The case for rapprochement with Russia
We should aim for more than defusing the Ukraine crisis
Lee Harris is a reporter based in New York covering climate and the global energy transition. You can follow her @leee_harris
Tensions between Russia and the U.S. are at their highest point in years. Ukrainian and American intelligence reports indicate that some 100,000 Russian troops are currently massed at the Ukrainian border, and the two countries are engaged in talks in Geneva this week in an effort to de-escalate the situation.
A crucial sticking point in these talks is NATO’s open door policy, which American diplomats have defended, pushing back on Putin’s request that the military alliance halt its overtures to Ukraine and agree not to admit it in the future.
That obstinacy is a mistake. Even as the U.S. national security establishment vows to pivot from petrostates to peer competitors in the Indo-Pacific, it remains congenitally incapable of acknowledging tradeoffs.
The United States should end our flirtation with Ukrainian NATO membership, which the alliance agrees will not happen anytime soon and would hurt American interests if it did. Backing off now in the face of threats is a bad look, but that’s no excuse to stick with bad policy.
In fact, a Russia policy consistent with Biden’s own stated views of American interests would go further than negotiating Ukrainian neutrality toward real rapprochement. That follows clearly from Biden’s own goal of strategic competition with China. Cooperation is not as unthinkable, or as unpopular with the American public, as foreign policy elites suggest. The Obama administration even set some recent precedent.
Resurrecting that more moderate stance won’t be easy at this low point in relations. In the intervening four years, anti-Russia fervor among American upper classes, fanned by Trump, has given new life to longstanding delusions about the universal appeal of a liberal international order. But if this administration is serious about pivoting to Asia, it should downgrade its concerns over Putin’s illiberalism. That course of action should have wide appeal in light of more pressing threats to American security.
Recovering the pre-Trump Russia policy debate
Before Donald Trump remapped the politics of Eastern Europe, the basic terms of the debate were set by Barack Obama who, bucking State Department pressure, refused to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, worried about escalating conflict with Moscow.
Trump ultimately did send arms, one of several policy moves that arguably made him “tougher on Russia” in practice than his predecessor. Later, of course, Democrats ended up impeaching Trump over evidence that he was conditioning assistance to Ukraine on the Ukrainian government helping him dig up dirt on Joe Biden. But Obama’s policy was to minimize conflict with Putin while seeking opportunities for military cooperation, notably in Syria.
Obama’s friendliness to Russia shouldn’t be overstated. He oversaw further NATO expansion and launched a new missile defense system in Romania. But his softer tone enraged the Blob. Some liberal internationalists joined neocon critics, but many Democrats agreed America had limited interests in Ukraine and shouldn’t fight too hard for it.
That stance was in keeping with the realism of even arch-Cold Warriors like Paul Nitze who opposed NATO border creep as a pointless provocation.
Today, the terms of debate have shifted dramatically. The Trump years stirred Democrats’ anti-Russia animus to full-blown derangement, without softening the attitude of congressional Republicans. Merely asking why America would come to Ukraine’s defense is denounced as outside the bounds of reasonable debate. Tucker Carlson, who has shed both his bowtie and his erstwhile interventionism to argue for military restraint, is among the few prime-time hosts now questioning the dominant framing.
“Why should the average American care about the territorial integrity of Ukraine?” Tucker asked Republican Rep. Mike Turner on his show. The banner read: “WOULD YOU WANT YOUR SON DYING IN A WAR IN UKRAINE?”
A Russian invasion would join the Afghanistan withdrawal “debacle number two of the Biden administration,” Turner warned. “When you think of Afghanistan, you think of those planes leaving, and people running towards those planes, people falling to their death. And as you know, Tucker, if those planes were Russian, no one would be running toward them. This is the idea of America, of democracy-freedom.”
“Why would we take Ukraine’s side and not Russia’s side? It’s a sincere question,” Tucker pressed. “Who’s the potential counterbalance against China, which is the actual threat? Why would we take Ukraine’s side?”
Tucker is protesting too much about his own sincerity. But polemical or earnest, his questions are exactly the ones we should be asking — and they have gotten him cast by liberal media as a Kremlin propagandist.
For perspective, consider Obama on Ukraine to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg — the consummate voice of the establishment — in 2016: “This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” Obama told Goldberg. Also, “Ronald Reagan had a great success in foreign policy, which was to recognize the opportunity that Gorbachev presented and to engage in extensive diplomacy.”
For one, Russia meddled in Trump’s 2016 election, and Donald praised Vladimir effusively. (Did you know Vladimir, Donald, and Narendra (Modi) all roughly mean ‘world ruler’?) Reasonable outrage grew legs. Election interference became a scapegoat, with Democrat elites blaming Putin for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. That narrative, in turn, fed lingering resentments and outdated assessments of the global balance of power.
Aging Cold Warriors in Congress find Russia galling because it has not tended gravitationally towards democracy and liberal human rights. It has proved a stubborn obstacle to the Kantian liberal imperium that they believe is humanity’s natural destination. That confidence can be read in tendentious press coverage of Ukrainian sentiment towards Russia and the EU, which is split. Still, a drumbeat of stories has detailed Ukrainians valiantly preparing to take up arms in their long and steady march towards liberalism.
