Can the United States provide an off-ramp for Putin?



If you believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked, then perhaps you should read no further.  And, if you believe that Vladimir Putin will allow the United States and Europe to bring Ukraine into the Western security orbit, then once again you should read no further.

But if you acknowledge the provocations that the United States has made in dealing with Russia over the past 20 years, then consider the possibility that U.S. concessions could provide an opening for high-level talks with the Kremlin and perhaps a cease-fire.  One way to slow the spiral of horrific fighting and Western delivery of increasingly lethal military weaponry, which now includes more sophisticated armored combat vehicles and mobile artillery, is to start talking.

Initially, this requires understanding the importance of Ukraine to Russia’s strategic thinking, particularly its national security concerns.  Unlike the United States, with secure borders because of oceans and friendly neighbors, Russia exists in an extremely rough neighborhood.  Russia faces unstable states in the west, insurgencies on its “sensitive southern frontier,” and concerns about a land border with a China that wasn’t always the benign neighbor that it is today.  Of these concerns, the importance of Ukraine to Russia’s security is paramount.

In the past, an unstable or weak Ukraine faced major invasions aimed at Russia or the Soviet Union.  In the 18th century, Sweden’s Charles XII joined forces with Cossacks to eliminate any Russian threat to its Baltic lands.  The Great Northern War dragged on for 12 years before the Swedes sued for peace and ceded their Baltic lands to Russia in the Treaty of Nystad.  In the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte sent 600,000 troops into Russia; 100,000 returned.  In the 20th century, Adolf Hitler’s campaign witnessed the loss of 100,000 forces that froze or starved to death.

Putin’s recent speeches have emphasized the Western threat to Russia, particularly the “cynical use of Ukraine and its people to weaken and divide Russia.”  Putin emphasized that “We have never and will never allow anyone to do this to us.”  The United States is counting on diplomatic isolation and international sanctions to stop the Russian invasion, but this is unlikely.    The fact that Russia is internationally isolated and economically challenged will not deter Putin from his objectives in Ukraine.  Russia has always believed it was exceptional in terms of its spiritual superiority, particularly its ability to make the kind of major sacrifices that ultimately led to the defeat of Napoleon and Hitler.

The Clinton administration made a fateful and wrongful decision in the 1990s, when it ignored the verbal commitments of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker not to “leap frog” over East Germany in order to gain a stake in East Europe.  The Bush administration had made this commitment in order to obtain Soviet withdrawal of 380,000 troops from East Germany, allowing the Germans to reunite without confronting the Red Army.  George Kennan, the father of containment, was one of many critics of Clinton’s decisions, and he warned that the United States needed to “anchor” Moscow to the West, not encircle Moscow with NATO.  Clinton and George W. Bush were responsible for the encirclement of Russia, long before the political turmoil in Ukraine led to the Russian seizure of Crimea, which had been part of Russia since the time of Catherine the Great.

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