After years of undeclared war in the Eastern Donbas region, this week saw increasing risk of a full-blown confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, which threatens to involve N.A.T.O. Ukrainian Military Intelligence Head Kyrylo Budanov warned the Military Times that this weekend, Russia “had more than 92,000 troops massed around Ukraine’s borders … preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February.” Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed these accusations and countered that “the number of [Ukrainian] provocations is growing and growing significantly,” and that these threats “are being carried out with weapons supplied by N.A.T.O. countries.” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has promised that U.S. commitments to Ukraine are “ironclad,” following a statement released by President Biden this September declaring the U.S.’s support of Ukraine and its attempts to join N.A.T.O.
Outlets like Reuters describe reports from numerous American, Russian, and international analysts, expressing concern at the “building crisis” but concluding that “nearly all agreed that an invasion is unlikely to be imminent.” Rather, the analysts suggest that Russia, Ukraine, and the U.S. are posturing to denote geopolitical “redlines” which they won’t tolerate crossing.
But whether or not this particular confrontation escalates to all-out war is incidental. The absence of war does not peace make, and Ukraine’s situation, split apart by a civil war against Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year-long frozen conflict, is horrific and unsustainable. If all parties truly wish to end the cycle of war-scare, diplomatic fallout, and forgotten conflict, the crisis at this tangle’s center must be addressed. To do this, Ukraine, Russia, and the U.S. must establish a new diplomatic status quo which addresses the strategic concerns of each while striking a neutral balance of influence on all sides.
Ukraine is no stranger to crises. The poorest state in Europe, alongside neighboring Moldova, Ukraine has struggled with stagnation, corruption, and powerful oligarchs – problems familiar across much of the former Soviet Union – since its independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1991. But this particular crisis, the civil war and threat of war with Russia, is not of Ukraine’s making. Beginning in 2014, protests erupted after then-president Viktor Yanukovych scrapped an E.U. agreement that would integrate Ukraine with the West, instead choosing to build stronger ties with Russia. Street fighting in Kyiv would see Yanukovych and many other officials step down, but also saw Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine declare independence and saw Russia annex the Crimean Peninsula in an internationally-disputed referendum. Both of these moves were supported with undeclared Russian troops.
The 2014 protests made Russia fear Ukraine’s possible integration with the E.U., so it invaded in an undeclared war. This summary gives us a lens into this crisis’ origin: the value of Ukraine’s strategic geopolitical position makes it impossible for either Russia or U.S.-N.A.T.O. to allow strong ties with the other.
As Americans, it’s natural for us to understand this like any other “Russian concern”: when in doubt, oppose Russia. This is why the United States and N.A.T.O. are sending munitions, weapons, and money to Ukraine, to stop Russian aggression and contain its influence with our military support. That concern isn’t unfounded; Putin’s aggression against his neighbors makes clear that Russia’s interests are not entirely defensive. But having a strong ally on the border of its greatest European rival would benefit N.A.T.O. and the U.S. – their support for Ukraine is not altruistic. Rather than cooling the conflict, viewing the crisis in Ukraine through the lens of these strategic interests only heightens tensions and increases the risk of conflict.
Simply put, Russia will never give up its own strategic interests in Ukraine. From its leaders’ viewpoint, it cannot afford to. A Ukraine aligned with N.A.T.O. and the U.S. is an existential threat to Russian security, an intolerable danger to their regime right on their border, so promising Ukraine more weapons and more military backing only forces Russia to sink more of its own resources into the region and make stronger threats of war. As Foreign Affairs wrote in an article about the crisis, giving strong promises of American aid to Ukraine both invites Russia to call the bluff and risks “mislead[ing] Ukrainian leadership into expecting support that will not materialize,” leading Ukraine to make a dangerous move the U.S. isn’t willing to back. And because Russia’s regime sees a N.A.T.O.-aligned Ukraine as an existential threat, it will always be willing to push further than distant Washington. Ultimately, playing chicken with a desperate regime in its backyard is a bad bet. The U.S. needs to stop pretending that it has the geopolitical will to push Russia harder than Russia is willing to push back.
If we truly want to end the fighting in Ukraine, we have to look at reality. Even if Ukraine wanted, without reservation, to align itself with N.A.T.O. and the U.S., it could not happen. Unfortunately, Ukraine is valuable strategic real estate, bordering an unstable and paranoid autocratic regime. The reality of this geopolitical situation will prevent Ukraine from acting fully of its own initiative. Russia isn’t going anywhere, and despite any ideals we may hold about national sovereignty, upholding those ideals here would be gambling with Ukraine’s existence. Unless we, the people who wish to see Ukraine freed from war and conflict, are willing to invade and dismantle the Russian Federation which threatens it, we have to acknowledge that Russia exists, that its interests exist, and that some those interests must be acknowledged to achieve peace. As Business Insider put it, “One may not agree with Moscow’s security concerns; however, it is necessary to address them in pursuit of a peaceful resolution.”
Divorcing U.S.-N.A.T.O.’s strategic interests from peace is the only realistic way to prevent the conflict from escalating, because those interests inherently prevent Russia from coming to the table. It may not bring immediate peace, nor force Russia to altruistically remove its other designs on Ukrainian sovereignty, but strict assurances of Ukraine remaining out of N.A.T.O. alignment will allow all parties to talk with a clearer head. To keep the stakes low and make diplomatic solutions easier to reach. The greater the threat of Ukraine joining N.A.T.O., the more aggressively Russia feels it must act, so if the U.S. and N.A.T.O. make clear and official that they will not seek to station their military interests in Ukraine, Russia will have less need to threaten war and may in fact benefit from that status quo.
Russia would have less reason to threaten escalation, and may indeed be less willing to play aggressor without the specific justification of fighting American aggression, as further sanctions and greater diplomatic isolation in Europe aren’t in Russian interests either. But if Russia were to continue on its aggressive path in this scenario, the international community could support Ukraine, not by taking the side of N.A.T.O.-U.S. interests, but by defending a state’s sovereignty.
Peace is neither cheap nor easy, and if we truly want it, some compromises must be made. But peace in Ukraine, with Ukraine intact, is achievable. Ukrainian sovereignty must not be discussed in solely pro-Russian or pro-N.A.T.O. terms, as this assumes that Ukraine’s only two options are Russian or American vassalage and ensures that one side will view the situation as geopolitically intolerable. If Ukraine is given a third choice, allowed to be independent of either party while able to cooperate with both, a war between nuclear powers can be prevented and a new status quo that benefits all sides can be built. Finally, Ukraine could enjoy peace.
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