“Every year, Ukraine becomes more confident, more united, more European. Every year, Ukraine inches a little bit closer to democracy and prosperity,” the journalist Anne Applebaum writes. Tom Wright, who has elsewhere peddled concern that John Kerry will subordinate solemn security concerns in China to the effete issue of climate change, here sees the Eastern powers driven back on their heels: “Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping worried that if Western liberalism succeeded globally, it could pose an existential threat to their regimes.”
That’s really reading history against the grain. If anything, it’s Western liberalism that faces new dilemmas.
The foreign policy establishment's saber-rattling relies on reflexes developed over thirty years of unipolar American power when we could do everything at a lower cost. Tradeoffs bit less. During the Taiwan strait crisis of 1995, for example, we could parade an aircraft carrier through the strait and force China to back down. The Clinton admin also enlarged NATO and encouraged EU expansion. Entering the 21st century, we squandered the waning unipolar moment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, the military balance has changed. While we may remain the sole global hyperpower, rivals are becoming more formidable opponents.
Biden’s opening gambit, an early and relatively friendly summit with Putin, signaled that he would try not to amplify aggression. The slogan was a “stable and predictable” U.S.-Russia relationship. Also, seeking to repair relations with Germany, he let through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a more substantive diplomatic move — softer on Russia, if you like — than any his predecessor ventured.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan, as popular with ordinary Americans as it was unpopular in the media, was another signal Biden meant to deliver the long-promised pivot to Asia. It was even ominously said that Biden had been “reprogrammed” to focus on the Chinese threat. Top military brass were promised that they wouldn’t be out of work: The strategic pivot implied another century of American power.
A year into this presidency, efforts to lead a foreign policy for the middle class, centered on economic competition with China, are giving way to a Biden doctrine that attempts to provide something for everyone.
It is time to take tradeoffs seriously. We should acknowledge Ukraine’s position as a buffer, and try to reach a joint guarantee of Ukraine’s independence and nonalignment, similar to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Russia would agree to stop threatening Ukraine with military force, and NATO would rule out Ukrainian membership and agree not to post new forces in member states near Russian borders.
An overt neutrality agreement may be too embarrassing a capitulation for Western diplomats. But the U.S. should privately disavow any intent to bring Ukraine into NATO long term, and commit to making a statement in the near future — not tying it to the troop buildup — saying that obviously there is no path to expanding NATO, and instead we should strengthen it at home.
Some would like to see the West peel Russia off from China today, a sort of “reverse Kissinger,” after Nixon’s national security advisor who thawed relations with China to encourage a Sino-Soviet split.
There is little doubt that NATO expansion has driven the two countries closer together. “A new model of cooperation has been formed between our countries, based among other things on such principles as not interfering in internal affairs (of each other),” Putin said pointedly on a December call with Xi.
Let’s not brain genius this. Complex schemes to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow — or to extract formal neutrality — flatter an outdated view of global power. While they may look like natural allies from Washington’s romantic view of a struggle between democracy and autocracy, the countries share a 2568-mile militarized border and conflicting territorial claims that they have fought over within living memory. Putin is concerned about preserving his sphere of influence in Central Asia, where the Belt and Road Initiative has made China a top trade partner.
“I'm still hopeful that we're not going to have a repeat of the Cold War with China, that we can find a way to avoid a security dilemma in which, even if China were to expand its influence in Central Asia, that would not be seen as a loss for us,” the historian Stephen Wertheim told Slow Boring. Others see influence in Central Asia as more zero-sum.
Either way, in America’s pursuit of a modest rapprochement with Russia, soft power will matter. There’s little cost in nodding to Russia’s status. Biden has had the instinct to acknowledge his “worthy adversary” but has also pissed him off by jibing that Russia’s just nukes and oil.
Trump floated inviting Putin back into the G7, which until 2014 was the G8. Why not? Russia had hoped the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe would become a primary forum in the post-Cold War world, rather than NATO. We should lean on it more heavily.
There is more low-hanging fruit. Why are we still funding Radio Free Europe? It may have been an effective tool during the Cold War. Today, it’s our version of Xi punishing Australian irreverence by blacklisting Aussie wine. Symbolic democracy promotion may make septuagenarian senators feel good about themselves but it mostly serves to antagonize Putin — who is right, after all, that the U.S. has sought regime change in Ukraine.
What about NATO? Liberal hawks have criticized Biden for even opening talks this week. They say Putin designed red lines intended to fail, and that this conflict — making clear who Europe’s enemies are — is a kind of Schmittian revitalization opportunity for the security alliance.
“If talks fail, NATO could emerge stronger, more united and clearer about the threat it faces,” The Economist offered breathlessly. Putin “has united NATO and given it new purpose.” Katrina vanden Heuvel puts the same observation better and more bluntly: “NATO now largely exists to manage the risks created by its existence.” NATO’s future is surely ripe for reappraisal.
For now, the greatest threat to our global interest in Europe isn’t Russia — it’s war.