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The Ukraine War Is Going to Get Worse. It’s Time to Start Talking About How It Could End

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O’Hanlon holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution; his latest book is The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint.

As tragic as things already are in Ukraine, they will likely get even worse in the days and weeks to come. Vladimir Putin deserves every bit of punishment this war may exact on him, on the battlefield and to Russia’s economy. But the people of Ukraine do not; nor do most of the Russia people. We should therefore not be content with a U.S.-Western policy that simply imposes pain on Putin for pain’s sake, since it may do little to mitigate the consequences of this conflict. The current sanctions—as well as threat of even more sanctions—should serve as part of a strategy that pursues the least bad possible outcome to this needless war.

Although the war appears to be zero-sum in nature, based on Putin’s aims and the Ukrainian people’s refusal to accept Russian de facto rule, there is one possible dimension where compromise may be possible: the idea of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. That possibility was first promised by NATO at its summit in 2008, though with no timetable or interim security guarantee; it was reaffirmed in the November 10, 2021 U.S.-Ukraine Charter that, for all its good intentions and lofty rhetoric, is beginning to look like a major mistake. The moral responsibility for this war is all Vladimir Putin’s. But western policy contributed to creating the strategic and psychological circumstances that Putin then exploited. We need to rethink.

The core of any possible deal would be to create a ceasefire and then the withdrawal from Ukraine of Russian forces—while foreclosing the possibility of future NATO membership for Ukraine provided that its security can be ensured by other ways. These arrangements could be written into the Ukrainian Constitution, and into an understanding that NATO reached with Moscow. President Volodymyr Zelensky would have to take the lead on proposing these terms, but we should encourage and support him.

The reasons that we can and should be flexible on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership are threefold: First, Ukraine’s joining NATO was never a good idea, given how incendiary that prospect is for many Russians (not just Putin) and therefore how counterproductive to the goal of stabilizing Europe; second, it was not going to happen anytime soon even before the Russian invasion, since there has never been a timetable for it; third, it certainly is not possible now with Russian troops sitting on Ukrainian soil.

Read More: How Volodymyr Zelensky Defended Ukraine and United the World

But forgoing NATO membership is all that could possibly be asked of Ukraine. Otherwise, to make the deal acceptable, Russia would have to reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty, return the Donbas region to Kiev, accept monitors and perhaps peacekeepers on Ukrainian soil, and acknowledge that Ukraine could join any other organizations to which it was invited including perhaps someday the European Union. Crimea would have to be finessed, given its history and Russian sensibilities on the matter. (Perhaps a form of dual citizenship could be developed down the road for people living there; the U.S. would continue not to recognize Russia’s seizure of that strategic ground.)

Russia would also have to join us in guaranteeing the future security of Ukraine. That is something Moscow already promised under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (associated with a newly sovereign Ukraine’s decision to return Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia) and then violated.

Why would Moscow’s promise be any more trustworthy this time? And why would Putin consider the terms proposed here? The difference would be that this time, there would be no future prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance that had defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Our hope would be that, with NATO membership no longer in the air, Russia could claim it had stabilized the security order of Eastern Europe in a way that was not possible in 1994 (since 1994, NATO has added 14 more members, all to the original alliance’s south or east). If Moscow subsequently violated its commitments, our promise not to consider future NATO membership for Ukraine would also dissolve. With this agreement, Putin would begin to get his economy back—otherwise, he is poised to rule over a stagnant Russia for perhaps the rest of his days, given the escalating extent of western sanctions.

Read More: How Sanctions Will Help and Hurt the World’s Economies

Some would say this approach would violate NATO’s “Open Door” policy. But that policy as commonly understood has no basis in the alliance’s treaty. Article X of the treaty makes it clear that future membership invitations should only be issued if they would enhance the security of the broader North Atlantic region. Clearly, the prospect of Ukraine in NATO is doing no such thing.

Under this approach, as Russian troops withdrew (with monitoring on the ground by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the U.S. as well as allies would end their lethal military assistance shipments to the Ukrainian armed forces. As noted, some sanctions on Russia would also be suspended, then lifted. Donbas would get autonomy, but no veto over Ukrainian foreign or domestic policy. Most of the U.S. troop reinforcements sent recently to eastern Europe could come home soon.

No one knows, of course, if Putin would take this deal. He probably wants all of Ukraine. But then again, he may now be appreciating the huge costs he will pay for any such conquest, and be open to settling for lesser objectives. In any case, it would be unconscionable on our part not to try for this kind of negotiated settlement, even as we hold firm—and indeed, threaten even tougher sanctions targeting Russian energy exports should the war continue—on other core elements of our current policy.

For those who would consider this policy too kind to Putin—that’s understandable, he deserves no succor. But the peoples of Ukraine and even Russia should not suffer for Putin’s sins any more than they already have. And this arrangement, like President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis in which he made minor concessions to get major payoffs and benefits, would rightly prioritize the peace as well as the security and sovereignty of Ukraine.

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