure pretense. If his purpose is to take control of Ukraine, a war is unavoidable, but if his purpose is to curb NATO expansion and simultaneously to end a costly conflict in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Ukraine should consider its options separately from those of NATO or the EU since the price of diplomatic failure will be paid by Ukraine alone.
Ukraine therefore should prepare for war but also should offer to withdraw its hopeless application for NATO membership in exchange for measures that materially enhance its sovereign interests.
The U.S. and NATO have advanced arms control and military activity proposals that refute Putin’s pretense that NATO expansion and military preparedness threaten Russia’s security. But addressing Putin’s pretense is no substitute for effectively countering Putin’s purpose. He knows that NATO cannot accept a Russian veto on the sovereign right of European states to seek — and of NATO to grant — membership. He also knows that the European Union will not surrender its members’ right to arm for and coordinate their defense.
His purpose is not to achieve these impractical demands but to secure what Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov said was Russia’s “absolutely mandatory” objective: that Ukraine “never ever becomes a member of NATO.” While NATO cannot bring itself to withdraw its invitation to Ukraine to become a member, that option is so unlikely, and its costs so great, that Ukraine itself should consider which path best protects its interests in avoiding war, maintaining its territorial integrity, and improving its economic well-being.
An invasion may be imminent. Putin has prepared and positioned his forces for an attack. He has repeatedly used force to advance Russia’s stature and influence, disregarding principles of non-intervention, while avoiding costly objectives. His interventions in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine have given Russia control of strategic ports and territory and gone far in rebutting the scorn some U.S. leaders have unwisely expressed for him and Russia. His enhanced stature has led the rulers of Belarus and Kazakhstan to seek his help in maintaining control, and thereby brought those states firmly into Russia’s orbit.
Given these facts, Ukraine should assume Putin is not bluffing. He will act if he is offered nothing on Ukraine’s status. His forces are poised to take control of major portions of Ukraine’s Eastern provinces, where he has given 500,000 Ukrainians Russian citizenship as a prelude to conquest.
Ukrainians are brave. They are ready to fight. But they lack the lethal arms sufficient to resist the overwhelming force Russia has prepared. If Russia invades, Ukraine will lose many soldiers — and Russia will do what it considers necessary to subdue the country, as in Chechnya. The U.S. may (and should) supply more lethal weapons, but at this point the result will be the same, only bloodier. Sanctions will hurt but will not deter Putin; as in the past, he will absorb the cost, knowing that their impact will erode over time.
If the war were for Ukraine’s freedom, then it should be fought. But if Putin’s purpose is to stop NATO expansion to Ukraine, then it should not be fought — and Ukraine should consider offering to withdraw its application to join NATO in exchange for meaningful concessions.
It is clear why Russia should welcome so material a result without a war. Ukraine would be acknowledging that the price of its seeking NATO membership is prohibitive. That in turn would be a precedent that NATO and other would-be members of NATO would have to take into account.
It should also be clear why Ukraine should consider such a step if it is accompanied with concessions that enhance rather than negate its sovereignty. However much Ukraine may want NATO membership, it is not going to get it for years to come, if ever. It is now widely acknowledged that inviting Ukraine to apply was a mistake. Ukraine’s purpose in seeking membership in NATO, moreover, was to fortify its sovereign independence. That purpose could be better served, given the circumstances, by seeking concessions from Putin rather than by clinging to a membership application unlikely ever to be granted.
Ukraine should of course insist on Putin’s agreement to respect its territorial integrity. And that otherwise empty promise would have to be accompanied with some concrete action. At a minimum, Putin should end the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. Ending that violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty would be highly material and stop a conflict that has cost some 15,000 lives. (Crimea is a more complex issue, that could be deferred.)
Ukraine could also seek to resolve the pipeline issues in a manner that enhances its economic security. Ukraine could, for example, offer to waive its objections to Nord Stream 2 if Russia agrees to use it on the basis of a formula that guarantees Ukraine a specified level of income from its use of Nord Stream 1. Ending this dispute on such terms would be valuable to both countries, which together could secure support for their plan from all significant customers.
The blinding disdain some feel for Putin will lead them to condemn such an arrangement as a dangerous precedent for the security of former Warsaw Pact members. But most former members of the Soviet bloc are already members of NATO, entitled to the common defense. As for Ukraine, its defeat and loss of territory would be far worse a precedent.
Given that neither NATO nor Europe will come to Ukraine’s defense, it should carefully consider its interests.
If Putin insists on Ukraine’s capitulation, Ukraine will fight. But if Putin agrees to significant political and economic concessions, Ukraine should readily give up a NATO membership application that has no practical value.
Abraham D. Sofaer is the George P. Shultz Senior Fellow Emeritus at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Sofaer has served as a U.S. district court judge and a legal adviser to the Department of State.