The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has been building for some time, and if recent reporting is any indication, the conflict appears to be coming to a head. If there is any way to avert fighting- now is the moment to bring ideas to the table.
If we are going to consider potential off-ramps, the first thing we need to consider is what each of the parties involved would need to see realized in order to walk away from the table satisfied.
As the target of a potential invasion, it is simplest to identify the core Ukrainian interest. Ukrainian President Zelensky should be able to walk away from this potential conflict with his head held high if he can protect Ukrainian territorial integrity while keeping the long term prospect of Ukraine joining NATO on the table. The United States, coupled with partners in NATO, have a similar set of interests- prevent Russia from asserting itself as an imperial power in Eastern Europe and maintain the integrity of NATO in order to rebuff the threat of Russian expansion in the future.
Russia’s interest, especially if we are looking to identify potential off-ramps, is by far the most complicated to identify. Putin has demanded a promise that Ukraine will not be admitted into NATO now, or in the future. More than that, the Russian “President” has threatened that if this guarantee is not made, Russia may move to place nuclear weapons in Cuba or Venezuela- comfortably within striking distance of the United States and in clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The stakes are very high, for the United States, for Ukraine, and for the world as a whole.
The United States is likely to rebuff these demands, and beyond these measures, Putin has not identified other viable alternatives. However, there is one thing we can say with a high degree of confidence- given the very public nature of this armed escalation, Putin cannot afford to walk away from the table empty handed. Without some concession in the direction of Russia’s perceived security, it will be very difficult to avoid a conflict in Ukraine.
Despite these troubling signs, there is still an opportunity to avoid the worst case scenario. More than that, it very well might be in Putin’s interest to find an off-ramp. Given the slow and public build up of tension over the last few months, the Ukrainian military has had ample opportunity to prepare for an invasion. Coupled with direct military aid from the United States and other members of the international community, Putin knows that a conflict in Ukraine would be far from a painless endeavor.
More than that, there is no avoiding the fact that, regardless of what happens over the next few days or weeks, NATO membership has become more attractive to other nations in Eastern and Northern Europe. Putin should be wary of this fact unless he envisions Russia as totally incapable of winning allies in the region through diplomacy. In a similar way, there are real questions about how willing individual Russians are to participate in a potential conflict, Putin’s preferences put to the side.
When these factors are coupled with the longer-term economic and political consequences that would come in the form of both sanctions and diplomatic distrust, Putin’s attempt to restore Russia to its historical greatness is at odds with alienating itself from the international community through a potential invasion of Ukraine. Personally, I find it unlikely that Russia finds itself better off in the year 2050 if Putin prioritizes small territorial gains over economic development and diplomatic integration. Perhaps Putin sees that truth as well.
Still, the question remains- what might a potential off ramp actually look like? I suggest that we use the Cuban missile crisis and the example set by President Kennedy as a guide. In order to prevent the potential threat of a Soviet backed Cuba possessing nuclear weapons, the administration employed two key tactics. First, similar to President Kennedy’s symbolic show of force by enforcing an embargo around Cuba, it could be argued that the United States has taken similar measures over the last two administrations by providing direct military aid to Ukraine.
The second tactic, however, is what truly allowed the Kennedy administration to avoid the threat of a nuclear Cuba- namely, the removal of missiles from Turkey. Even though this agreement was carried out in secret, and despite the fact that the missiles based in Turkey were known to be outdated (in fact, the Kennedy administration was rumored to already be considering removing them), Khrushchev was able to save face in front of key domestic power-holders and protect his nation’s security interest.
I believe that a similar measure should be taken today. The United States should work with Russian negotiators to identify existing American or NATO military installations which, in exchange for a promise not to invade Ukraine, could be shut down or de-militarized. Given the strategic flexibility offered by America’s commitment to a nuclear triad, and in light of the gradual end of America’s wars in the Middle East, I am confident that there are a number of NATO military installations that could be shut down without meaningfully diminishing America’s (or NATO’s) ability to act in the region.
Frankly, these efforts may coincide with the closing of some of the NATO bases that were primarily tasked with serving as launch points for NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would mirror the approach used by the Kennedy administration even more closely- removing military equipment that is past its peak usefulness in order to achieve an important diplomatic objective.
Perhaps in order to accommodate Putin’s ego and need to save face domestically, the Biden administration will be asked to make these concessions publicly as opposed to privately. In my opinion, so be it. The American people should be tolerant of that. Given the massive reach of the American military, the United States has an opportunity to present Putin with a functionally “free option” in exchange for sustained peace in Eastern Europe. If the Biden administration can take advantage of this potential off-ramp, or another like it, it would be a huge win both for the administration, for Ukraine, and for the freedom loving world at large.
Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association
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